Royalties in nonindustrial countries

Plant breeders' rights have been much misunderstood by the general public. Because of the public perception of plant breeding being confined to large and expensive institutes owned by commercial corporations, breeders' rights legislation is often seen as a 'big business' plot. There is a fear of big corporations dominating agriculture, and of multinational corporations dominating the non-industrial world. These fears probably originate in the practice of vertical resistance breeding, with cultivars that are 'big space, high profile, short life' (see 5.6). But these fears should be groundless for two reasons.

First, most temperate crops are not grown in the tropics. In general, the crops of temperate commercial farming are of no use to subtropical and tropical farmers. There are a few exceptions, such as maize, tobacco, and tomato. But the industrial country cultivars of these crops are usually of little use to the non-industrial countries, which require their own local cultivars that are in balance with their own local agro-ecosystems and pathosystems. When the world moves to plant breeding clubs and horizontal resistance, the 'long life, small space' characteristic of horizontal resistance will necessitate the use of on-site selection and, hence, of local cultivars.

Second, tropical small-holders and subsistence farmers never pay royalties and, even if they were willing to do so, the mechanisms for collecting royalties generally do not exist in non-industrial countries. I was once told that thousands of photocopies of my books existed in the non-industrial world. These were mostly photocopies of photocopies, "unto the tenth generation" (beyond which, legibility is lost). And, obviously, I did not collect a penny of royalties on any of them. This left me with only two options. Would I prefer my books to be photocopied and studied, or not photocopied and not studied? The prospect of my books being sold, and earning significant royalties, was not a valid possibility in these cash-starved countries. The same is true of patented temperate cultivars, assuming they were of any use to tropical farmers, which is unlikely.

However, some aspects of genetic engineering may be important to non-industrial countries, and these provide the possibility of undesirable coercion. Non-industrial countries are keen to join the free-trade agreements of the industrial world, but the rich country governments apparently want to make the recognition of intellectual property rights a condition of membership. This could give the owners of plant patents control of important aspects of the agriculture of non-industrial countries. Nowadays, these owners are almost invariably large commercial corporations whose activities are legitimately geared to the profits of their shareholders.

It is obviously important that non-industrial countries are assisted rather than exploited by any membership of free-trade agreements. Indeed, this can be one of the more effective forms of overseas assistance. A rich-country tax on tea or coffee, for example, should be considered unethical.

There is a difference between a cultivar copyright and a cultivar patent. The United States allows cultivars and even single genes to be patented using legislation that is a direct copy of the laws concerning patents on inventions. There should also be a clear recognition of the 'public domain' in plant breeding. Obviously, wild plants are public domain. So too are ancient cultivars. And plant breeding legislation must allow patented cultivars to be used as parents in a breeding program. There is also the 'farmer's privilege' which allows a farmer to propagate a patented cultivar for his own use, although he may not sell of give away such propagating material. This is comparable to making photocopies of copyrighted scientific papers for private study.

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