November 07, 2002

The United States and The Law of the Seed

Political "About Face" or "Two-Faced" Policy?

On November 1st 2002, the new U.S. ambassador, Tony P. Hall, interrupted the final late-evening session of the FAO Council to announce that his government had just signed the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture ("The Law of the Seed"). The news was greeted with perfunctory applause from delegates much more enthusiastic about getting onto the Aventino before restaurants closed. Not only was the announcement anticipated, it was overdue. FAO's member states had expected the U.S. signature October 9th at the convocation of the interim Committee for the Treaty.

About Face: In signing the Treaty, Ambassador Tony Hall admitted that the U.S. was reversing the stance it took one year ago when 115 governments unanimously approved the agreement. At that time, countries were told that the USA was "precluded" from adopting the legally-binding agreement. U.S. representatives advised FAO that the absence of a security clause in the text - as well as ambiguity related to intellectual property protection - made it impossible for the U.S. to sign on. The Treaty was approved with only two abstentions (the USA and Japan) following seven years of hard negotiations. To date, 77 governments have signed and 9 have ratified the text. The Treaty comes "into force" when 40 countries ratify - probably sometime early in 2004.

Two-Faced: Signing the accord traditionally signals a government's intent to proceed with the much more important step of ratifying the Treaty. In this case, however, not a soul attending the FAO Council believed that the United States will ratify anytime in the Bush administration. Many delegates, in fact, privately hope that the USA will steer clear of the Treaty for a decade or so. "It was not so much a policy about-face," says Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group, who was present in Rome for the announcement, "as a two-faced move to hamstring the Treaty's implementation. All of the American government's concerns are still there," Mooney asserts, "but the United States has determined that it is better to have a hand in the political and practical preparations leading up to the implementation of the Treaty than it is to remain outside watching Europe and developing countries establish an independent process."

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