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The UN FAO AgriBiotech Symposium: Protecting Farmer Knowledge and Establishing Biosafety Systems
By Margaret M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Global Harvest Initiative
Biotechnologies can help farmers of all sizes and scales grow food, feed, fiber and biofuels in an environmentally responsible way. Advances in the biological sciences help us better understand how to improve crop, livestock, forest and aquaculture productivity, thereby conserving natural resources, improving incomes for farmers and building resilience to climate change. But in developing countries, agricultural biotechnology tools are yet to be widely used and great opportunities are being lost.
There are many reasons that agricultural biotechnology has not yet been widely adopted in many developing countries. A range of panelists at the UN FAO AgriBiotech Symposium discussed barriers to the full use of these helpful tools for smaller scale farmers. One key challenge, according to Eduardo Trigo from the Argentina Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation, is the absence of strong systems of agricultural research and extension for both conventional agriculture as well the newer innovation from biotechnology approaches. What is needed, according to Trigo, is “…to make agricultural research and technological policy an integral part of the country’s general science and technology policy, and discuss biotech related issues within that framework.”
Establishing Biosafety Systems
As a critical part of deploying biotechnology for all, biosafety systems must be developed with long-term commitments from national governments. Biosafety refers to specific practices established by the international community within the Cartagena Protocol ensuring that new biological technologies are used safely with environmental stewardship and to protect biological diversity. FAO helps countries build their biosafety capacities to successfully enable farmers of all scales to take advantage of biotech innovation and provides support as countries implement legal, regulatory and scientific programs for safe use and stewardship.
Protecting Farmer Knowledge
Civil society organizations and some farmer groups are concerned about how intellectual property rights (IPR) and patents on products developed by agribiotech innovators may raise barriers to smallholder farmer access to biotechnology, since patented technologies may not always be affordable to smallholder farmers. According to Rodrigo Sava of the CGIAR (Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) Consortium, criticisms concerning (IPR) may conflict with farmers’ traditional practices of re-using seed, excessively broad patent claims, patentability of genetic materials and plant varieties, and appropriation of traditional knowledge and sovereign genetic resources. But new approaches can be developed that both protect the investments and innovation of biotech developers while still ensuring the farmer knowledge and access are protected and encouraged.
Several new approaches discussed by Sara include humanitarian licensing and the rise of “open access” frameworks; increased patent activity and the potential for patent thickets/pools; the expiration of patents for GM traits and the potential for a generics market, and; Prior Informed Consent and Mutually Agreed Terms associated with access and use of genetic resources under the Nagoya Protocol (benefit sharing for genetic research and traditional knowledge). New partnerships to ensure farmer access and collaborative research endeavors can be forged.
IPR can be a source of useful technology transfer for innovation and can ensure that future research will continue to improve seeds, livestock, forestry products and other agricultural products. Intellectual property issues do not constrain research or the production or use of biotechnology in many case studies examined by the FAO.
Stay tuned for Blog 4, The UN FAO AgriBiotech Symposium: Biotechology for Better Nutrition