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Japan digs its claws into biodiversity through FTAs

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Against the grain | 27 August 2007



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The Japanese government is increasingly using free trade agreements (FTAs) to tighten corporate control over seeds and other forms of biodiversity that are crucial to food, agriculture and medicine. Two such deals sealed this month with Chile and Indonesia put Japan in the big league of nations using bilateral deals to make seed-saving on the farm a thing of the past.

Until now, Europe and the US were the main economic powers pushing other countries to revise their intellectual property laws to give private companies patent or patent-like control over seeds and other forms of biodiversity through FTAs. Japan has now joined that club. In a controversial FTA signed earlier this year with Thailand, Japan insisted that the Thais cannot reject patents just because they involve "naturally occurring" microorganisms. Two weeks ago, Tokyo signed a deal with Chile obliging the South American state to join UPOV, a group of countries following the same anti-farmer plant variety property laws. Last week, a similar agreement was inked with Indonesia.

These laws give large transnationals — like Yokohama-based Sakata Seed Corporation, which ranks among the top ten global seed companies — exclusive ownership over the nuts and bolts that make food production and health care possible. That means that farmers lose freedom to save seed from commercial varieties. But this is no longer just a North-South affair, with industrial nations like Japan pushing developing countries around. Home-grown agribusiness conglomerates across Asia and Latin America also want a cut from the market. After all, some 70% of the world’s farmers save their seed. That is a lot of people to convert into paying customers through strict property rules like patents or UPOV regulations. And developing country governments are following the money.

Now that Japan has set a precedent in getting these laws accepted under its FTAs with Chile and Indonesia, farmers’ organisations and social movements in other countries negotiating bilateral trade deals with Tokyo should expect the same. In the coming months, Japan will be fast-tracking FTAs with India, Viet Nam and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Read the full report at

 "Bilateral agreements imposing TRIPS-plus intellectual property rights on biodiversity in developing countries", August 2007,
 "The end of farm-saved seed? Industry’s wish list for the next revision of UPOV", February 2007,
 "FTAs: Trading away traditional knowledge", in collaboration with Dr Silvia Rodríguez Cervantes, March 2006,

 source: GRAIN