This paper examines the relationship between food security, agricultural biotechnology and intellectual property rights (IPRs), particularly for developing countries and poorer groups within those countries. As a result of industry pressure, harmonised standards of IPRs have been agreed at the global level, chiefly through TRIPs/WTO. Recent empirical work demonstrates that for low income developing countries, the costs of strengthening IPRs may well outweigh the gains. Moreover, potential gains through increased technological inflows resulting from stronger IPRs are likely to be realised over the long term, while costs accrue immediately, suggesting that developing countries should thinking carefully about promoting the expansion of IPRs, particularly in the field of agriculture. This is because although in the long term, IPRs incentivize research and development they also go hand in hand with unsustainable, and possibly unsafe, forms of agriculture, make R&D more expensive, especially in developing countries and tend to reduce national developmental choices. Despite this, pro-IPR industry representatives and trade officials, with privileged access to patent offices, judicial processes and WTO negotiations, continue to push for stronger IPRs at the global and national level. Those negatively impacted, such as small-scale farmers, traditional knowledge holders, environmental groups and developing countries, will need to play a larger role in IPR policy-making, at all levels, if biotechnology is to benefit the poorest and most vulnerable groups in the global economy. Lack of negotiating power and policy expertise of developing countries within the WTO, combined with strategic forum-shifting by more powerful countries, needs to be countered to ensure that the IPR playing field is not skewed further against R&D that would benefit the poor and forms of agriculture that would improve their food security must be positively encouraged.
IDS Working Paper 203. Brighton, UK: IDS. ISBN 1 85864 519 0, 71 pp.