Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

The Future Control of Food - A book launch and discussion with Geoff Tansey

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:15


Geoff Tansey - co-editor and Joseph Rowntree Visionary for a Just and Peaceful World


Steve Wiggins - Research Fellow, Protected Livelihoods and Agricultural Growth (PLAG) programme, ODI


Andrew Shepherd - Director of Programmes, Rural Policy and Governance Group (RPGG), ODI

Geoff Tansey opened the meeting with a brief introduction as to how the book came about, namely as a result of the actions of the British Quakers in the 1990’s responding to concerns about biodiversity and the issues raised at the Rio Earth Summit 1992. The British Quakers decided to use their experience in conflict resolution and mediation to look at likely areas of future conflict including genetic resources. Work started in the UK, before moving to Geneva where the Quaker Head Office is based. The concerns of the Quakers were that short-term solutions were arising due to power imbalances between the parties making agreements.   

1.         The Quaker International Affairs Programme (2000) started looking at Intellectual Property (IP) because of the crucial role it plays in so many different areas:

  • Underpins
    • ‘knowledge economy’
    • media & entertainment, software
    • pharmaceuticals / biotechnology
    • brand power
  • Means to
    • Exclude others, capture and appropriate benefits

2.         IPs typically drive-up costs and reduce competition by giving power to those who can afford to defend their patent. With regards to food, four key elements are:

  • Power
  • Control
  • Risks
  • Benefits

3.         Linking developments in IP to developments within food production systems, Geoff argued that “it is not farmers, workers, consumers or citizens that are setting the direction of change”. There are huge struggles in the US between large and small players with regards to intellectual property rights (IPRs) and new life forms. In the 1980’s patentrights were expanded to include plants, micro-organisms and animals, thus underpinning the commercial direction and push of genetic engineering.

4.         IP is always about National economic interests. There is debate over how far the IPRs assists developing countries. TRIPS at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) goes back to the 60’s and 70’s when developing countries tried to rewrite the rules on patents and failed, and as industries began to recognize their need for  a new set of global IP rules.

5.         IP rules have impacted on negotiations in other fields such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD):

  • Safeguarding biodiversity
    • conserve, sustain, share benefits
    • Access and benefit sharing regime?
  • Biosafety Protocol
    • Living Modified Organisms (LMOs)
    • Labelling?
    • Liability and redress?

6.         The most contention surrounds labeling and liability issues and is still to be clarified 4 years on. The final treaty dealt with in the book is on planned genetic resources for food and agriculture. The CBD didn’t recognize agricultural biodiversity as being different from the rest of biodiversity in that it is created by human activity and requires knowledge of development of crops and animals. Tasmin Rajotte, co-editor (Quaker International Affairs Programme) aimed to pull together in chapter 7 how the different strands of the IP architecture come together. The negotiations web includes:

    • Forum shifting
    • Harmonization vs. differentiation
    • Disclosure of origin

7.         There is now a complex international regime with which results in hugely different capacities to negotiate.  Under-representation of developing countries at discussions, compared to dozens of representatives from industrialized countries, resulting in a skewed system.

8.         There are also major concerns over how IPRs change the motives for research and development; access to research, copyright and freedom to operate of researchers. Geoff presented some key points that he has picked up from negotiations:

  • NGOs can make a difference
    • Access to medicine experience
    • Networking, targeted support
  • Principles / people matter
  • Negotiating vs. real gains

9.         There is a democratic deficit in the interests of poor developing countries. There is a use of complexity in order to obscure difficult issues.

Where are we going with IPs?

    • Open access?
    • Distributed innovation?
    • Ecologically supportive?
    • or the pharmaceutical model?

Questions and Answers

Steve Wigginsbegan his discussion from an economist’s point of view;

  • What do economists think about IPR’s? Economists view IPRs as a mean by which to allocate property rights in order to obtain an economically efficient outcome. However, there are two problems with this: zero transaction costs are assumed; who has the power in allocating rents?
  • What about rents to corporates? Real cost of seed to UK farmers have actually dropped, share of seed costs as a proportion of total variable costs has also dropped.  This shows that corporate power doesn’t necessarily lead to anti-competitive practices.
  • How did we move away from public sector research in agriculture? The last 40 years in agricultural research has resulted in innovations being freely available. Why have we moved away from this situation?
  • What do you see as the benefits for developing countries of the enforcement or protection of IPRe.g. plants being used to make diet pills in Namibia? There are different studies referencing the impact of plant variety protection, many suggesting it has not delivered what it promised in terms of innovation; the traits which are being selected are too narrow, so this tends to form the direction of the research. Broadening these margins brings enhanced yields and increased returns to the farmers. Agriculture is local it depends where you are and what circumstances you are in. Flexible approaches are needed. IP in some cases facilitates a ‘global taxation’, e.g. Software companies amass their fortunes purely because of IP. IP is completely useless without the facilities to defend it and forms only part of a bigger game of market dominance.
  • What are your predictions for the future control of food and increases in food prices? If there is, as we predict, a greater element of control in the future, the ability to influence pricing will be greater. There are concerns about the direction this is heading. The biofuels side of this might be relevant because genetically engineered new products will be patent protected. There are concerns about narrowing the gene pool and the use of extremely small breeding lines, especially within poultry.
  • How can we get more attention paid to the situations of the world’s poorest farmers?  It is ministers who drive the agenda; they in turn are hugely responsive to their post bags and NGO interests.  We need to keep up the pressure on political figures in order to get them to focus on this. GT: Often negotiators have no exposure to the ‘grass roots’ i.e. the farmers they are affecting.


The Future Control of Food - A Guide to International Negotiations and Rules on Intellectual Property, Biodiversity and Food Security, edited by Geoff Tansey and Tasmin Rajotte is the first wide-ranging guide to the key issues of intellectual property and ownership, genetics, biodiversity and food security. Providing an introduction to and overview of the issues, it also includes a comprehensive analysis of negotiations and instruments in the World Trade Organization, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants and various other international bodies, as well as a discussion of the responses of civil society groups to the changing global rules, how these changes affect the direction of research and development, the nature of global negotiation processes and various alternative futures.

At this ODI and Earthscan event, Geoff Tansey, co-editor of the book, will present the main findings and Steve Wiggins of ODI will add his comments.

Geoff Tansey is a researcher and writer on intellectual property, food and agriculture and a Joseph Rowntree Visionary for a Just and Peaceful World. He is lead author of The Food System (1995) and co-editor of The Meat Business (1999) and Negotiating Health (2005).