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Will Chile privatize its seeds?

René Montalba N.

The Chilean law on the Regulation of the Rights of Breeders of New Varieties of Plants, enacted in 1994 and still in force, establishes rights for the protection of new plant species which, due to their high technical and financial costs, must be protected within a legal framework. A new bill is currently being debated that would amend this legal framework and could, together with other measures, result in the privatization of seeds and the liberation into the environment and the market of genetically modified crops. Unfortunately, most farmers and the general public are unaware of the content of this bill although it could have negative impacts on biodiversity in Chile, on farming in general and organic farming in particular, and on small and medium-sized farmers. 

A breeder is an individual or legal entity who, by natural means or genetic manipulation, has discovered and thus bred a new variety of plant; in other words, someone who works on the development of new species and varieties leading to improvements in production. The bill to regulate rights over new varieties of plants and repeal the previous law has been going through the second reading in the Senate’s Agriculture Committee since March 10, 2010. Once this bill is approved, the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV Convention of 1991), in second reading since May 2009, will need to be approved by the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. 

In parallel, the Chilean minister of agriculture, José Antonio Galilea, announced that in June and July 2010 details would be presented with respect to the bill entitled “Biosecurity of Genetically Modified Plants,” which is aimed at regulating the liberation of genetically modified products. The reading of this bill has been stalled in the Senate since 2008. At the same time, the government and the Agriculture and Livestock Service of the Ministry of Agriculture are preparing to draft a regulation for the new Environment Act that ensures the commercial liberation of genetically modified products either by declaring them to be free of environmental impacts or by submitting them to the Environmental Impact Evaluation System (SEIA). The experience of the citizenry with respect to environmental institutionality and participation in SEIA processes clearly indicates that this is how the transnational companies will achieve the commercial liberation of genetically modified products.

The debate on this topic is characterized by different points of view at the levels of both the general public and regional and national political sectors. On the one hand, it has been suggested that to see the vision “Chile, agri-food power” realized, more suitable, productive and efficient varieties of the different species under cultivation are required. Due to the high cost of the process, this would only be possible if the intellectual property rights of these “breeders of new plant varieties” were guaranteed. In addition, to export Chilean products would require verification of the respect for intellectual property that would be embodied in the text of the bill on new plant varieties. In accordance with the original bill proposed in 2008, the new regulations will favour the registration in Chile of new plant species created not only in our country, but also abroad. In this regard, the new scenario will be favourable to increasing national competitiveness.  

Meanwhile, the detractors consider that this bill would be in keeping with responsibilities signed off on in the free trade agreement with the United States and that it would serve the interests of the large transnational companies, which would finally be interested in expanding production of genetically modified crops. Hence, they believe that if such a law were applied, it would undermine the independence of farmers in regard to the right to reproduce their seeds and conserve their genetic patrimony, since it strengthens the rights of the transnational agro-chemical or seed-bed companies and violates the rights of the peasant and indigenous communities and of organic farmers. In their opinion, a bill that would privatize seeds, unknown to the majority of farmers and citizens, must be rejected because of its negative impacts on biodiversity —the heritage of all Chileans— and its disastrous consequences for agricultural development in general, and in particular for small, medium-sized and organic farming.

Public opinion is misinformed about the text and the scope of this law. It is likely, therefore, that part of the controversy it has generated could be minimized or consensus or solutions could be reached through the development of activities that facilitate a more thorough analysis of the controversy from the different points of view that have resulted in the current debate. As an example of this, the mistrust of citizens’ groups with respect to the loss of the “right of farmers” to conserve and reproduce their traditional seeds, or the possible effects of this law on the loss of biodiversity in the wild, could be resolved through the joint consideration of a bill that protects agricultural and natural diversity.  

René Montalba N. has been Director of the Institute of the Environment (IMA in its Spanish acronym) since August 2008 and professor at the Faculty of Agriculture, Livestock and Forestry Sciences of Universidad de la Frontera in Chile since November 1999. His main areas of expertise and interest lie in agricultural sustainability, agro-ecology, sustainable natural resource management and environmental management.

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