Index | Search | Home | Table of Contents

Fowler, C. 1993. International conflicts in new crops policy. p. 22-27. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.

International Conflicts in New Crops Policy

Cary Fowler


The year, 1992, is the 500th anniversary of the "discovery" of the New World by Columbus. This voyage marked the beginning of the "Columbian Exchange," the first systematic and massive transfer and diffusion of plants between continents.

To be sure, people had been moving domesticated and other valuable plants about for thousands of years. Some primitive agricultural crops spread slowly as populations of the earliest "farmers" grew and as hunter/gatherers migrated. Other crops were "captured" as the fruits of war. Murals on the walls of Egyptian temples depict the botanical booty won in battle over 3,400 years ago. From these days onwards, it was not just gold and silver but plants and plant products which helped create and shape the world's nascent geopolitics, affecting everything from the fate of kingdoms to the daily bread of their most ordinary citizens.

Columbus and those who followed him brought maize, potatoes, squash, cassava, peanuts, common beans, and other crops back to Europe. The seeds of the hevea rubber tree were shipped from Brazil to Kew Gardens and seedlings sent to botanical gardens in Singapore where controlled distribution established the rubber industry of Southeast Asia. Asian production brought ruin to the rubber industry of Brazil. The economy of northeast Brazil collapsed and hundreds of thousands of people perished of famine.

In "exchange," many crops including coffee, bananas, and sugar were introduced to the New World. The boom and bust cycles of these crops, and the association of sugar with slavery and deforestation are well known. Colonial powers attempted to control certain biological materials by force. The French threatened anyone taking indigo out of Antigua with the guillotine. The Spanish outlawed the production of amaranth due to its association with "pagan" religions. The Dutch decreed that production of cloves and nutmeg be limited to three islands in the Moluccas.

In Europe, great wealth was generated from the control over the production and marketing of such crops. The many conflicts and controversies which arose over the acquisition, control, and transfer of plants largely escape our attention today and are of little to concern to us. But, these transfers were not solely altruistic or scientific. Rather, they had a great deal to do with both the creation of wealth and power and its loss or lack of realization.

During the first century of the Columbian Exchange, fewer than 100 new plants were introduced into England. Some 1,000 plants were introduced in the 17th century and 9,000 were brought in during the 18th century (Lemmon 1968). These were the plants which were to form the basis of European dye, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries. Imagine how different our modern world would be had these botanical acquisitions and transfers not taken place!

The United States itself benefitted tremendously from imported genetic materials. From the early days of the 19th century, prior to the establishment of a viable commercial seed trade, the Patent Office oversaw the collection of seeds from all over the world. These seeds were distributed to American farmers for experimentation and adaptation. By 1878, a third of the budget of the young United States Department of Agriculture was being spent on germplasm collection and distribution (Klose 1950). Tens of millions of packages of seeds (including those of many "new crops" discussed in this conference) were sent annually to farmers by the end of the century. Such germplasm importations facilitated the spread of American agriculture and the rise of the United States seed industry.

The value of genetic resources of plants and plant products has long been appreciated and has been at the center of many of the fundamental events in economic and political history for literally thousands of years. Conflicts over the ownership, control, use, distribution, and benefits of genetic resources are just as old. They are a common feature of this history. When we speak of "international conflicts in new crops policy," we must keep in mind that today's conflicts have roots which sink deep in history. Indeed, certain elements of these conflicts have remained remarkably consistent throughout the ages.


In this century, awareness of the importance of genetic resources increased with their more intensified use following the rediscovery of Mendel's paper on heredity. As modern agriculture with its scientifically-bred crop cultivars made inroads in areas of great genetic diversity (principally in the Third World), awareness of the value of these resources was highlighted by the realization that these resources were being lost at an alarming rate. Modern cultivars were replacing traditional "farmer-bred" cultivars and in the process much diversity was being lost. Valuable breeding material was disappearing and becoming extinct. In this context it could be argued that the perceived value of this material was increasing as a consequence of its scarcity.

As in colonial days, donors of this material had no formal recognized mechanism for realizing value from "their" genetic resources. These resources, the ownership of which had long been determined through sheer force and physical possession, were now deemed by many to part of the "common heritage" of mankind.

Transfers of genetic material continued. Major collections were made and placed in the twentieth century version of the botanical garden--the gene bank. Emphasis was shifting from the collecting of interesting new species to the collection of "varieties" (landraces) with interesting and useful characteristics.

It is tempting to think of this as a period devoid of serious conflict over genetic resources. One need not look far to uncover the conflict. In the Third World, economic disruptions and social tensions associated with the introduction of modern cultivars during the "Green Revolution" have been amply documented (Griffin 1972; Lappe' 1977; Perelman 1977). In the United States, the struggle over questions of ownership and control moved into the political and legal arenas. The seed and nursery trades waged campaigns of nearly a century to establish the patent and patent-like rights over new cultivars of crops (Berg et al. 1991). Viewed historically, these laws were intended to establish a legal system of rules over ownership of biological material to replace previous systems based simply on physical control--a difficult form of control to maintain. Beginning in the late 1800s and continuing at least until the late 1960s, the industry faced serious internal divisions plus the opposition of public sector scientists, the United States Department of Agriculture, and farmer organizations. Intellectual property proposals suffered defeats in Congress on a number of occasions throughout the century (Kloppenburg 1988).

From the 1970s, concerns and conflict have centered on "equity" and "environmental" issues. Significantly, these issues were recognized as such and addressed by virtually all participants in this field in one form or another. These were not simply the concerns of a single individual or organization.

Concerns about the environment were manifested in questions about the loss of genetic diversity and the ability of conservation systems to conserve that diversity. Individual scientists (notably Jack Harlan and his father Harry Harlan, Otto Frankel, Erna Bennett, and Garrison Wilkes) and organizations such as the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences issued passionate statements about the on-going loss of genetic diversity (Harlan and Martini 1936; Harlan 1972; Frankel and Bennett 1970; Wilkes 1977; National Research Council 1972). Many criticized the American government and others for inadequate collection and storage efforts. Funding levels for this work were, in fact, woefully inadequate and they remain so largely because the message of the importance of genetic resource conservation has still not reached Washington, 50 years later.

Concerns about equity were manifested in, we might say, a renewed debate over the Columbian Exchange. Have, for example, the "grain rich" countries benefitted disproportionately from the acquisition of genetic resources from the "gene rich" countries? Since the world had moved beyond the gunboat style of settling ownership questions, conflicts arose over emerging forms of legal ownership including patents as cited above. These issues were debated in different arenas such as the United States Congress and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)--largely depending on where the different actors (corporations, governments, advocacy groups, etc.) thought they could get their best and most effective hearing.

At the FAO, a series of proposals were introduced by Third World governments led principally by Mexico. Over a period of a decade, the following initiatives were approved:

  1. FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources. This body was established in 1983. It is an intergovernmental body with over 110 member nations. Prior to its existence, there had been no forum where governments--as governments--could meet to discuss issues concerning genetic resources. The Commission meets every two years. Its working group meets in interim years.
  2. The FAO Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources. This low-level, non-binding statement sets standards and rules for the conservation and exchange of genetic resources. It calls for all categories of genetic resources to be fully exchanged as the common heritage of mankind. However, by pointedly refusing to exclude patented materials and breeders' lines from its definition of genetic resources, FAO angered industrialized countries and a number refused to join the Commission or sign the Undertaking as a result. Recently, an "agreed interpretation" of this section has been accepted resolving this problem and membership in the Commission has grown.
  3. International Network of Gene Banks. FAO established--on paper--a network of gene banks whose material would be considered to be held under the auspices of the FAO and subject to the guidelines on exchange set out in the Undertaking. This network was seen as a form of reassurance that genetic resources would remain in the public domain and that their availability would not be subject to political considerations. However, much material is still held outside of this network.
  4. International Gene Fund. This fund was established to support genetic conservation and utilization programs. Politically, this fund was seen as a mechanism for the recognition of farmers' contributions to the generation and conservation of genetic diversity. Plant breeders receive their reward through royalties and profits obtained with the help of intellectual property laws. Farmers' efforts would be rewarded indirectly through this fund in the form of support for various conservation and breeding programs. Contributions to this fund are voluntary.
Each of these four initiatives was extremely controversial. Debates were highly contentious and often personal. Adversaries' motives as well as their views were routinely questioned. This was both sad and ironic, because most individuals obviously shared a real and deep commitment to conservation of genetic diversity.

As the debate raged in the United States Congress over patenting and in the FAO over the above issues, the media finally took notice. The Wall Street Journal coined the term "seed wars" to describe the controversy (Paul 1984). Criticism--at times unjust--was met by defensiveness and counter-attack. Views became more and more polarized. Third World governments and a number of advocacy organizations supported the FAO initiatives. Industrialized countries (with the exception of Spain) opposed them. Corporations pushed for intellectual property legislation and were opposed by farmers, church, and advocacy groups. Very real differences in politics or approach to the various issues were exacerbated by overly-simplified and sensationalized press reports and by the lack of direct communication between adversaries.

The controversy, which was both engaged in and widely deplored by the scientific community, accomplished something which had eluded all prior to the beginning of the fireworks in the early 1980s. It placed the topic of genetic resources before the public. It generated editorials and front-page coverage in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Newspaper features on seed savers and "heirloom" vegetables and fruits became commonplace. There were NOVA, Donahue, NPR, and MacNeil-Lehrer programs. Books and dissertations were written. Studies were undertaken. Congressional hearings were held. Citizens groups like the Seed Savers Exchange and the American Minor Breeds Conservancy organized to promote and facilitate their members active participation in conservation activities. New seed companies sprung up to satisfy consumer demand for "heirloom" varieties. This increased public awareness and attention was a major factor contributing to improved funding for federal conservation programs.

It was not consensus but conflict which brought about increased public awareness and additional support for conservation programs. But, these benefits came with costs and risks. International polarization threatened to impede the exchange of genetic resources and harm breeding and conservation programs. While some individuals (in the corporations, government service, and non-government organizations) maintained a hard-line approach to the debate, others began to see the need for a conciliatory effort.

The late William Brown of Pioneer Hi-Bred, John Pino of the National Research Council and others approached the Keystone Center in Colorado. After a number of planning meetings, the Keystone Center agreed to act as a "neutral facilitator" in an international dialogue on plant genetic resources. The first plenary meeting focusing on ex situ conservation took place in Colorado in 1988. Subsequent plenary meetings were convened in Madras, India, and Oslo, Norway. Working group and steering committee meetings were held in Leningrad, Ottawa, Rome, and Uppsala. These meetings brought together many of the most prominent individuals involved in genetic conservation. Heads of the United States, Soviet Union, Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, Ethiopian, Nordic, and Dutch genetic resources programs participated. Prominent corporate officials from North America, South America, and Europe attended. Government, FAO, World Bank, and Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) officials were involved. And members of grass-roots farm organizations and advocacy groups as well as distinguished individual scientists participated. Virtually all major points of view and constituencies were represented (Keystone 1988, 1990, 1991).

The informal and off-the-record style of the meetings helped dissolve many encrusted views and personal antagonisms which had built up over the years. The trust and indeed friendships which grew out of the meetings facilitated some rather remarkable policy breakthroughs. The dialogue recognized that questions of ownership, control, and the realization of value from genetic resources were linked with the problem of the conservation of those resources. Effective utilization of genetic resources and an equitable sharing of the benefits from these resources are an important, perhaps necessary part of effective conservation. The dialogue recognized the right of plant breeders to be rewarded for their labors, but noted that presently the world's farmers have no system which would reward them for past, present, and future contributions as plant selectors, breeders, and conservers. Participants realized that genetic resources are not simply "raw materials" used by scientists. They are materials which have already been altered and improved by the often conscious, knowledgeable, and creative efforts of farmers. To deny the intellectual contribution and thus, the intellectual property of these farmers was deemed unjust. Nevertheless, the dialogue participants realized that such innovation takes place in an informal, community setting which renders Western-styled patent laws with their emphasis on identifying the individual inventor (out of any social context) inapplicable.

Dialogue participants endorsed the establishment of a Fund which would recognize what has been termed "farmers' rights" and would support genetic conservation and utilization. The Fund would not attempt the impossible and inappropriate--to identify and reward or compensate individuals--but would assist farmers as a class through conservation and utilization programs. Subsidizing conservation alone is not enough. Different countries have different capacities to use genetic resources. Some have almost no capacity and must thus be assisted if conservation is to be beneficial. This is why the "progressive" collection etiquette of always leaving a duplicate sample in a donor country is inadequate--it ignores and does little to improve that country's ability to use materials which can be taken out and utilized profitably by others.

The dialogue calls for a new structure or remolding of existing institutions to administer this work. The Government of Norway has asked that these proposals, adopted as a consensus by the Keystone Dialogue, be considered formally by the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Outlined in detail in the three Keystone plenary documents (Keystone 1988, 1990, 1991), the recommendations may serve as an "action agenda" inside various UN bodies and international institutions during the 1990s.

The improved communication and cooperation gained as a byproduct of the Keystone process is already bearing some fruit. An innovative breeding and conservation program is being developed cooperatively by the Dutch and Ethiopian gene banks together with the Norwegian Centre for International Agricultural Development, and various non-government organizations (NGOs). Discussions on cooperative work between the CGIAR and NGOs are under way. And several controversies have been avoided by behind-the-scenes work by Keystone participants of divergent views.

The direction set by Keystone will not eliminate the millenia-old conflict or controversy over the handling of genetic resources. Threats to the delicate current alliance are already visible. United States initiatives at the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) may force Third World countries to adopt and recognize Western-style intellectual property laws for biological materials. If so, a serious imbalance will be created, because these laws were not designed for recognizing the creative contributions of the "informal" (farmer-community) sector and effectively exclude many in the Third World from benefiting from the resources they have identified, developed, and nurtured for years. In Europe and North America, attempts to circumscribe or eliminate the right of farmers to save seed of protected cultivars will generate more controversy.

If Keystone-style initiatives fail or if proposals such as those under debate at GATT succeed, "seed wars" may well break out again. Restrictions on access to genetic resources and tough codes of conduct on biotechnology, germplasm collection, and germplasm utilization can be expected. Some countries may push to create legal forms of protection for landraces or "folk varieties." Conservation and breeding programs may suffer in the short-term.

Those who work with "new crops" will need to be mindful of the context within which that work is done. That context includes an increased awareness of the value of genetic resources in both the public and private sectors and an increased sensitivity to questions about the socioeconomic and legal implications of collection and transfer of and access to genetic resources, particularly in the Third World. That context also involves an increasingly sophisticated discussion about the nature of intellectual property--a discussion which includes forceful assertions that scientists and their employers are not the only rightful claimants of intellectual property rights over or credit for new crop cultivars. Collectors and users of genetic resources will have to respect and work with donors and conservers of these resources at all levels--from the farm to the gene bank--to retain access to these materials and foster much needed goodwill. These steps will be taken more easily if all understand that the question of conservation of and access to genetic resources cannot be separated from the larger question of utilization and development. In the future, it will be more and more difficult to say that the science of plant genetic resources has nothing to do with the politics and economics of plant genetic resources. Students of history should understand that the distinction so frequently drawn is often convenient yet almost always false.


Last update April 2, 1997 aw