Thanks to the stalling of the WTO meeting in Seattle in November 1999, this meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity was a chance to reassert environmental and social concerns as a counterbalance to global free trade.

There are a number of international processes, instruments and institutions which can affect the management of agricultural biodiversity. Sometimes these instruments overlap, sometimes they compete.

The main tension lies between the World Trade Organisation and the Convention on Biological Diversity, because the CBD is the only instrument which has been made strong enough to balance the WTO system.

The WTO is a rules-based system to promote and protect global free trade. It is strongly biased against any interference with, or obstructions to, free trade. Broadly, its rules state that environmental, ethical and social considerations cannot be used to discriminate between one tradeable commodity and another.

The CBD, however, is there to promote and protect the earth's plants, animals and other life forms. It is capable of placing limits on free trade where the Parties to the convention agree that there is a case that free trade may damage the environment.

Both treaties are legally binding on the governments who sign up to them. As the majority of governments are both members of the WTO and Parties to the CBD, there is the potential for conflict. Despite many protracted talking shops, governments have been unwilling to square this circle by tackling head on the question of which instrument takes precedence.

That means that because some of the world's most developed and most powerful nations stand to gain the most out of free trade, in practice the WTO has been given the upper hand.

Although free trade is not necessarily a bad thing for farmers - all farmers trade a part of their produce - globalised free trade on the current model can be a severe threat to their livelihoods. It promotes a model of industrialised agriculture, based on cash crops and exports.

This model uses technologies and inputs which are unaffordable and inaccessible to smallholder farmers. It also heavily promotes the dominance of the market by a very small number of companies, and a very small number of products.

For instance, a handful of seed companies promoting a small range of varieties of each crop dominate the world seed trade. This narrow range of varieties is therefore being powerfully pushed into as many corners of the world as possible. It is replacing the vast range of local varieties which farmers have developed over time.

With 1.6 billion people dependent on farm-saved seed, what is required by contrast is to support smallholder farmers to keep alive and in use their traditional knowledge and their locally-appropriate varieties. This calls for a 'sustainable agriculture' approach.

Those who are most concerned to promote sustainable agriculture and the rights of farmers have seen the CBD as a key instrument to do so.

A new round of WTO talks could have been a disaster for smallholder farmers. Had the Seattle WTO meeting succeeded in starting a new trade round, then rules on agricultural trade and on intellectual property rights (which affect agricultural biodiversity) would have been reviewed and renegotiated - with developing countries and their small scale producers likely to lose out. But Seattle was stopped in its tracks.

Now, therefore, if the COP can act to strengthen both the CBD measures and its programmes of work which might favour developing countries and their small scale producers, these might have more international force, and would send a clear signal to other international bodies and the WTO.

A good example is the Biosafety Protocol. The Protocol provides an international legal framework to govern the export and import of genetically modified organisms. This gives any country the right to say no to the entry of a new GMO, if it can show that this will create a risk to the environment or to health - or to the livelihoods and food security of its agricultural communities. It therefore regulates and limits the global free market trade in GM products. Pro-GM and pro-free trade governments had opposed this agreement during 1999. However, after the Seattle failure, all parties to the CBD agreed to accept the Protocol at a meeting in Montreal in January 2000.

Countries are invited to sign the Protocol in the second week of COP V. A good number signing on will keep momentum behind the Protocol. Once 50 countries have signed and ratified, it will come into force immediately. ITDG will be lobbying delegations to sign up, and to state their reasons for doing so - namely as a precautionary measure to protect their people and environment.

Other areas where the CBD can act as a counterweight to the WTO regime are:

  • Recognising Farmers' Rights to share the benefits of the genetic materials for agriculture which they have developed and which are part of their traditional knowledge - and thereby opposing biopiracy, patenting and the private ownership of this knowledge.
  • Helping to protect Farmers' Rights by giving a clear message that a memorandum on the International Undertaking on plant genetic resources for agriculture must be agreed this year. This is the last chance to get this agreement on this multilateral agreement which can safeguard the resources on which food supply is based. The Undertaking governs resources held in international seed banks and research institutes, and ITDG believes it should contain a specific clause that no patents should be taken out on any of the seeds, genetic material or derivatives that are in the designated / public trust / farmers' collections ex situ and in situ.
  • Provide practical support to smallholder farmers to use agricultural biodiversity successfully for sustainable livelihoods, including building up their institutional and financial support - not leaving them to the mercies of the global seed and food markets.

Statement to the Working Group on Access to Genetic Resources at COP 5

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