Japan claws its way into biodiversity through FTAs

Japan claws its way into biodiversity through FTAs

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By Grain

Japan is increasingly using free trade agreements (FTAs) to strengthen corporate control over seeds and other forms of biological diversity that are crucial for food, agriculture and medicine. Two of those treaties, signed this month with the governments of Chile and Indonesia, put Japan in the great league of nations that use bilateral trade agreements to make the practice of saving seed on rural farms a thing of the past.

In recent years, the Japanese government has turned more and more to free trade agreements to optimize business opportunities for Japanese companies and protect the country's interests in food and energy security, especially in the Asia-Pacific region (see Table 1). The privatization of biological diversity is part of their agenda.

Through its FTAs, which are forged in closed-door negotiations, the Japanese government has been persuading other countries to change their laws in order to offer companies greater freedom of action and greater control over their assets. One of the tactics that Japan is increasingly resorting to is pressuring its trading partners to accept the patenting of life forms and toughen laws that allow companies to claim ownership of seeds, thus forcing farmers to pay royalties. To the extent that Japan already has a notorious reputation for “biopiracy,” as in the famous Shiseido and cupuaçú cases, the government's intention to pave the way for biotech companies to secure legal rights over biological diversity is not surprising. Exterior. [one]

It is clear that Japan has been redoubling its demands. In its first FTAs, signed with Singapore (2002) and Mexico (2004), Japan did not even touch on the issue of intellectual property rights over life forms. But shortly after, in the FTAs ​​negotiated with Malaysia and the Philippines, the issue began to creep onto the negotiating table. In the case of Malaysia, which concluded a treaty with Japan in late 2005, Tokyo tried to get the government to commit to the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) system, but the Malays said no. [2] In fact, and to stop the great onslaught of the FTA that gives Japanese investors equal rights to exploit Malaysia's resources, this country inserted a clause that avoids the interference of Japan in the formulation of policies in the matter of biological diversity. [3] But at the same time the government accepted some abstract language about protecting private monopoly rights "in a manner consistent with the internationally harmonized system." In practice, this means interference from UPOV. Only the text does not say so. [4]

Table 1: Japan FTAs ​​(August 2007). Source: Grain

SignedIn negotiationIn preparation
Singapore (2002; amended 2007)Korea (since 2003, currently detained)Argentina
Mexico (2004)ASEAN (since 2005; preliminary agreement reached end of August 2007, expected to be signed in November 2007)Brazil
Malaysia (2005)Gulf Cooperation Council (since 2006, to be concluded in early 2008)Cambodia
Philippines (2006; currently for ratification in the Philippines)Vietnam (since 2007)Canada
Brunei (2007)Australia (since 2007)Central Asia
Thailand (2007)India (since 2007, to be concluded in 2008)China
Chile (2007)Switzerland (from 2007, to be concluded at the end of 2007)East Asia (“Nikai Initiative”, which includes Australia, India and New Zealand; under study)
Indonesia (2007)Egypt
European Union (under study)
New Zealand
South Africa (under study)
USA (under study; negotiations begin mid-2009)

In the case of the Philippines, a joint committee had recommended in 2003 the possibility of an FTA between Japan and the Philippines. The Japanese said that such an agreement would promote plant breeders' rights. Filipinos said it would promote farmers' rights. Japan responded that whatever rights farmers have should be UPOV-compliant.

After all, the agreement they signed in September 2006 says very little about this. [5] It only refers that Manila must commit to offer some kind of system of rights on plant varieties and to extend it to as many species as possible, taking into account the commercial interests of Japan. It does not cause much harm but it is not harmless either.

Opening the doors to UPOV

All of this changed in 2007. Now Japan is explicitly dragging developing countries into UPOV, in the grip of FTAs, and even trying to change the scope of other countries' patent laws so that Japanese companies have stronger rights over biological diversity.

Earlier this year, the Thai military government's decision to sign an FTA with Japan sparked a heated public debate. [6] The agreement between the two countries had been negotiated during the Thaksin regime, but when the military staged a coup in September 2006, all negotiations with Thailand on trade agreements stopped, largely because neither government he wanted to expose himself to appear to accept the military regime.

However, due to pressure from Japanese companies - through their Chamber of Commerce - and probably to show that martial law was not really that bad, the Thai military chose to pick up what Thaksin had left and sign themselves. the Japanese treaty. At first, public opinion was against the many aspects of the treaty, but in the end the controversy centered on two central issues, one of which was the patenting of microorganisms. The treaty states that Thailand will not be allowed to reject patent applications just because they involve a “naturally occurring” microorganism. [7] In a world in which national sovereignty over biological resources is enshrined in international law and where Japan has been repeatedly accused of "biopiracy", this provision has upset several Thai groups, including the Rights Commission. Humans. Despite this, the generals remained immovable. In addition, with the FTA signed in early April, they committed Thailand to comply with "international standards" for the protection of plant varieties. Again this is speaking in UPOV code, even though Thailand's plant variety protection law does not comply with UPOV regulations.

A few months later, in mid-August 2007, Chilean President Bachelet signed a similar FTA with Japan. It was the first Japanese free trade agreement specifically imposed by UPOV on its trading partner. Although Chile has been a member of UPOV since 1996, this FTA commits the government to bring its national law on plant varieties to the levels of UPOV-1991, the latest version of the Convention. UPOV-1991 does not allow farmers to save and exchange seeds harvested from plants that are subject to plant variety protection. Although it is true that Chile has signed similar agreements with the United States and the European Free Trade Association, this is the first time that Japan has succeeded in imposing on another country the entry into the UPOV system, which threatens farmers and the practice of saving seeds. [8]

Before the ink on the treaty with Chile had dried, Japanese Prime Minister Abe and Indonesian President Yudhoyono jointly signed their own bilateral FTA in Jakarta. Now Indonesia, like Chile, has agreed to comply with UPOV and to make every effort to join the Union. If this happens, 165 million Indonesian farmers will increasingly be forced to buy their seeds - which is, of course, what it is all about. The privatization of biodiversity through these FTAs, with their rigid rules on intellectual property, means turning as many farmers as possible into captive customers of a company-controlled seed supply. Worse still, violations - such as sharing, without a license, seeds that were saved or selected from "protected" varieties, is cause for criminal prosecution.

The overview

The United States and Europe are no longer the only "bad guys" pushing farmers into a bleak new scenario where giant companies control seeds, perpetual royalties must be paid, and rural autonomy and culture are buried. [9] Japan, home to one of the world's top ten seed conglomerates, has joined the league (see Table 2). The Abe government is in a frenzy to sign more FTAs ​​in the coming months: with India, Vietnam and the asean as a whole. As precedents have already been set in Jakarta and Santiago, what can be expected is that the Japanese will pressure those countries to join UPOV.

Table 2: The 10 largest seed companies in the world (2006) *

Company2006 seed sales in millions of dollars
1. Monsanto (usa)$4,028
2. Dupont (usa)$2,781
3. Syngenta (Switzerland)$1,743
4. Groupe Limagrain (France)$1,035
5. Land O ’Lakes (USA)$756
6. KWS AG (Germany)$615
7. Bayer Crop Science (Germany)$430
8. Delta & Pine Land (usa) (pending acquisition by Monsanto)$418
9. Sakata (Japan)$401
10. dlf-Trifolium (Denmark)$352

Source: ETC Group, based on 2006 seed revenue.

* In 2005, two Japanese companies made the top 10 list: Sakata (in 7th place) and Taikii (in 9th place). According to the International Seed Federation, in 2005 Japan was the 12th largest seed exporter in the world.

However, this is not just about Japanese interests. The old world order in which "the North" is the villain and "the South" is the victim hardly makes any sense now. It is even increasingly impossible to distinguish between the interests of the State and those of the companies in all these schemes and operations. Malaysian plantation barons like Sime Darby or rapidly expanding Thai groups like Charoen Pokphand (CP) surely weren't crying over their governments' FTAs ​​with Japan.

As Witoon Lianchamroon, Director of Biothai put it: “It is clear that CP needs the UPOV system, just like Japan. CP tried to impose UPOV for years before the JTEPA (Japan-Thailand Economic Partnership Agreement) negotiations began. We even had difficulties with the JTEPA negotiators because they often preferred to use the CP position rather than that of the Thai farmers. " [10] In Indonesia, companies such as PT Fitotek and East West Seed have long been lobbying the government to adopt strong monopoly laws on vegetables, similar to UPOV. [11] Like other transnational corporations in Asia and Latin America, they too gain a lot from privatizing biodiversity through these trade agreements. After all, around 70 percent of the world's farmers still save their seeds year after year. That represents a lot of people that need to be converted into paying customers.

The noose of intellectual property tight around seeds, medicinal plants, microorganisms and even traditional knowledge will only boost the profits of large companies that control the global trade in basic products. It is not the farmers who should be criminalized for saving the seeds, but those companies for enforcing such terrible laws.


1. In the late 1990s, the Japanese cosmetics transnational Shiseido filed European patent applications on eleven different compounds of traditional Indonesian medicinal plants or Jamu. After strong protests from Indonesian groups, such as the BioTani Foundation / pan Indonesia, Shiseido withdrew the patents in 2002. See Y . For information on the case of cupuaçú, a fruit from the Amazon patented by the Kyoto-based food company Asahi Foods Company Ltd, see .

2. UPOV is the acronym for the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). It is a group of countries that adhere to the UPOV Convention, a common set of principles to legislate the protection of plant varieties. A type of seed patent system in which users of “protected” vegetables have to pay royalties to their “owners”. Since plants reproduce naturally among themselves, the UPOV Convention prevents farmers from saving seeds of “protected” varieties - except under certain conditions - to ensure the payment of royalties each growing season.

3. In Annex 4 of the treaty, Malaysia reserved the right to adopt or maintain measures related to biological diversity as regards the principle of national treatment. In other words, the commitment to treat Japanese investors the same as Malaysians is subject to limitations when it comes to research involving Malaysian biological resources.

4. The annexes to the FTA between Japan and Malaysia go as far as to say that Japan can retain the privileges of Malaysian breeders who wish to obtain monopoly rights over their plant varieties in Japan until and to the extent that Malaysia further aligns its variety protection laws. vegetables with those of Japan. This is a type of bait to push Malaysia into UPOV, although it is debatable how many Malaysian agribusinesses are eager to obtain plant variety protection rights in Japan. Currently it is rather the opposite.

5. The Philippines, however, is in the process of joining UPOV. In 2006, it presented its plant variety protection law to the UPOV Council for inspection, and the UPOV Council ruled that if the country wishes to adhere, it must amend the law.

6. View fta Watch ( ) and ( )

7. Many social groups around the world have been denounced free trade agreements for being “trips-plus”, that is, they go beyond the WTO agreements on Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights (trips , for its acronym in English). But this demand of the Japanese was perversely a trips-minus! With a patent law you cannot patent a microorganism that is naturally present, not even with thrips. At least that's what the biotech industry always says.

8. The European Free Trade Association (efta) is made up of Liechtenstein, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.

9. In Grain: A comprehensive record of industrial powers pushing for stricter intellectual property rights laws on biological diversity can be found in developing countries through bilateral channels.

10. Personal communication, August 25, 2007. The common name of the free trade agreement is the Japan-Thailand Economic Partnership Agreement (jtepa).

11. Riza V Tjahjadi, BioTani Foundation Indonesia, personal communication, August 23, 2007.

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