The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)



Conflicts in Intellectual Property Rights in Genetic Resources: Implications for Agricultural Biotechnology.


L. J. Bees Butler, UC Davis





Over the past two decades, the issue of intellectual property rights (IPR’s) in genetic resources has created an international controversy that threatens to hamper the diffusion of new biotechnological innovation, restrict trade in agricultural products, discourage the conservation of biological diversity, and create market structures that cater to consolidation and increased market power.

This paper examines three international agreements that are in direct conflict with each other with respect to genetic resources, plant breeders rights, conservation of biological diversity and property rights in genetic resources. They are:

  1. The WTO/GATT TRIPs agreement (1994): which requires countries to introduce either a patent or an effective sui generis system for the protection of plant varieties and agricultural biotechnological innovations.
  2. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 1992): which aims to encourage biological diversity and states that countries have the sovereign right over their own biological resources.
  3. The FAO Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (1989 – present): which is an international consensus on ways to encourage the conservation of biological diversity, compensate countries and communities for the use of genetic resources, and introduces the concept of Farmers Rights.

Most countries have signed all three of these agreements, and, since they (the agreements) are in conflict with each other, face serious conflicts in formulating consistent policies with respect to genetic resources and intellectual property rights. This is therefore an important topic for policy makers and regulators.

The goal of this paper is to identify the essential conflicts in these international agreements, particularly as they relate to intellectual property rights, and to examine institutional arrangements that could lead to the formulation of more consistent international policies for the regulation of agricultural biotechnology.

A rapidly increasing literature points to the need to rethink the value of extending current IPR laws to genetic resources, and the impacts IPR has on biodiversity and the availability of genetic resources. For example, researchers have shown that ill-defined property rights distort the incentives to conserve, and may result in over-extraction and under-pricing of natural resources in developing countries. Other research concludes that IPR’s are trade distorting, inefficient, and may increase the costs of innovation. Much of this research appears to be contradictory. For example, depending on ones point of view, and the policy considered, it is not possible to conclude whether countries (developed or developing) would be better off strengthening or weakening current IPR laws, or whether current IPR’s are beneficial or distortionary, or, whether societal benefits are enhanced or decline in the presence of IPR’s.

The paper begins by examining the historical roots of the international policies, and the uncoordinated efforts that have lead to their conflicting nature. We then identify and examine the specific conflicts of the agreements and, in the context of the intellectual property right literature, expose the inconsistencies and contradictions between them. Finally, the paper describes a number of institutional arrangements that could lead to the formulation of more consistent policies on genetic resources, biodiversity and the regulation of agricultural biotechnology.


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