Farmers’ needs are not addressed by the current intellectual property framework or by innovation, according to panellists at the World Trade Organization Public Forum. The threat of "land grabbing," is prominent in the media but almost unnoticed, however, is what some critics call the hidden agenda of "biopiracy" or "gene grabbing," namely the privatization of intellectual property in African seeds drawn from the common store of resources developed by African farmers of centuries. Hidden in complex legal language which is far less familiar than the appropriation of land, common genetic resources are used as inputs for products then claimed as the intellectual property of commercial enterprises.
African farmers refer to the patenting of living organisms as biopiracy, for it gives sole ownership to the corporation that inserted one gene, without recognising the innovations of thousands who developed the cultivar in the first place. Patenting, however, has become only a minor expression of the theft of African genetic wealth, for the 'green revolution' approach has come up with several other ways for accessing the genetic treasures, with no recognition or benefit sharing. The methods for access operate at the international, regional, national, and community levels - while benefit sharing occurs at none.
Corporate gene hunters in 'joint collection missions' visit fields of African farmers in search of their newest varieties, already adapted to climate change. The corporations seek to learn about field performance where smallholder farmers are growing as many as 20 different crops on one hectare, each one carefully placed to suit the micro-climate of one corner of the field versus another. Corporate agents also move across open fields in order to collect 'wild' plants, only able to determine what to gather by relying on local indigenous knowledge shared by communities. It is not clear what is 'joint' about these collection missions, for the expertise is entirely African, whereas the benefits accrue only to the corporations, as they co-opt complex knowledge and freely acquire genetic materials absolutely essential for their experiments and projects. Although these collections are frequently being undertaken across the continent, the international community only learns of the one or two cases where local knowledge is acknowledged, such as the hoodia plant gathered by the San people (but only after a law suit exposed the theft by Unilever).
African farmers domesticated sorghum from wild grasses, and they and other farmers worldwide continue to grow the crop, and to develop and nurture its genetic diversity. But African farmers do not stand to benefit from the rush to patent sorghum genes and produce proprietary sorghum hybrids. Instead, the sorghum gene grab will benefit Northern corporations and universities, who care little about Africa's enormous contribution to the crop's genetic diversity or orienting their efforts to African needs. As expectations for the potential future use of sorghum as an agrofuel crop surge, the sorghum seed industry (especially in the US) is in the process of feverish consolidation. Multinational companies are taking over smaller concerns and are forging alliances with universities and other diversified companies to heighten their vertical integration and create larger proprietary portfolios. Sorghum patent claims have recently been lodged by US companies, Ceres and Edenspace, as well as by Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University (Texas A+M) and Rutgers University. Key traits that these and other research programs are seeking to control include sorghum flowering, plant growth (biomass), sugar content, and cold and salt tolerance. In Africa, most sorghum seed is open pollinated and is saved by farmers and replanted, or is shared between farmers or farmers' groups or farming communities. Outside of the African continent and particularly in the North sorghum seed production is more commonly an industry venture and typically, hybrid seed is purchased annually. Sharing and/or saving seed may become illegal if the variety is patented or under plant variety protection or patent claims. If African farmers are drawn into commercial/ agrofuel sorghum projects, traditional sorghum seed saving and sharing will be replaced by dependency on commercial seed.
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