By Robin Willoughby
Last week marked a little-known and under-reported symposium held in Rome under the auspices of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation — the World Seed Conference. Although the subject may appear obscure, the conference theme and the issues discussed, including plant variety protection and seed improvement techniques, could not be more important to millions of farmers in the developing world.
Between the heavy acronyms and technical terms used by the UN figures, government officials and industry representatives, the conference illustrated two clear themes; firstly, the desire of Northern-based business to continue a process of enclosure of key farming inputs such as seeds by way of technology. Secondly, a push by these same companies (supported by the US and EU countries) for an extension and tightening of intellectual property rights on plant genetic resources into the national law of poorer countries.
Under the guise of innovation and progress, breeding companies suggest that seed varieties developed in laboratories in the North and then sold to poorer farmers in the South can raise yields in crops, increase nutritional values, reduce pesticide and fossil fuels use as well as conserve biodiversity. In the words of one participant at the conference, his company utilised ‘the art and science of changing the genetics of plants for the benefit of humankind.’
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