Farmers' Right to Use Their Own Seeds Protected by Treaty

ROME, Italy, April 5, 2004 (ENS) - The advent of genetically engineered patented plants has prompted the negotiation of an international treaty to protect the rights of farmers to save, use, exchange and sell seeds and cuttings saved on their farms. It 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.

That treaty, known as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, is about to become legally binding on June 29, 2004 now that at least 40 countries have ratified it.

Egypt, plus 11 European countries, and the European Community as a member organization, ratified the treaty on Wednesday, triggering the 90 day countdown to the Treaty's entry into force, said the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

"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 - India, Syria, the Central African Republic, the European Union, Canada, and El Salvador.


Cleaning improved seed produced by Afghan farmers, 1994. (Photo courtesy FAO)
For farmers such a level of protection is literally a matter of life and death. Dr. Vandana Shiva of India 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, a physicist and activist author who is particularly concerned about the effects of globalization and trade liberalization on the local farmers.

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

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 percent of food energy - wheat, rice, maize and potato alone provide 60 percent.

"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."

More than a complimentary pat on the back for the world's hard working farmers, the system also provides for the obligatory sharing of monetary benefits from utilization of their genetic resources by the private sector, including from commercialization of new plant varieties.


A field genebank of yams in Southern India. (Photo by L. Withers courtesy 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 utilization 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 commercialization of that product.

The treaty's Governing Body shall, at its first meeting, determine the level, form and manner of the payment, in line with commercial practice. The Governing Body may decide to establish different levels of payment for various categories of recipients who commercialize such products. It may also decide on the need to exempt from such payments small farmers in developing countries and in countries with economies in transition, the Secretariat said.


An Indian farmer in Ecuador checks the condition of his stored potatoes. (Photo courtesy FAO)
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."

Operating at the meeting point between agriculture, the environment and commerce, the agreement will benefit consumers, the Secretariat says, because they will have access to a greater variety of foods, and of agriculture products, as well as increased food security.

The scientific community will benefit through access to the plant genetic resources crucial for research and plant breeding.

International Agricultural Research Centers whose collections the Treaty puts on a safe and long-term legal footing will benefit.

The Secretariat says both the public and private sectors will benefit because they are assured access to a wide range of genetic diversity for agricultural development.

The environment, and future generations will benefit because "the treaty will help conserve the genetic diversity necessary to face unpredictable environmental changes, and future human needs," the Secretariat says.

Animal Losses Alarming

Loss of domestic animal breeds around the world is continuing at an alarming rate, FAO warned on Wednesday, as 130 national coordinators on animal genetic resources opened a four day meeting in Rome. They discussed national and regional action plans and a global strategy for the better management of farm animal genetic resources.

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


Shepherd in the Congo with his herd of goats (Photo courtesy FAO)
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 percent 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.