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Growing problem in seed banks New Scientist 14 Feb 98
MANY of the world's ancient crop seeds are being contaminated or lost by the seed banks that are charged with preserving them, research by German scientists suggests. Adolf Steiner and colleagues at the University of Hohenheim examined samples of oats dating from 1831. The oats had been recovered in 1956 from a demolished theatre in Nuremberg and stored at seed banks in Germany and Austria. Since then they have been grown, harvested and returned to storage several times, as seeds must be to maintain their viability. The scientists analysed the proteins in samples of the oats from each bank. They found that most of the 28 samples had one of two patterns of proteins, showing that the original oats belonged to two strains. But 12 of them had unusual protein patterns, implying they had been contaminated either by oats of the other Nuremberg strain, or by foreign oats. The losses, says Steiner, were "simply due to carelessness during harvesting or handling". The team is finding similar contamination in samples of spelt wheat, once the most common grain in Europe which almost disappeared this century. Such old varieties, says Steiner, "are vital for breeding new crops". He fears that the main reason for the disruption is a lack of funding, and that seed banks worldwide could be suffering the same problems. Reharvesting seeds is the most expensive work a seed bank does. Debora MacKenzie
Lest we starve New Scientist 14 Feb 98
TODAY'S pirates don't come with eye patches and daggers clenched in their teeth, but with sharp suits and claiming intellectual property rights. So those rich countries which take seeds from their poorer neighbours and then try to patent them are guilty of theft-plain and simple. Biopirates by any other name. It is hard to imagine what two Australian government agricultural agencies thought they were doing when they applied for property rights on chickpeas grown by subsistence farmers in India and Iran (see p 14). That they withdrew their applications after an intemational row suggests they now accept they erred. The chickpeas are stored in an intemational gene bank in India, one of 11 around the world aiming to preserve half a million genetically distinct crops. Under agreements with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the seeds are kept in trust for the world, freely available to researchers. It's a fine and familiar scientific principle. Unfortunately, the Australian attempt to breach this principle, deplorable as it was, may only be the tip of an iceberg. Lobby groups claim that Australian organisations could already have, or be seeking rights on, as many as 40 more seeds which they have already taken from the gene banks or from poorer countries. And no one yet knows to what extent other developed countries might be deploying similar sharp practices. The FAO and other responsible intemational organisations only learnt of the Australian situation from a vigilant north American lobby group, the Rural Advancement Foundation Intemational (RAFI). They adn-dt that they are dependent on nongoverrunental organisations for uncovering abuse because they do not have enough resources to monitor what is happening. But once they were alerted, the FAO and the intergovernmental Consultative Group on Intemational Agricultural Research acted with commendable alacrity to limit the damage. Their call to see off the biopirates in the shape of a moratorium on the granting of rights on any plants held in trust by the international gene banks is one to which govemments should respond rapidly. RAFI, which is run from offices in Canada and the US by a handful of hyperactive staff, is now combing the World Wide Web in search of other biopirates. It may find that Australia is the only guilty party. It is more likely, however, to unearth equally questionable practices in other countries. The vital question then is: what should the global community be doing about it? Tortuous intemational negotiations hosted by the FAO in recent years have produced some progress. There is now a healthy momentum behind an "international undertaking" on how genetic resources should be conserved and used for agriculture, which the Australian controversy should help accelerate. The undertaking, due to be dis cussed by 150 governments in Rome in June, is founded on a deal between north and south. Developed countries will only gain access to seeds of food crops grown in developing countries if they agree to compensate the developing countries. Because it will be impractical to calculate this for every crop, a formula for "benefit-sharing" will have to be agreed. Clearly, this will not be easy. The poorer nations are keen to extract the most they can for the resources they have provided, while the richer nations are trying to maximise their profits and minimise their public spending. Worryingly, the gene banks may already be suffering from lack of funding from developed countries (see p 11). The major responsibility for solving the problem rests with rich nations, such as Britain and. the US. Not just because poor farmers deserve justice but because the planet needs to preserve the genetic diversity of its food crops as an insurance against starvation. El
Seeds of Wrath New Scientist 14 Feb 98
IN APRIL last year, a pair of Australian government agencies tried to patent two species of chickpea grown by subsistence farmers in India and Iran. The agencies had borrowed samples of the plants from an international gene bank in Hyderabad, India, where they are kept in trust along with tens of thousands of other seeds so that researchers anywhere can use them. The two agencies, Agriculture Westem Australia and the Grains Research and Development Corporation, realised when they grew them that they produced stronger and taller pods than commercial varieties. So they applied to the govemment's Plant Breeder's Rights Office in Canberra for intellectual property rights on the two chickpeas-which would prevent anyone else marketing them-despite the fact that they had done little more than propagate them. They even gave them Urdu names: Sona, meaning gold, and Heera, meaning diamond. When rural pressure groups found out, they were furious. "It's blatant biopiracy," said Farhad Mazhar from the South Asian Network on Food, Ecology and Culture. "Australia is privatising seeds that belong to our farmers and planning to sell them back to us." Alerted to the situation, the gene bank that had provided the chickpeas, the Intemational Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), told the Australian agencies it would be wrong to patent plants that are meant to belong to everyone. As a result, on 13 January the two agencies withdrew their applications. But the story does not end there. The episode has sparked an orgy of claims and counterclaims about Australia's right to dozens of seeds from developing countries, and widespread alarm about what other rich countries might be up to. Worse, it has raised doubts about the effectiveness of the system that is supposed to protect the world's plant genes from piracy. The two agencies responsible for looking after the world's agricultural resources, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in Washington DC,
have launched urgent investigations and will report to a meeting of 150 governments in Rome in June. The UN regime for protecting crop resources was supposed to be watertight. The CGIAR, an intergovernmental agency based at the World Bank, oversees 11 large agricultural gene banks around the world,. including ICRISAT. Each bank is run as a separate research institute, and together they contain more than half a million distinct genetic varieties of food crops. in 1994 the gene banks signed agreements with the FAO promising to hold this germ plasm "in trust for the benefit of the international community". They also agreed to make seeds available for scientific research or plant breeding 'without restriction", on condition that no one claimed legal ownership or intellectual pmperty rights over them. But the system has started to show cracks. One of the gene banks, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) at Aleppo in Syria, has admitted signing agreements with Australian research institutes allowing them to claim rights over seeds as long as they gain approval from the countries of origin. Applications for rights to two ICARDA varieties, a grain from Syria called flatpod peavine and a red lentil whose origins are uncertain, were lodged with the Plant Breeder's Rights Office last year by the Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture, a joint research venture set up by universities and govemment agencies in Westem Australia in 1992. The Rural Advancement Foundation Intemational (RAFI), a lobby group based in Canada, says that the ICARDA has "fundamentally misinterpreted its authority" by allowing its germ plasm to be subjected to patent claims. The RAFI is warning developing countries not to give their seeds to the Syria-based institute until it has cancelled its agreements Nvith Australia. Pat Mooney, executive director of the RAFI, argues that the ICARDXs behaviour undermines intemational efforts to prevent the world's gene banks from being "ripped off" by govemment institutes and private companies. The trustee arrangements put in place by the FAO and the CGIAR are ineffectual and must be overhauled, he says. "In twenty years of work with crop genetic resources, the RAFI has never encountered a problem such as this." The RAFI's accusations have prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity within the FAO and the CGIAR. Ismail Serageldin, chairman of the CGIAR, wrote to the FAO last week suggesting that governments should be urged to ban patents on seeds from gene banks. He has asked one of the leading banks, the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) in Rome, to examine ways of strengthening trustee arrangements. Geoff Hawtin, director-general of the IPGRI, says that the way in which the ICARDA has interpreted its @tee status is different from the interpretations made by "most, ff not all" the other ten banks. T'he ICARDA defends its actions by pointing out that the seeds were sent to Australia years before they were officially placed in trust in 1994. Its director-general, Adel El-Beltagy, says that agreements were made with Australian agencies 'in good faith' and that he welcomes the investigations being carried out by the FAO and the CGIAR.
Hawtin is also concerned about Australia's attempts to lay claim to seeds that are part of the world's heritage. "If any company or any country tries to take materials out of the public domain and make them private, there is a problem and something has to be done about it," he says. The RAFI is investigating 40 other cases in which it alleges that Australian organisations may have falsely claimed rights to seeds from other countries. These include grasses from Kenya and Tanzania, lupins from Italy and Poland, clover from Turkey, nuts from Brazil, and pearl minet from Zambia. Australia, says the RAFI, is suffering from kleptomania.
Out of line
Senior officials in the international agricultural organisations are also worried about Australia's record. "Their intellectual property rights are out of line with the rest of the world," says a source at one of the seed banks. This may be, he suggests, because Australian agriculture special in southem crops such as chickpeas that tend not to have been intensively bred. Australia's own plant conservation lobby is also critical. Bill Hankin, president of the Heritage Seed Curators Association in Bairnsdale, Victoria, is backing the RAFI's campaign. He says that cuts in state funding over the past five years have forced four government agencies to apply for rights to seeds so that they can earn royalties from them. Doug Waterhouse, director of the Australian Plant Breeder's Rights Office, promises that every instance quoted by the RAFI will be investigated. But he suspects that in many cases the organisations that have applied for rights will be able to show that they have obtained authorisation from the country of origin and have bred new and distinct varieties, as Australian law requires. Australia's stance is also defended by Bill Scowcroft, director of the Australian Centre for Oilseeds Research in Horsham, Victoria. The RAFI's accusations are unfair, he says, pointing out that many other coun- tries have benefited from plants like the eucalyptus that have been bred in Aus@ and then freely exported. "The RAFI and Mooney have got their knickers in a knot,' he says. "To can Australia into question is being malicious, way over the top. We are not doing anything that others are not doing.' Hankin, however, is calling on the Australian government to mount an investigation into the Plant Breeder's Rights Office. 'What is important here is Australia's scientific reputation in agriculture," he says. 'Our reputation as a country is on the line." Rob Edwards and Ian Anderson