Patents and animal genetic resources make a controversial mix. There are many ethical questions that relate to the patenting of animal genes and whole organisms, genetically modified or not. Some of the most poignant are those addressed in a recent discussion paper published by the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development, entitled ‘Patents on animals and their possible impact on smallholder livestock keepers’.

Potential conflict is arising in the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) arena between the large industrial players operating in the ‘North’ and the pastoral and small-scale livestock farmers of the developing world. At stake, it is argued, are not only livelihoods, but also a large diversity of indigenous livestock breeds and the indigenous knowledge used in their development.

Although at present the USA and EU allow patenting of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), these cannot yet be legally used for food. However, there is increasing pressure from large industrial players to introduce patenting of non-GMOs in livestock production. There are already patents on animals such as that granted by EPO (EP 1330552) on transgenic cows with increased milk production and there has been a recent high profile case of a series of patent applications to 160 countries related, it appears, not only to pig breeding methods, but also to the animals produced by them.

Patents and IPRs are crucial to maintain economic viability in research, which becomes more costly as technological frontiers advance. But many fear that livestock keepers from developing countries, already under threat from disappearing grazing rights, reduced natural resources, animal disease pandemics, and burgeoning trade laws, are also at risk of losing some of their rights to breed, sell, exchange and maintain their livestock by traditional methods, due to the inappropriate application of IPRs.

Köhler-Rollefson et al. (2006), at the 8th World Congress on Genetics Applied to Livestock Production, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, outlined an argument for the appreciation of indigenous breeds as a product of countless years of application of indigenous knowledge and human endeavour. As such, they maintain, indigenous breeds could be regarded as the communal or collective property of the communities in which they were developed, and consequently that it is ethically and socially desirable to employ “IPR protection that gives equal significance to indigenous knowledge as to scientific intervention”.

September 2007 will be a crucial time in the evolution IPR agreement, when the First International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources is to be held in Interlaken, Switzerland, under the auspices of FAO and the Government of Switzerland. Among the objectives of the Conference are to raise awareness of the value of available animal genetic resources and to recognise and address priorities in their development, conservation and sustainable use. With so many different stakeholders; from industrial style pig and poultry line developers, through classic breed conservationists to pastoralists and smallholders and their representatives, the debate and outcomes from this meeting will be well worth looking out for.

For more information, consult the CAB Abstracts database, which covers reports and articles on policy and policy analysis as well as the science involved in the conservation and development of animal genetic resources.

There is also an excellent ‘backgrounder’ book published by CABI, Intellectual Property Rights in Animal Breeding and Genetics, edited by M Rothschild and S Newman (2002, ISBN: 9780851996417), which gives a solid introduction to the subject and includes ethical arguments and exemplary case studies. Chapters from this book are also included in the Animal Health and Production Compendium.

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