THE Senate on Friday passed the Bill providing for the protection of Jamaica's plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.
The Bill, short-titled the Protection of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture Act, gives effect to Government's decision to enact legislation to facilitate the country's compliance with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which was approved by the United Nations in November 2003, and came into force the following year. Jamaica became a signatory in 2006.
The treaty, popularly known as the International Seed Treaty, is a comprehensive international agreement in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity. It aims at guaranteeing food security through the conservation, exchange and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from its use.
It also recognises the right of farmers to freely access genetic resources unrestricted by intellectual property rights; to be involved in relevant policy discussions and decision-making; and to use, save, sell and exchange seeds, subject to national laws.
The Bill was passed in the House of Representatives without much fanfare in October 2012, after being tabled by Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Roger Clarke.
On Friday, Opposition Senator Marlene Malahoo-Forte said the length of time between the country's signing onto the international agreement and passing the accompanying domestic legislation was too long.
"I am not saying this as a criticism, but as an observation, particularly because I had the burden of having to address Jamaica's compliance with its international obligations and the consequences that flow when contracting parties enter into agreements and fail to take the necessary steps to ensure compliance... I believe that, as a Parliament, we should seek to minimise the time gaps between accession to an agreement and the enactment (of the law)," she urged.
She said that once a country accedes to an international agreement, "its citizens have a legitimate expectation to enjoy the benefits and share the burdens provided for in that international agreement". But, she added, the Bill fell short in its provisions and will not allow Jamaicans to enjoy the full benefits of the treaty.
"When I look at what is provided for in the treaty, and what is provided for in the Bill, I conclude that we have fallen short in the scope, in ensuring that our citizens will enjoy fully the benefits to be derived from the treaty," she said.
She suggested that there was a need to look at other mechanisms for enforcement, other than just criminal penalty for unlawful access to the listed machinery. She also had concerns about the financial implications, including the resources available to carry out the provisions of the Bill.
Responding to the points raised in the debate, Minister of Justice, Senator Mark Golding, who piloted the measure, said the Bill was not designed to incorporate the treaty conventions into local law, but to provide a set of rights and obligations that operate at the international level.
"The main focus is that in order to deal and transact in research on the products listed in the Bill, one has to do so by way of a standard material transfer agreement, and the form of that agreement is set out in the second schedule. If one does not proceed in that way, one is not going to be compliant with the Bill, and there is a criminal sanction for contravening sub-section three," he explained.
He said that the standard material transfer agreement was the legal mechanism through which transactions involving the research of the products will be dealt with. Otherwise, the criminal offence could be enforced by an injunction, as it is a statutory prohibition enforceable by way of an injunction.