Dr Susannah Chapman explores historical precedents to IP in food security


Dr Susannah Chapman
Dr Susannah Chapman

Dr Susannah Chapman, a Research Fellow at UQ, joined the TC Beirne School of Law in 2016 as part of an ARC Laureate Fellowship awarded to Professor Brad Sherman, Harnessing Intellectual Property to Build Food Security. In addition to Dr Chapman and Professor Sherman, the project also involves three research fellows and four PhD students.

After completing her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Georgia – where her dissertation dealt with the IP around food and agriculture – Dr Chapman was attracted to the UQ and the ARC Laureate program due to the diverse, interdisciplinary scope of its research. Her first research project, Intellectual Properties, Colonial Encounters, and Legal Harmonisation in The Gambia, is an extension of themes explored throughout her PhD and is due to conclude in the coming months with the prospect of a book proposal.

Dr Chapman’s interest in how historical precedents in intellectual property law translate into new social contexts saw her spend two years in The Gambia in West Africa, investigating colonial seed laws and their implications for contemporary thinking. Her research in this area has continued since her appointment at UQ, having recently undertaken archival research in London.

Dr Chapman said one of the most exciting findings to date was a recent one, involving a governor in 1930s Gambia who recognised the need to address why several official agricultural policies were failing.

“The governor deemed it necessary to implement more formal agricultural laws but that required a bigger shift to how the colony worked, and it was the push for these laws that became the key to the British efforts to entrench decentralised rule,” Dr Chapman said.

The desire to regulate the distribution of commercially-important crop germplasm came to be seen as possible only under a slightly different structure of governing people. So for the British colonial government, rather than continuing to try to create policies in which colonial commissioners carried out seed distribution schemes directly with Gambian farmers, it was deemed desirable to create a structure of governance where seed distribution could be planned, carried out, and enforced at the local level, supposedly by local Gambian authorities (who nonetheless were often chosen by the colonial government).

This led the colonial government to take the model of decentralised rule they had been using and amplify it: with these changes, they reorganised the court system and the local executive bodies supposedly to put more power in the hands of Gambian authorities to create and adjudicate law.

However, the power of the colonial government was there—in some sense it was more pervasive—but it was just more distant.

“This shift was seen as necessary in order to achieve these ends around seeds,” Dr Chapman said.

Dr Chapman’s research continues to explore what IP could be, particularly the importance in drafting country specific laws that consider cultural needs, local conditions, and evolving diversities.

In the case of Gambian laws, this kind of research can teach us what IP can be by taking learnings of failed attempts at fitting translations of local practice into law when there is not a collaborative process between different actors, such as policy makers and farmers.

Investigating IP expands the realm of what is possible. It opens up different ways to think about future possibility, and it is this, according to Dr Chapman, that led to a more holistic approach to IP law – of what the law could be.

The significance of this research demonstrates how global interconnections have come to shape contemporary deliberations over IP extension into new territories.

“In my work on The Gambia, one of the big themes I deal with is how the plant collections and plant breeding practices that went on within the British Empire shaped broader ideas about creative agency and expertise in the development of new crop varieties,” Dr Chapman said.

“Similarly, I also explore how practices of attribution among these early plant researchers and government officials have come to influence ideas about individual and collective innovation in discussions about indigenous and farmers’ rights under intellectual property law.”

For Dr Chapman, the most rewarding part of her research is speaking to experts in the field.

“I’ve worked with agriculturists, farmers, historians, plant breeders and encountered such a diversity of skilled people who’ve displayed incredible support and kindness to help me complete this research,” Dr Chapman said.

With her Gambia-specific project entering its final stages, Dr Chapman’s research focus will shift towards a local example of the contemporary relevance of IP investigation, with a particular focus on the risk sharing royalty structure, ‘end-point’ which applies to Calypso mangoes. In the end-point royalty structure, growers pay royalties on a percentage of the sale of the harvested material rather than up front at the purchase of the planting material.

“My second research project with Calypso mangoes is in its formative phase with background research underway and the goal of entering into the interviewing phase over the coming months,” Dr Chapman said.

At the TC Beirne School of Law, Dr Chapman works alongside five Research Fellows who specialise in the role of intellectual property in relation to food security, including its relationship with trademark law, biodiscovery laws, and livestock breeding.

Last updated:
28 April 2017