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CHILE: War Over Seeds

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Sep 3 2009 (IPS) - Environmental organisations, organic farmers and indigenous people in Chile are opposed to a draft law that would expands the rights of the developers of new varieties of plants, while the government and seed companies argue that there will be no negative impacts on small farmers and biodiversity.

Eleven social organisations launched a drive in August to collect signatures against the proposed legislation that would regulate plant breeders’ rights, which was introduced by the centre-left government of socialist President Michelle Bachelet.

The groups involved in the “Against the Privatisation of Seeds” campaign include the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts, the Pesticide Action Network of Chile, the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women, the Organic Agriculture Group of Chile and the Linares Consumers Group.

The draft law is being studied by the Agriculture Commission in the lower house of Congress.

According to the government, the law would bring Chilean legislation into line with the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV-1991). This country currently follows the standards outlined by the Convention in 1978 (UPOV-1978), to which it has been a signatory since 1976.

The draft law defines “breeder” as a person who has bred, or discovered and developed, a “new, distinct, uniform and stable” variety of plant.

The rights of breeders are granted for 25 years in the case of trees and vines and for 20 years for other kinds of plants, once the new plant has been registered on the national list of protected plant varieties.

Under the new law, breeders would have exclusive rights to propagate, sell or market the plant during that time period.

The licensees themselves would have the obligation to report infringements of plant breeders’ rights.

“The issue here is whether or not life can be patented,” Guillermo Riveros, president of the Association of Organic Farmers of the Bío-Bío region, told IPS. “We believe the draft law under debate threatens food sovereignty by leaving the genetic material of plant varieties in just a few hands, especially those of transnational corporations.”

Undersecretary of agriculture Reinaldo Ruiz told IPS that “Chile has a law on intellectual property, law 19.039, which clearly establishes that plants cannot be patented.

“Some groups argue that under this new draft law, plants would be privatised, and people would obtain property rights over them. Well, that is absolutely wrong,” he said.

“This law does not propose creating property rights over plant species,” he said. “What it establishes are rights over those varieties that are ‘new, distinct, uniform and stable,’ for a specific period of time. After that, they are in the public domain.”

The government maintains that the introduced changes will foster research and development into new varieties of plants, in order to boost productivity in this South American country, which aspires to become an agricultural powerhouse and a leader in the forestry industry. The modifications will also help attract foreign direct investment, according to the Bachelet administration.

But the organisations opposed to the draft law say it is tailor-made for transnational seed corporations, that it was designed in response to the requirements of the free trade agreement signed with the United States, and that it has been discussed behind closed doors – an allegation that Ruiz denies.

They are concerned, for example, about the way “new variety” of plant is defined, and predict greater impacts on biodiversity and the country’s native species.

Lucía Sepúlveda of the Pesticide Action Network told IPS that all biotech researchers will have to do is introduce “cosmetic genes” into a species that is not registered or widely marketed in order to gain plant breeders’ rights over it.

Although article 1 of the draft law indicates that the country’s biological and genetic heritage as well as traditional knowledge must be protected, the organisations complain that it does not specify how this is to be done, given that Chile does not even have a law on biodiversity.

In their struggle to secure better guarantees, the organisations cite the legislation approved in Costa Rica in 2008, which excludes plant varieties protected by “community intellectual rights” – without requiring registration – from plant breeders’ rights.

They also argue that the new law will make small farmers dependent on patented seeds, which will have an impact on their way of life and on food prices in the future. Furthermore, they say it will hinder independent genetic improvement processes.

One of the aspects of greatest concern to the organisations is article 48, which establishes that farmers can only keep part of their harvests of patented varieties for reseeding the following year, and that this portion must be smaller than what they initially purchased from breeders or authorised suppliers.

“This draft law is something that our association has long wanted,” Erick Von Baer, director of Chile’s National Association of Seed Producers (ANPROS), told IPS.

He said there will be no negative effects on small farmers and biodiversity, “because no one is going to force farmers to use protected varieties.”

Von Baer said the focus is on large companies that commit abuses.

The new law is not only designed to bring in revenue for breeders, to finance the costly R&D process, “but also to standardise products and facilitate traceability in the production chain,” he said.

The modern food industry requires uniform products, and if Chile cannot offer that, it will never become a major agricultural player, he argued.

But the organisations are sceptical of the real advantages offered by new varieties, since the draft law does not require that they be innocuous or useful. In their view, the law will pave the way for the expansion of genetically modified (GM) crops in the country, for use by the pharmaceutical as well as the food industry.

In Chile, GM crops may only be grown for producing transgenic seeds for export, and not for internal consumption. But, paradoxically, GM products and ingredients can be imported for human and animal consumption.

Another draft law being considered by parliament, to which the organisations are also opposed, is aimed at completely liberalising GM crops.

Accounting for three percent of global seed exports, Chile is the world’s seventh largest seed exporter, and the largest in the southern hemisphere. The biggest seed-makers are the Netherlands and the United States, each representing 16 percent of exports.

Some 70 local and foreign companies produce all kinds of seeds in Chile.

The industry’s expansion is closely linked to the increase in GM seeds, especially corn, soybeans and rapeseed, says a study published in August by the Agriculture Ministry’s Office on Agrarian Studies and Policies (ODEPA).

The document says seeds are now a huge global business arising from the establishment of intellectual property systems and the growing use of transgenic crops.

According to Undersecretary Ruiz, the government “is available to listen to the concerns of all actors involved and the concerns of citizens,” with a view to improving the draft law. “We have never said the debate was closed,” he told IPS.

But the government’s focus is clear. On Aug. 17, it opened the Intellectual Property Centre for Agriculture, the first in Latin America, which will help public and private agricultural research institutions in management and research on the issue.

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