A great seed and biodiversity piracy is underway and it must be stopped.
A great seed and biodiversity piracy is underway and it must be stopped. The privateers of today include not just the corporations — which are becoming fewer and larger through mergers — but also individuals like Bill Gates, the “richest man in the world”.
When the Green Revolution was pushed in India and Mexico, farmers’ seeds were “rounded-up” and locked in international institutions, which used these seeds to breed green revolution varieties which responded to chemical inputs. The first two institutions were the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico. These institutes took diversity from farmers’ fields and replaced the diversity with chemical monocultures of rice, wheat and corn.
Dr. R.H. Richharia, India’s pre-eminent rice research scientist, headed the Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI) at Cuttack, Orissa. The Indian institute existed before IRRI, had the largest collection of rice diversity the biggest rice “bank” in the world. Dr Richharia refused to allow IRRI in the Philippines to pirate the collection. The World Bank removed Dr Richharia, the guardian of Indian rice knowledge, from CRRI so that it could transfer Indian peasant intellectual property to the international institute (which later became part of the Consultative Group of International Agriculture Research). Farmers’ seed heritage is held in the seed banks of CGIAR, a consortium of 15 international agricultural research centers, which is the single biggest recipient of grants from Mr Gates.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the new World Bank when it comes to using finances to influence policies in agriculture. The Gates Foundation is a major funder of the CGIAR system — and through its funding, it is accelerating the transfer of research and seeds to corporations, facilitating intellectual property piracy and seed monopolies created through intellectual property laws and seed regulations. Control over the seeds of the world for “one agriculture” is Mr Gates’ target!
Since 2003, CGIAR centres have received more than $720 million from Mr Gates.
Besides taking control of the seeds of farmers in CGIAR seed banks, Mr Gates (along with the Rockefeller Foundation) is investing heavily in collecting seeds from across the world and storing them in a facility in Svalbard in the Arctic — the “doomsday vault”.
Mr Gates is also funding Diversity Seek (DivSeek), a global initiative to take patents on the seed collections through genomic mapping. Seven million crop accessions are in public seed banks. DivSeek could allow five corporations to own this diversity.
Today, biopiracy is carried out through the convergence of information technology and biotechnology. It is done by taking patents by “mapping” genomes and genome sequences. While living seed needs to evolve “in situ”, patents on genomes can be taken through access to seed “ex situ”. DivSeek is a global project launched in 2015 to map the genetic data of the peasant diversity of seeds held in gene banks. It robs the peasants of their seeds and knowledge, it robs the seed of its integrity and diversity, its evolutionary history, its link to the soil and reduces it to “code”. It is an extractive project to “mine” the data in the seed to “censor” out the commons.
The peasants (or farmers as they’re referred to now) who evolved the diversity have no place in DivSeek. their contributions, their knowledge is being “mined” — not recognised, honoured or conserved.
This “genetic colonialism” is an enclosure of the genetic commons. The participating institutions are the CGIAR nodes and “public universities” like Cornell and Iowa State, which are being increasingly privatised by the bio-technology industry and Mr Gates. Cornell is where Mr Gates funds the pseudo-science propaganda machine misnamed the Cornell Alliance for Science. Iowa State is where Mr Gates is funding the Unethical Human Feeding Trials of GMO bananas. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding the partners of DivSeek, especially the African Agricultural Technology Foundation and an Africa-Brazil partnership in DivSeek.
Mr Gates is also investing in a one-year-old experimental genetic engineering tool for gene editing, CRISPR-Cas9, through a new front corporation EditasMedicine. While the technology itself is immature and inaccurate, it is a gold rush for new patents. The language of “gene editing” and “educated guesses” is creeping into scientific discourse. Piracy of common genomic data of millions of plants bred by peasants is termed “big data”. But big data is not knowledge, it is not even information. It is data, privateered.
Seeds are not just germ plasm. They are living. They are intelligent. They are beings and subjects of evolution, history, culture and relationships.
In the 1980s, Monsanto led the push for GMOs and patents on life. Today it is Bill Gates. One rich individual is able to use his wealth to bypass all international treaties and all multilateral governance structures to help global corporations grab the biodiversity and wealth of peasants by financing unscientific and undemocratic processes like DivSeek, and trying to unleash untested technologies like CRISPR.
Over the last two decades, humanity has taken actions and written laws to protect the biodiversity of the planet and the rights of farmers to seed, the rights of consumers to safety.
These laws include: The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol to the CBD; the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources Treaty for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).
India needs to strengthen international and national laws to protect biodiversity and farmers rights. Instead, the government is taking steps to facilitate BigMac™ seed biopiracy.
The New IPR policy has clauses which state: 2.20. Public research institutions should be allowed access to TKDL for further R&D, while the possibility of using traditional knowledge digital library for further R&D by private sector may also be explored, provided necessary safeguards are in place to prevent misappropriation. 4.20. National Biodiversity Authority. 4.20.1. The government will formalise a consultation and coordination mechanism between the national biodiversity authority, intellectual property office and other concerned ministries/departments like Ayush, with a view to harmonious implementation of guidelines for grant of IP rights and access to biological resources and associated traditional knowledge and benefit sharing; 4.20.2. The NBA will streamline approvals for expeditious grant of IP rights, monetary and non-monetary benefit-sharing and introduce efficient and user friendly mechanisms for a meaningful interface between the NBA and applicants.
In effect, the government is stating that our traditional knowledge and biodiversity heritage is available with ease of biopiracy through IPRs.
The government has also made changes in the Biodiversity Act, which was written with India’s decentralised democracy. The Biodiversity Act mandates that foreign entities seeking patents and IPRs on India’s biodiversity seek permission from the Chennai-based NBA.
Section 6(1) of the law requires a mandatory consultation with the local biodiversity management committees (BMC) since local communities are the custodians of biodiversity and traditional knowledge. Under global pressure from biopirates, there is an attempt to dispense with the BMC consultation. Which, in effect, implies destroying people’s rights to their own knowledge and heritage and the foundation of our living economies and democracies.
The writer is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust