April 16, 2003

Who Calls the Shots at UPOV?

US Government and Multinational Seed Industry Force UPOV to Abandon Critique of Terminator

After two days of intense diplomatic wrangling in Geneva, April 10-11 2003, US patent officials succeeded in turning the expert advice of an intergovernmental secretariat critical of Terminator technology into little more than a promotional paper for plant breeders' rights.

UPOV has succumbed to the strong-arm tactics of the US government and the multinational seed industry, both of whom have vested financial interests in Terminator technology. If member governments of UPOV had any doubts about who determines policy within the Union, they need only examine the recent case of Terminator.

What is UPOV? The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), the Geneva-based body that promotes plant breeders’ rights, has spent the last decade trying to convince Third World governments that they must adopt UPOV’s legal framework to give plant breeders sui generis protection for new plant varieties. UPOV membership, once limited to a small club of industrialized nations, has expanded in recent years because developing countries are obligated by WTO’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property (TRIPs) chapter to adopt some form of intellectual property for plant varieties. UPOV has lobbied hard to attract new developing country members. But does UPOV represent the interests of the South? The recent squabble over Terminator illustrates who’s calling the shots at UPOV.

UPOV Prepares Comments on Terminator: For five years running, Terminator technology has been the most controversial issue on the agbiodiversity agenda at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), where civil society organizations and many governments have called for a ban on the technology. Last year, the Biodiversity Convention requested UPOV’s opinion on the potential conflict between intellectual property regimes and genetic use restriction technology (GURTs – the technical term for Terminator). Since the technology uses genetic engineering to ensure that seeds harvested by farmers are sterile, it has a built-in biological control that far exceeds the legal monopoly granted through conventional intellectual property mechanisms.

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