Guatemala Confronts the threat of Patented GM Crops – Uganda beware

Located in Central America, Guatemala is a country half the size of Uganda. It is known for its abundance of biologically significant and unique ecosystems that contribute to mesoamerica’s designation as a biodiversity hotspot.

This country draws many similarities with Uganda. It underwent many years of civil war during which it lost most of its productive population leading to the displacement and death of many peasant farmers as a result and the departure of the educated few in search of greener pastures.

It has the highest population growth rate in Latin America, an honour Uganda is vying for in Africa too. Like Uganda, it has one of the youngest populations in Latin America and is still dogged by a high birth rate. Economically, both countries have a significant Agricultural industry.

During the last decade, Guatemala begun flirting with Genetically Modified Crops with the USA playing an active role in pushing for their introduction. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) with the support of the local Agribusiness sector was able to lobby against Guatemala’s restricitive biosafety rules as far back as 2005 with transgenic agriculture advocates strategising to ensure that subsequent government administrations are GM friendly.

Companies like Monsanto known as ‘breeders’ after carrying out modifications on naturally existing crops are turning around to patent those crops and expecting any one that grows them to pay royalties. Imagine a rural farmer having to contend with purchasing seed each season, paying a royalty fee and not being allowed to re-plant from the previous stock. Essentially, the future of the Agriculture sector is being sold to corporates who want to control what you grow and how you grow it. These companies are driven by profit and care less about the potential environmental side effects of their grand plans. Argentina a country that took on mass adoption of GM Crops is already paying the price with numerous rural dwellers abandoning the countrysides due to a myriad of problems that have evolved as a result of this drive.

On 10 June 2014, the Congress of Guatemala approved the “Law for the Protection of New Plant Varieties” that among others stipulated punishments of upto 4 years imprisonment and fines in the range of US$ 1300 for any infringer. One could argue that only those who choose to plant GM Crops will suffer the brunt. This isn’t the case. When natural crop varieties are grown within the environs of GM crops, there is cross breeding that takes place thereby modifying the natural varieties. The farmer whose natural variety has been contaminated will now be liable to pay GM companies like Monsanto if they want to continue replanting their contaminated crop. Monsanto is on record in this regard in the case of Monsanto Canada Inc Vs Schmeiser. By virtue of being patent holders, these companies will determine what you can or can’t do with ‘their’ seeds and like software, they basically rent you their seeds.

The Public Citizen in one of its reports noted that Plant Variety Protection using Intellectual Property Rights is likely to achieve the following;

  • Increased harm to small scale farmers in developing nations. Worldwide at least 1.5 billion individuals depend on small scale farming for their livelihoods of which most are in developing countries. Saving, selling and exchanging seed is essential to the viability of their farming practices. Any system designed to stop this will create a catastrophy in future.

  • More harm to genetic diversity and other implications to Developing countries. Plant Variety Protection discourages breeding minor crops that don’t have a wide enough market. This is likely to have a significant knock on the bio-diversity currently being enjoyed. Traditional diverse agro-ecosystems containing a wide range of traditional crop varieties are likely to be replaced with monocultures of single agro-chemical dependent varieties.

  • The current domination of the GM Crop breeding by rich multinationals in developed countries is likely to skew development for farms in rich economies thereby ignoring crops like sorghum, millet, cassava among others. The spin off effect of this is a threat on food security especially in nations where there is heavy dependence on small scale farming like Uganda.

Following the passing of the “Law for the Protection of New Plant Varieties” in Guatemala, there was a lot of uproar in the country and protests followed. Subsequently, the same Congress that passed the law repealed it on the 4th of September 2014 to the joy of many, following a Constitutional Court ruling.

How did Guatemala get here? In 2005 Guatemala signed the CAFTA-DR Free Trade Agreement between Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and the USA. In this agreement, under Chapter 15 on Intellectual Property Rights, 15.1, 5(a) states; “Each Party shall ratify or accede to the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (1991) (UPOV Convention 1991). Nicaragua shall do so by January 1, 2010. Costa Rica shall do so by June 1, 2007. All other Parties shall do so by January 1, 2006.

Further clarity is provided on UPOV in the footer “The Parties recognize that the UPOV Convention 1991 contains exceptions to the breeder’s right, including for acts done privately and for non-commercial purposes, such as private and non-commercial acts of farmers. Further, the Parties recognize that the UPOV Convention 1991 provides for restrictions to the exercise of a breeder’s right for reasons of public interest, provided that the Parties take all measures necessary to ensure that the breeder receives equitable remuneration. The Parties also understand that each Party may avail itself of these exceptions and restrictions. Finally, the Parties understand that there is no conflict between the UPOV Convention 1991 and a Party’s ability to protect and conserve its genetic resources.”

On patents, the same agreement further states in 15.9, 2; “Notwithstanding the foregoing, any Party that does not provide patent protection for plants by the date of entry into force of this Agreement shall undertake all reasonable efforts to make such patent protection available. Any Party that provides patent protection for plants or animals on or after the date of entry into force of this Agreement shall maintain such protection.” This is the noose around the neck that could have led the Congress in Guatemala to proceed with the enactment of that harmful Act. Their desire to comply with the trade agreement meant going against their very people’s desires.

It is very clear here that the Government of Guatemala went into this agreement without thinking through whatever commitments were being made. Had they taken time to rummage through the paperwork, this scenario would have been avoided. At this juncture I realise that Uganda tends to be a victim of such gaffes and as the protagonists for GM crops mark their territory in this East African Country, the decision makers should take time to orient themselves with the implications of their decisions to the survival of humanity and natural life in this well endowed Agricultural country.

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