FOCUS: BIO-PIRACY - A thousand different groups will join in the world's biggest protest this week. What are they so upset about?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Application No 06090836 at the Japanese Patent Office looks, at first sight, like a hoax. But it is serious enough - an, admittedly extreme, example of an alarming new trend. The patent, taken out by a firm called The House Foods Corporation, is for curry. Yes, ordinary curry as cooked by hundreds of millions of people in India, not to speak of countless high-street takeaways.

The recipe (below) spells out how the company's representatives - Hirayama Makoto and Ohashi Sachiyo - describe it in their application. Madhur Jaffrey would no doubt have put it better, but scarcely more succinctly.

The application may or may not be granted, though the Indian government takes it seriously enough to describe it as "a matter of concern".

But almost as outrageous are attempts by companies to acquire the rights for a whole range of traditional Third World foods and medicines which have already been sanctioned by rich-world patent authorities.

This "bio-piracy" is one of a complex of issues that is expected to bring more than 100,000 people on to the streets of Seattle this weekend in the biggest protest in America since the Vietnam war. And there are plans for other demonstrations - by an unprecedentedly large coalition of more than 1,000 groups of farmers, fisherfolk, environmentalists, aid agencies and other pressure groups - around the world on Tuesday, when a key conference opens to decide the future of world trade.

The protesters say it is just one example of how a new trading system - harshly enforced by the secretive but immensely powerful World Trade Organisation (WTO) - promotes the interests of big business over those of ordinary people. They say it is deepening poverty, threatening public health and damaging the environment worldwide.

They will be trying, along with many developing countries, to stop the world's governments meeting in Seattle from launching a new round of negotiations which would extend the system - and the powers of the WTO - even further. They have already made so much headway that, sensing disaster, world leaders - including Tony Blair, the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, and Japanese Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi - have so far resisted intense pressure from President Clinton to join him at the talks.

Concern is spreading that the bio-piracy issue is only one symptom of a trading system out of control. And it is not just developing countries that are alarmed. Their anxieties are shared in the United Nations, the World Bank and even by ministers in some rich countries. Jean Glavany, the French agriculture minister, says: "We have to change the WTO so that it respects people's cultural choices, does not destroy the world's peasantry, and guarantees fair trade for all." And in the UK, the Environment minister Michael Meacher described the agreement that set up the system as a "stitch- up" to a House of Commons committee.

Trade, of course, is vital to world prosperity, and can do much to relieve the plight of the poor. This week's talks could start to transform the system so that it reduces world poverty and helps protect the environment. British ministers, to their credit, generally want to see that happen. But it is more likely that the agenda will effectively be set by the multinational companies and rich world governments at the expense of both.

The present system, set up in 1994 after seven years of talks (the so- called Uruguay round), liberalised world trade more than ever before and set up the WTO. This succeeded the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which, since 1947, had gradually opened world markets and presided over a 12- fold increase in commerce.

Unlike its predecessor, the WTO was given tough powers to enforce the agreement. It can make legally binding judgments when it believes the rules have been broken, and can authorise punitive sanctions against any offenders. Developing countries went along with the new system, believing assurances that they would benefit greatly as trade was liberalised and barriers against exports to the industrialised world came down. Many now feel betrayed.

By one authoritative UN calculation, world trade is expected to grow by between $200bn and $500bn by 2004 as a result of the Uruguay round agreement. But almost three-quarters of this will go to already wealthy countries, though some relatively rich Third World countries will benefit, especially in Asia. Africa is expected to become $1.2bn a year worse off. Over the last 10 years, the world's poorest countries have seen their share of global exports fall by half, to a tiny 0.4 per cent.

Much of the problem is that while rich countries are insisting the poor ones open up their markets to multinational companies, they are not doing enough to bring down the barriers around their own markets. Developing countries, the US admits, are losing up to $700bn a year in export earnings as a result. And even if industrialised countries fulfilled all their promises under the Uruguay round, their tariffs against goods from the poorest countries would still be 30 per cent higher than those against goods from other rich nations.

And, so far, they are not even implementing their promises. They agreed, for example, progressively to remove tariffs from a third of textile imports from developing countries over seven years. So far, with about three-quarters of that time gone, only a measly 5 per cent of the developing countries' total exports have been freed.

It is even worse in agriculture. Each farmer in Europe, Japan or the United States, receives on average $20,000 a year in government subsidies - compared to an average total per capita income of $228 in the world's poorest countries. The rich countries promised to reduce these subsidies but have so far failed to do so. Instead they dump the surplus food in poor countries, driving poor farmers out of business.

Meanwhile the WTO has struck down a 20-year-old EU scheme which helps small West Indian banana growers. It did so at the behest of the US, which grows no bananas but has big multinational fruit companies, one of which gave money to Clinton's Democrat party.

The WTO's green record is just as bad. Friends of the Earth says that whenever there has been a clash between green and trade issues, it has not once decided in favour of the environment. Last year, for example, it ruled that the EU could not ban beef fed on hormones, even though it feared that this could cause cancer.

The US is also pressing for GM foods to be on the Seattle agenda, and environmentalists fear that the WTO could be used to stop governments either banning or labelling them.

Just as bad, international environmental treaties - such as those protecting the ozone layer and controlling trade in hazardous waste and endangered wildlife - could well be overridden by WTO rules. Though this has not yet happened, the WTO itself admits that fear of what it might do has stopped other treaties being concluded, such as one to regulate trade in genetically modified products.

Britain is going to Seattle pledged to press for the greening of the WTO. Ministers talk about how eventually the trade talks could produce an agreement that could help the world's poorest people, protect the environment and force reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

But, when pressed, they admit that this is "a tall order". They believe that the best chance of a happy outcome lies in the desire of the EU, Japan and the US to different extents to extend the scope of the talks and the powers of the WTO. This, they say, will put plenty of issues on the table so as to enable a beneficial bargain to be struck.

The protesters and many developing countries profoundly disagree, saying that neither the system nor the WTO's powers should be extended until reforms have been put in place. It is going to be a hard-fought week, and even that will be only a curtain- raiser for some of the most acrimonious international negotiations ever to be undertaken.