Statement of Civil Society Organisations

Statement of Civil Society Organisations on recent developments in public international agricultural research

Patents on food plants, Genetic Modification of crops, Terminator technologies controlling plant germination and other traits, mergers of the Life Sciences corporations controlling large slices of the food system, – this legal, technical, and economic context has deeply affected public agricultural research. In these new circumstances, new ways have to be found to enable publicly funded research on food and agriculture to continue to fulfil its crucial role of supporting a food system that reliably provides healthy, diverse, and affordable food in an environmentally sustainable way, now and for future generations. Publicly funded research can also focus on the less commercial and more needy sections of society – poor producers and consumers. In November 2001, a legally-binding treaty that will safeguard free access to genetic resources to ensure food security could be agreed by 185 member governments of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO): This treaty is called the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (IU). This treaty is of major importance to agricultural research: It determines whether food plants may be bred and developed, through the free exchange of seeds, as they have been during the past many decades by researchers and  breeders, and during the past many centuries by farmers, or whether patenting of these resources will be allowed. For securing healthy, diverse and affordable food, farmers, breeders and researchers should all support a fair, equitable and comprehensive International Undertaking that is not subordinate to the TRIPs rules of the World Trade Organisation.

The largest and most influential international public agricultural research institution is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The CGIAR is a grouping of 16 international agricultural research institutes located in all regions of the world. In order to serve the vast majority of farmers in the world, it is of utmost importance that:

•    The CGIAR does not patent its research results or the resources in its genebanks. Even defensive patenting in order to prevent others from privatising public research results and genes, should not be pursued. The objective of protecting research results can be achieved through publication – genes can be safeguarded through a strong International Undertaking. Defensive patenting is expensive and useless if infringements are not legally prosecuted – another expensive venture. The withdrawal of its draft policy on Intellectual Property Rights in 2000 was a step in the right direction. The CGIAR should further take position against patenting of life.

•    The CGIAR continues its opposition to biopiracy and its dedication to clarify cases of biopiracy from its genebank materials held in trust under the auspices of FAO.

•    The CGIAR strongly advocates the conclusion of a fair, equitable and comprehensive International Undertaking. Public research itself will be immediately affected by the outcome of the negotiations and for this reason needs to continue sharp and effective advocacy.

•    The CGIAR gives up the debacle created and uncertainties caused by its current Change propositions; it should start afresh with a more fundamental approach devolving governance and implementation of agricultural research and development to regional structures. We envision in the next 5-6 years a new CGIAR structure composed of interdisciplinary regional clusters of scientists who act as catalysts, animators and researchers in partnerships as determined by Regional Boards composed of members of farmer organisations, civil Society and the scientific community. These may be supported by Regional Science and Development Policy Councils. A key function of the regional clusters will be to strengthen NARS through collaborative interdisciplinary research, technical backstopping, methodology development and facilitating learning platforms. Funding for research will be open to all constituencies. Assuming a continuation of the level of support that the CGIAR currently enjoys, this new arrangement would free up massive resources to mobilize research programs to scale up already existing successful initiatives benefiting the poor, as well as new ones, implemented at regional and local levels.

•    As part of the transition, the legal ownership of in situ and ex situ gene banks and germplasm collections held by CGIAR Centers in trust under the auspices of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture should be placed under the governing body of the International Undertaking upon its completion and should be open for free access to the farmers of their respective countries of origin.

Non-governmental organisations have often accepted the CGIAR's invitations to cooperate in research projects as well as to participate in various committees that have determined research directions. However, many have been frustrated by these experiences. NGOs are often seen by CGIAR scientists as "ground-level extension organisations", and not as potential partners in research and development. Cooperation with the CGIAR has been supposedly as a project partner, but this has rarely been on equal terms. Civil society invitees to CGIAR consultations often felt that they were merely window-dressing. There have been notable exceptions when CSOs felt that CGIAR decisions took their viewpoints seriously  – the 1998 Terminator Technology ban and several biopiracy cases involving CGIAR genebank material. However, CSOs remain concerned about the complete absence of farmers' voices in the consultations at global level. We feel that small-farmer organisations should be actively involved at all levels (local, national, regional and global) in research policy decision-making and priority setting.

For the past decade the CGIAR has made several attempts to change its research priorities, governance and structure in order to improve the way it can meet the needs of farmers in the South. The current Change discussion on the agenda of the CGIAR Annual General Meeting 29 October to 2 November again seeks participation from civil society but threatens to ignore its contributions.  This contrasts with all major CGIAR policy documents over the past decade that have repeated the necessity to involve NGOs. Many NGOs and farmers' organisations have already given up on the CGIAR and few are ready to invest more time and energy in attempts at collaboration with it. Unless the CGIAR substantially reorients its direction and becomes more inclusive in its decision making, NGOs and farmer organisations will keep their cooperation to a minimum and will increase their external pressure for a radical Change.

This article is available in