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1999 - a last minute prospect for Farmers’ Rights?

 By Patrick Mulvany, ITDG*

If the years of a millennium were compressed into the minutes of a waking day2, imagine the dawn of agriculture 12,000 years ago as if it were the first day of Christmas. On that day, as the ice age finally retreated, women gathered seeds from local grasses and sowed the first crops around their homesteads. Communities spent the next few days improving these crops, especially Wheat (Middle East), Rice (S and E Asia), Maize (Central America). They also domesticated animals to provide milk, meat and farm power to carry loads and till the land and selected fish suitable for growing in ponds and rivers. Thousands of plants, crop varieties and animal breeds were developed and fish species were selected to give the world a vast array of agricultural biodiversity on which our food and livelihood security depends. On the seventh, eighth and ninth days dynasties in Egypt, the Middle East and China are built on the strength of these crops and on the tenth and eleventh days mighty empires in the Americas are built on the fecundity of Maize. The biodiversity of the world has been harnessed by inventive farmers, herders and fisherfolk to provide for the needs of all societies.

It all happens on the Twelfth Day – this millennium. On waking we hear the news that Norsemen have found another land across the ocean and the Galicians have new found cod from the Outer Banks. By eleven o’clock in the morning this is confirmed with news from Spain that a New World is ripe for exploitation, rich in fruits, livestock, gold and slaves. Potatoes arrive in Europe in time for lunch. And in the afternoon, to replace all the locals massacred in the Americas, another army of slave labour is shipped across from Africa to enable Europeans to pillage the new crops and other natural and mineral resources. A flurry of transport across the world exchanges more and more crops and livestock between continents and enriches the supper table and the coffers of the wealthy.

But blighted potatoes and starving Irish spoil the evening meal, while bloated industrialists fashion trade laws to their advantage. They also break the dependency of humans on nature and spearhead the downfall of diversity: industrial agriculture attempts the adaptation of the environment to the needs of specially bred crops and livestock instead of building on farmers’ abilities to adapt their plants and animals to an ever-changing environment, new demands and a growing population. The range and variety of crops and livestock starts to decline.

Vavilov, the Russian Botanist, is on the 10 o’clock News highlighting the genetic diversity of the geographical ‘centres of origin’ of our crop plants and the need to protect these. At the same time laws are developed to control access to, and the quality of, seeds. The decline of diversity accelerates.

The 11 o’clock night-time news shows scientists validating this loss of diversity, as industry sharpens its hold on available seed resources through enacting Plant Breeders’ Rights.

As we get ready for bed, Farmers’ Rights are officially recognised in Rome and biodiversity is celebrated at a Rio carnival. But a news flash reveals that more than 75% of the varieties of crop plants and more than 50% of livestock breeds developed by humans have disappeared and all the major fishing grounds of the world are over-fished – few cod are to be found on the Outer Banks.

During the last few minutes before turning off the television for the night, a confusion of news spills across the screen, some good from Leipzig, some bad from Geneva, some hopeful from Rome and Montreal, some threatening concerning globalisation of markets, tastes and cultures, the mass dissemination of ‘Frankenstein foods’ and the nightmare landscape of empty sterile fields with sterile seeds. And a cast of billions clamouring for equality, justice and rights over the resources they have developed and need for their survival, shouts silently.

In the final minute before falling asleep, think of what can be achieved so that tomorrow, at the dawn of the new millennium, we will awake with hope – to a world: which protects farmers and consumers from genetically modified foods, crops and animals and bans Terminator Technologies; which outlaws patenting of seeds and breeds; and, of course, which fully implements Farmers’ Rights to the biodiversity they have developed and to the other natural resources they need to ensure universal food and livelihood security1.

A last minute dream or an achievable reality?


1. The international negotiating calendar for 1999 includes opportunities to conclude:

2. 1000 minutes is 16 hours and 40 minutes. So, if one wakes in the morning at 7:00 am, then going to sleep in the evening at 11:40 pm (23:40) would be a 1000 minute day. 1999 would be in the last minute at 23:39.

By the way, for any UK readers of this article, please note that it was actually drafted before the Millennium Dome Ad 'A Thousand Years in a Day' was released on TV ...and I am not sure that Sir Walter Raleigh was solely responsible for bringing potatoes to Europe! Have a look at their version <>

ITDG, Schumacher Centre, Bourton-on Dunsmore, RUGBY, CV23 9QZ, UK

Tel: +44 1788 661100, Fax: +44 1788 661101, Email: 


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