Forum Bioethik

Food, Plant Biotechnology and Ethics in Colombia *

Genoveva Keyeux (Colombia/Colombie), Directeur/Director, Molecular Genetics Unit, Jave-
riana University/ Unité de génétique moléculaire, Université Javeriana

Historical Background

Colombia, as one of the members of the Pacto Andino (the Andean Pact, including Ecuador,
Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia), has had a leadership position in regard to the bio-
technological legislation in the field of agronomy, mainly due to its historical development
of coffee and flower exportations, which puts it at the top of the world producers in these
two lines.

Up to the 1950s, most of the `improved seeds´ were imported by the Colombian Government,
but in 1953, the Agricultural Ministry promoted the reproduction, selection and distribution of
seeds from these improved varieties through national institutions. At the same time, research
and development of new varieties war supported by national investment. Financial credit was
given to farmers who used certified improved seeds, according to the guidelines imposed by a
Monetary Committee in 1966, and the certification was put under the control of the National 
Agronomy Institute (ICA). The number of acres sown with certified seeds doubled from 1968
to 1982, and the importation of foreign seeds was significantly reduced, due to the increasing
production of national high quality seeds. In 1992, the ICA created the national registry for
producers, importing, exporting and distributors of seeds. To date more than 350 varieties and
hybrids are recorded, from which some 120 are commercially available. Moreover, some of the 
new varieties developed in Colombia are currently used in the Pacto Andino and Central
American countries, as for instance rice. Increasingly, more private resources are added to 
those of the government and suvervised by the ICA. In 1994, 72 enterprises were registered,
three of which are multinationals with only foreign capital and 49 are Colombian private

The need to develop an agreement on the protection of the obtaining of new plant varieties
became evident when the foreign breeders negotiated new materials with the Colombian
flower producers in the mid-seventies. In 1991, the United States representative of the Trade
Department and the Secretary General of UPOV put pressure on the Colombian Ministry of
Agriculture to prepare a law on the protection of the intellectual ownership on phytogenetic
Inventions and biodiversity and biosecurity. A large debate was held between patents and
Negotiation strategies, and it was stated that the laws should "promote the private genetic
research and help clarify the relationship between farmers and national of foreign seed

One year later, the Commission of the Andean Treaty adopted Decision 331 concerning a
general sub-regional protection system for plant varieties. Due to its different conditions
of development and debate in the Andean countries, the Colombian national law proposal
was later adopted with some modifications by the Andean Treaty countries as the definitive
Decision 345 at the end of 1993. The Decision establishes a common regime for protection
of the rights of plant varieties inventors  (DOV: Derechos de Obtentores de Variedades

The enforcement extend to all varieties of cultivated botanical species, and it specifies
that plant species that have not been planted or improved by man are not included in the
enforcement of this law. Its aim is, therefore, to protect the inventor´s rights, to promote
genetic research in the Andean countries, and to promote technological transfer in the

Bioethical Debate

1. An important question that was raised mainly by academics, some non-governmental
organisations and the Indian communities was the effect that such a law on protection of
plan inventions could have on biodiversity. Both the 1992 `Rio Convention´ as well as
the Colombian 1991 Constitution clearly state the "nation´s sovereignty over its genetic
resources". Therefore, the ownership by third parties of intellectual property on engineered
plants derived from native plants has been severely criticised.

Another controversal point related to biodiversity comes contrasting opinions by specialists.
On one side, people think that plants should not be exported for research and/or improve-
ment or another sort of commercial exploitation. This position should favour local policies
of development and technological transfer to he countries where the plants of interest are
found. But, on the other side, people think that, due to the risk that some interesting plants
could disappear under the pressure of colonisation of new land areas or their misuse, it is
preferable to export plants to the centres where research could be achieved before it is too
late. This view is also supported on the basis that many plants grow better in area other than
its original one, and there should exist, therefore, a free exchange of plant species across
the world, as has occurred in the past centuries, when this protection law on biodiversity
did not exist.

The content of the decision has been the subject of another type of objection, since it
includes a definition which has great importance in the discussion on biodiversity. "For
the purpose of the present Decision, to `create´ means the invention of a new variety by means 
of the use of scientific knowledge in the heritable improvement of plants". The discussion
turns around the qualification of  `scientific´ versus `traditonal´ knowledge,  especially
in those countries like Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, where Indians, and to some
extent Mestizo farmers, hold a deep traditional knowledge of nature, especially of plants,
and have over centuries practised plant improvement through breeding and selection (at
the time of the Spanish Conquest, the Incas had developed over 200 potato varieties).

2. The Colombian flower growers complain ot the conditions imposed on them by the 
flower stem producers. Although Colombia is the second largest flower exporter in the
world, the contracts with the flower stem producers, which are mainly European and North
American, are very restrictive: no local propagation is allowed, and the cost of bonuses is
as high as 20-40%, much higher than the usual tax on other member countries of UPOV
that are also producers. Moreover, the improvements that local growers achieve on imported
flower stems are a property of the owners of the flower stems, due to the inclusion in the 
Decision 345 of the `essentially derived varieties´.This topic on essentially derived plant
varieties raised doubts and questions in general in all the engaged parties, as well as in the
scientific community.

In the case of sorghum, the centres of distribution of germplasmas are based on those in the
United States of America (for example, Texas University). Local companies are allowed to
test the varieties for selection of the best ones, and have the first option for commercialising 
these. Nevertheless, the starting material remains the property of the United States centres and
the local companies will have to pay the corresponding bonus (royalties) to them. In some
sectors the perception is that foreign companies are not very much interested in developing
new varieties in Colombia or elsewhere in Latin American countries; they prefer to export
the improvements that have been developed in their mother-houses.

3. The use of  `landraces´ is a very sensitive one in countries with a high biodiversity as the
tropical countries. The problem is not only international, since some national companies
operate under the same philosophy: why should the community or individual who is a
source or obtain a variety be rewarded for it? In the area of ornamental plants, a few examples
exist where native Andean flowers have been improved by North American companies and
now have to be brought to these companies to be cultured in their native countries.

Conversely, one example of a concerted effort of collecting varieties all over the world is the
CIAT (Centro Internacional de Agronomia Tropical) close to Cali (Colombia) together with
the Embrapa (Brazil), where the yucca (manioc) germplasm is the biggest in the world and is 
a source of genes for development of new varieties, hopefully better adapted to local climatic 

* Source: F. Moreno, M.F. Rueda, R. Alvarado, Impacto de la Legislación sobre Derechos 
de Obtenciones Vegetales en Colombia, Technos, Fundación Andina para el Dessarrollo
Technológico, 1994.

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