Forget the Oscars. Go and see – if you can find it – Fire in the Blood – a new film released this weekend in the UK that was an official selection for the Sundance Film festival.
It is not about food but it holds lessons for our food future. The makers say the film is “An intricate tale of ‘medicine, monopoly and malice’” that ,”tells the story of how Western pharmaceutical companies and governments aggressively blocked access to low-cost AIDS drugs for the countries of Africa and the global south in the years after 1996 – causing ten million or more unnecessary deaths – and the improbable group of people who decided to fight back.”
When you do see it, think about how this experience of lack of access, rules on patents and corporate power interact. This brand based, pharma model for research and development, controlling access and keeping prices high is the kind of model being pushed deeper and deeper into the base of the food system.
This is happening through the way R&D on seeds is developing in corporate hands and the extension of patent and plant variety protection rules. These latter were initially spread through the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) in the World Trade Organisation, which are briefly covered towards the end of the film, as their biggest impact to date has been on access to medicines. Since TRIPS was established, the rules are being strengthened via many bilateral trade deals and investment treaties. There’s a lot more detail about this in The Future Control of Food – A Guide to International Negotiations and Rules on Intellectual Property, Biodiversity and Food Security.
The restrictions on access are reinforced by technology-agreement-protected genetically engineered, and now even normally breed, seeds in some places, which are being developed, promoted and controlled by a similar few companies. The trend is at its most extreme in the USA where “seed prices have risen dramatically in those crops in which patented GE varieties are now predominant, such as corn, soybean and cotton”, according to a recent report, “Seed giants vs U.S. farmers”
But this trend it is not just about seeds, or medicines, but knowledge and anything that comes under the expanding intellectual property regime. For farming, the original dispersed, open access system of innovation, the pharma model not is not appropriate, for a fair and sustainable food future. We should learn some lessons from medicine and not go down that route. Indeed, a new model is needed for Pharma too.