Agricultural biotechnologies have the potential to make people’s lives better. Crops can be genetically modified to enhance yield, resist drought, boost nutrients or increase efficiency. But there’s enormous controversy over the economic, environmental, ethical, legal and social issues triggered by these technologies.
Breeders’ and farmers’ rights
What rights do transgenic plant patent owners have, and what is the impact of plant patents on farmers’ rights? How is technology changing the game?
We’ve begun to look at some of the web that impacts those questions, including WIPO, TRIPs and the CBD. In this session, I want to throw two more things in the mix:
- The FAO’s “International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,” abbreviated awkwardly as the ITPGRFA, but often just called the “Plant Treaty.”
- The “International Union for the Protection of New Plant Varities,” aka UPOV.
Please start to take a look at both.
A good introduction to the international regime complex for plant genetic resources can be found in this aptly-named article, which you should try to read parts of. Check out pages 277-295 in particular:
Kal Raustiala and David G. Victor, ““The Regime Complex for Plant Genetic Resources,” (2004) 58 International Organization 277-309 at pp. 277-295.
Patent rights and responsibilities
During this class, we’ll likely find time to provoke critical thinking through (and about) this documentary film, “Seeds of Freedom.” Speaking of seeds, this stage-adaptation of Percy Schmeiser’s case will help us delve into the socio-legal dimensions of farming, food, and agricultural biotechnology. The latest from the United States Supreme Court on seed-saving is the case of Bowman v Monsanto.
Part of this debate revolves around questions of liability if and when living modified organisms cause harm, a matter on which an Australian court recently pronounced judgment in the case of Marsh v Baxter. (The Cartegena Protocol we mentioned last class governs that issue internationally, but doesn’t bind domestic courts when the harm doesn’t cross borders.)
I’ve written a fair bit about balancing ag-biotech patent rights and responsibilities, which we can also talk about during our class.
Genetically engineering access
No discussion of this topic would be complete without reference to genetic use restriction technologies, the biological equivalent to technological protection measures discussed during our lesson on copyright and education. For a general introduction to the issues, please do read:
Jeffrey Kluger et al, “The Suicide Seeds,” (1 February, 1999) TIME 44-45. (Available at many academic institutions via this link.)
I’d like you to follow up on that article by glancing at these short commentaries from a variety of different perspectives, including a NGO, Monsanto, the Canadian government, an international organization, experts, and academics. Here is the original US patent for the technology. There’s lots of policy and scholarly literature on this subject as well, which – if you’re interested – some simple searching will turn up. I’m looking forward to having you tell me the position of the U.S. government, which I admit I don’t fully understand.