Seed Treaty meanders toward revising its ABS system

Seed Treaty meanders toward revising its ABS system

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The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture has tasked a Working Group to develop an effective system for benefit sharing by companies that use crop seeds from the Treaty’s Multilateral System. The current system uses a standard material transfer agreement with several benefit sharing options, including a voluntary-only option, and has failed to yield payments.At its fifth meeting, held in Geneva from 12 to 14 July 2016, the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Working Group to Enhance the Functioning of the Multilateral system of Access and Benefit-Sharing modestly advanced discussions on the creation of a “subscription system” to cover access and benefit sharing for the list of key crops contained in the Treaty’s Annex 1.
An issue that captured attention was the possible imminent ratification vote on the Treaty by the United States Senate. There are concerns that this could adversely affect the Working Group’s efforts because US government officials are thought to be eager to back Monsanto, the seed and chemical giant, which is expressing displeasure with the direction of the Working Group. Although the US is not yet a Party, an official actively participated at the Geneva meeting as part of the Canadian delegation.
A Report prepared by Edward Hammond, Director, Prickly Research, USA states, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) is continuing its effort to develop an effective system for benefit sharing by companies that use crop seeds from the Treaty’s Multilateral System (MLS). The current system uses a standard material transfer agreement (SMTA) with several benefit sharing options, including a voluntary-only option, and has failed to yield payments. A Working Group has been tasked with proposing a fix. At its fifth meeting, held in Geneva from 12 to 14 July 2016, the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Working Group to Enhance the Functioning of the Multilateral System of Access and Benefit-Sharing modestly advanced discussions on the creation of a “subscription system” to cover access and benefit sharing for the list of key crops contained in the Treaty’s Annex 1. Hanging over discussions is a possibly imminent ratification vote on the Treaty by the United States Senate, and many observers feel US entry into the Treaty could up-end the Working Group’s efforts. That is because US government officials are thought to be eager to back Monsanto, the seed and chemical giant, which is expressing displeasure with the direction of the Working Group. Further complicating matters is a pending takeover offer for Monsanto from German giant Bayer. If the prospective subscription system is eventually adopted, subscribers would receive access to all varieties of crops in the MLS including many farmers’ varieties of seeds from developing countries, and make payments to the Treaty’s Benefit Sharing Fund (BSF) based on company income from seed sales and licenses.
This differs from the present approach in which users access seeds one by one and are only expected to pay “later”, when commercial varieties based on those seeds are sold – an approach that has not yielded payments. 1. Will the US Ratify? The dynamics of the Working Group’s discussions have been impacted by recent Treaty ratification movements. Japan joined the Treaty in mid-2013 and is taking an increasingly vocal role, while earlier this year the United States Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee recommended US ratification of ITPGRFA, with a vote by the full Senate possibly taking place in September.
Although similar moves toward US ratification have previously reached this point only to fizzle out, the US seed industry and public universities with agricultural research programs are strongly behind the present push. Industry and the universities are particularly, indeed according to e-mails released under open records requests, they are almost exclusively interested in the US exerting more influence over the
Working Group’s discussions, as they view the terms of access to MLS seeds as far and away the most important aspect of the Treaty. (The US is present in the Working Group discussions by way of a US representative accredited as part of the Canadian delegation.) With industry, especially Monsanto, and the US visibly unhappy with the direction of negotiations, it is possible that the Working Group’s accomplishments to date could be up-ended if the US arrives as a Treaty Party. 2. Regional Dynamics Africa, whose long-standing proposals underlie the present effort toward a subscription system, has become more vocal and assertive in the negotiations. Latin America is also more broadly and actively represented, and has achieved greater internal union and more concordant positions with other developing regions in recent months. Europe, however, remains hobbled by internal disagreements, and European activity and contributions were more limited than in previous meetings. Canada, North America’s sole official representative, appears increasingly caught between its desires to please industry and its southerly neighbor versus playing an earnestly constructive role in shaping the subscription system. Along with Australia, Canada mildly endorses continued development of a subscription system while simultaneously arguing for the retention of the old system of benefit sharing, whose failure prompted the formation of the Working Group in the first place.
The Working Group meeting opened with Co-Chair Bert Visser of the Netherlands thanking his outgoing colleague Modesto Fernandez of Cuba. Fernandez was replaced by Javad Mozafari of Iran, who was nominated to be Co-Chair by the Group of 77 (G-77). Opening statements by regions were largely recapitulated existing positions and expressed a willingness to continue the discussions. Unusually, the most notable opening statement came from a stakeholder.
An especially sour emission from MONSANTO complained that the Working Group “has taken a very unfortunate direction”. The seed and agrochemicals giant was especially upset that a Friends of the Co-Chairs group discussing a termination clause for the subscription system had postponed a specific decision until later in the negotiations. (The termination clause is a possible provision to set a fixed number of years after last access or use of MLS seeds at which point benefit sharing obligations expire.) Monsanto has participated in all of the Working Group’s meetings and many associated discussions, and often has strong advocates in the form of the representatives of Canada and Australia. It has not previously expressed such intense discontent with the Working Group’s processes. Perhaps with its eye cast toward US lawmakers, however, Monsanto now claims that it has been “marginalized”.
Asserting a government-like status, Monsanto said “we’re equal partners here” and complained that a subscription system would raise the objections of its investors.
(If Monsanto has been marginalized it is primarily within industry itself, at the hands of other companies, especially Syngenta and some other European company interests, who have taken a somewhat more receptive attitude toward the possible subscription system.) Monsanto’s claims of marginalization cast the company as a pitiable victim of intergovernmental attempts to create a fair system to share seeds, a strange image to contemplate considering the overwhelmingly negative international public perceptions of the company. Monsanto’s surreal and sickly self-portrait might best be understood, however, as an obsequious plea to US Senators in the hope that the United States will aggressively promote the company’s interest if it ratifies the Treaty.
The Meeting Began Following opening statements, a lengthy exchange between delegates and the FAO Legal Counsel involved questions from Latin America, Canada, Africa, and comments by Co-Chair Visser. Counsel’s comments did not fully dispel uncertainty about legal implications of some options to implement a subscription system. – Third World Network
(Edward Hammond, Director, Prickly Research, USA eh@pricklyresearch.com) – TWN

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