Rethinking genetic resources for food and agriculture

ARC Australian Laureate Fellowship

Much of the work on intellectual property, access to genetic resources, and traditional knowledge has attended to the incommensurability of intellectual property and local practice. Undoubtedly, this focus has helped to highlight important substantive differences in the ways that different peoples understand value, access, exchange, and ownership—just as it has helped bring attention to the often-problematic ways that local practices have been translated and enrolled into property frameworks already shaped by contemporary models of intellectual property. It has highlighted the tensions that exist between international agreements, (eg, treaties governing biodiversity and intellectual property rights), national laws (eg, frameworks for biodiscovery, plant variety protection, and seed certification), and local and Indigenous practices of biodiversity management and agriculture (eg, conventional plant breeding, and customary seed saving and sharing between and among farmers).

This project considers how an insistence on radical incommensurability between intellectual property and ‘other ways of being’ might elide points of connection in the ways that different social actors construct ideas about ownership or advance claims to important resources. In other words, what conceptual, political, or legal possibilities might arise if neither commensurability nor incommensurability were assumed? If instead of convenient alignments or absolute difference attention were given to points of connection and disconnection in the ways that different actors regulate and negotiate claims to biological resources?  Drawing on these ideas, we hope to better understand, frame, and investigate the contingency of local and Indigenous practices—their histories and transformations—and how those practices interact with global and national governance of intellectual property and biodiversity. This will be done by looking at a series of specific case studies that highlight these issues. Initially, we will focus on the Kakadu plum in Northern Territory and wild rice in North Queensland. This will be expanded to include other native varieties such as wild sorghum and banana. Ultimately, the hope is to move beyond dichotomous thinking, to reconceptualise issues of access to and use of genetic resources in a manner that might promote food security, diffuse agricultural innovations, and ensure protection of the interests of both providers and users of resources and associated knowledge.