Patent rights and farmersThe United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030 have incorporated food security, improvement of nutrition and promotion of sustainable agriculture to end hunger in the world.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030 have incorporated food security, improvement of nutrition and promotion of sustainable agriculture to end hunger in the world. This goal can be achieved if improved, high-yield, new plant varieties are made available in many developing countries. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicted that the global population would reach 9 billion by 2050, and that the average per capita food consumption would increase to 3,100 kcal per day. Currently, 12.9 percent of the world population is suffering from malnutrition. It is predicted that agricultural productivity needs be increased by 70 percent to meet the food requirement of the world’s growing population.
The intellectual property (IP) rights regime is a key driver of innovation and incentives to develop solutions in the agriculture sector. This is how there is a direct interface between IP and agriculture which has the potential to improve productivity to ensure global food security. Therefore, the influence of IP rights on promoting agricultural inventions, biotechnology and plant breeder rights in the developing countries is researchable subject matter.
Innovation in agriculture is key to increasing productivity and food supply. However, research and development (R&D) in agriculture is risky and expensive. Farm R&D was largely funded by the government and the public sector in the past. Today, the private sector has been investing huge capital in biotechnology research. IP rights play a significant role in enabling the private sector to invest and generate revenues to recover the costs and invest in further research. Basically, patent rights, plant variety rights and rights over genetic resources are particularly relevant in the field of agricultural R&D. In the developing countries, innovation should be inexpensive to encourage farmers to adopt it. However, people in the developing countries are concerned that the IP system is empowering the private sector to generate huge profits at the cost of farmers and the public.
There is a big debate among policymakers about how to balance incentives provided by the IP system to innovators and access to agricultural innovation by farmers at reasonable costs. Article 27.3 (b) of Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement allows member countries to exclude plants, animals and essentially biological processes from patent protection. At the same time, member states are free to protect new plant varieties, micro-organisms and non-biological and microbiological processes by means of patent protection or by an effective ‘sui generis’ system. Most developing countries have chosen the ‘sui generis’ system for the protection of new plant varieties and plant breeder rights. The Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV) Convention, established in 1961, also looks for plant variety protection under IP rights as an alternative to patent protection.
Some developing countries are against patenting life forms and living creatures. They are concerned about their farmers’ rights to save seeds for the next growing season. The scope for protection of agricultural innovations remains ambiguous and highly disputed in the developing and the least developed countries. The IP rights and patent protection of plants, seeds and life forms are not recognised by some developing countries. IP rights, patent protection and genetic use restriction technology are being applied by biotechnological firms to prevent farmers from saving and reusing seeds from their harvest.
In this situation, farmers are forced to buy seeds during every cultivation season. The IP protection system of agricultural innovations and its scope in the farm sector is confusing in the developing countries. However, the TRIPS agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992 have emphasised access to innovation and transfer of technology from the developed to the developing countries to improve the standard of living, health and quality of life of the people in the developing countries.
Challenges in commercialisation
Recently, the government of Nepal endorsed the Integrated Intellectual Property Policy 2017 in which plant variety protection and protection of genetic resources have been incorporated as IP rights. However, developing countries and least developed countries like Nepal need a new and creative public-private partnership to facilitate a biotechnological revolution which is essential to achieve agricultural productivity and food security. A partnership mechanism will make biotechnological innovation affordable to farmers and encourage them to adopt new technologies. A policy framework for public-private collaboration in agricultural research can be a critical success factor for the achievement of agricultural productivity goals.
One of the most challenging tasks is the formulation of a policy framework to enable access to and transfer of agricultural and biotechnological innovation from the developed to the developing countries. Generally, farmers save some of their harvested crops to use as seeds during next year’s growing season. This is a very common practice which has continued through the centuries. Basically, issues of farmers’ rights, access to new agro-biotechnological innovation and seeds for improving agricultural productivity are some of the challenges in the commercialisation of agriculture in countries like Nepal.
Chapagai is a faculty member and MBA programme director at Boston International College, Bharatpur, Chitwan