Farmers' right to use their own seeds protected by treaty

Posted: 7 April 2004

The advent of genetically engineered patented plants has resulted in an international treaty to protect the rights of farmers to save, use, exchange and sell seeds and cuttings produced on their farms.

The treaty, known as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, is aimed at providing protection for farmers who otherwise might be forced to buy each season's seed anew from the owner of a patented crop. It is set to become legally binding on June 29, 2004, now that the minimum of 40 countries have ratified it.

wheat varieties
wheat varieties
Samples of wheat varieties. Genetic diversity is the basis for food production in all countries of the world.© FAO

To date, 48 countries have signed up to the treaty with Egypt, 11 European countries, and the European Community as a member organization, recently ratifing the Treaty on March 31 (2004), triggering the 90-day countdown to the Treaty's entry into force.

"This is a legally binding treaty that will be crucial for the sustainability of agriculture," said FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf. "The treaty is an important contribution to the achievement of the World Food Summit's major objective of halving the number of hungry people by 2015."

On every continent except South America, some of the countries with the greatest plant biodiversity have ratified the treaty, including India, Syria, the Central African Republic, the European Union, Canada, and El Salvador.

For farmers such a level of protection is literally a matter of life and death. Dr Vandana Shiva, the renowned Indian physicist and environmental activist wrote in April 2003, "that the independent farmer is struggling to survive against immeasurably difficult odds is borne out by the number of suicides by farmers throughout the country. By 2000, more than 20,000 farmers from all over the country had fallen victim to the high costs of production, spurious seed, crop loss, falling farm prices, and rising debt."

There has been a shift from "food first" to "trade first" and "farmer first" to "corporation first" policies, says Shiva who is particularly concerned about the effects of globalisation and trade liberalisation on the local farmers.

"There has been a shift from diversity and multifunctionality of agriculture to monocultures and standardisation, chemical and capital intensification of production, and deregulation of the input sector, especially seeds," she says.

Genetic erosion

Despite the efforts of farmers, there has been a dramatic reduction of biodiversity. Since the beginning of agriculture, around 10,000 species have been used in food and fodder production. Today just 150 crops feed most human beings and just 12 crops provide 80 per cent of food energy - wheat, rice, maize and potato alone provide 60 per cent.

"Years of multilateral negotiations under the auspices of FAO's Intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture have finally been successful," said José Esquinas-Alcázar, Secretary of the Commission.

Farmers' rights are protected under the agreement which recognizes "the enormous contribution that the local and indigenous communities and farmers of all regions of the world."

The system also provides for the obligatory sharing of monetary benefits from utilization of their genetic resources by the private sector, including from commercialisation of new plant varieties.

Cleaning improved seed produced by Afghan farmers
Cleaning improved seed produced by Afghan farmers
Cleaning improved seed produced by Afghan farmers© FAO
The contracting parties have agreed to establish a new multilateral system to ease access to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, and to share, in a fair and equitable way, the benefits arising from the use of these resources. The new system will not include plants that are put to chemical, pharmaceutical and/or other non-food/feed industrial uses.

The benefits to be shared will be contributed by the companies that commercialize products incorporating genetic material accessed from the multilateral system. When that product is selling, the company will pay to the mechanism an "equitable share of the benefits" arising from the commercialisation of that product.

Parties to the treaty agree to strengthen research to enhances and conserve biological diversity for the benefit of farmers, "especially those who generate and use their own varieties and apply ecological principles in maintaining soil fertility and in combating diseases, weeds and pests."

Esquinas-Alcázar said, "the treaty provides an international legal framework that will be a key element in ensuring food security, now and in the future. The challenge is now to ensure that the treaty becomes operative in all countries."

Animal losses

Brazilian Canastra pig
Brazilian Canastra pig
The Brazilian Canastra pig is listed as critical, with only a few breeding females and males left.© FAO

Meanwhile, loss of domestic animal breeds around the world is continuing at an alarming rate, FAO has warned.

The trend of animal genetic erosion, outlined by the FAO World Watch List in 2000, is continuing, the UN agency said.

According to the World Watch List, out of the around 6,300 breeds registered by the FAO, 1,350 are threatened by extinction or are already extinct.

A preliminary assessment of new data received from more than 80 country reports shows now that the number of breeds threatened by extinction is further increasing.

Fourteen out of the about 30 domesticated mammalian and bird species provide 90 per cent of human food supply from animals.

"Genetic diversity is an insurance against future threats such as famine, drought and epidemics," said Irene Hoffmann, chief of the Animal Production Service.

"The existing animal gene pool may contain valuable but unknown resources that could be very useful for future food security and agricultural development," said Hoffmann. "Maintaining animal genetic diversity allows farmers to select stocks or develop new breeds in response to environmental change, diseases and changing consumer demands," she said.

The FAO expects more than 140 country reports to be submitted by June 2004. Final results will be published in FAO's first Report on the State of the World's Animal Genetic Resources, to be issued in 2006.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved. A slightly longer version of this article can be accessed on the website of ENS.

Related links:

Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

List of countries that have ratified the Treaty

Animal Genetic Resources Domestic Animal Diversity Information System - database Community-Based Management of Animal Genetic Resources