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• 29•06•2004 •

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International Seed Treaty becomes law

29 June 2004

For full coverage of the Treaty and its negotiation, click here

29 June 2004

International Seed Treaty comes into force today but will it undermine farmers efforts to conserve diversity?

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Today, 29 June 2004, the International Seed Treaty (International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture - IT PGRFA) comes into force. Its purpose is to ensure that the agricultural biodiversity of the crops nurtured by farmers over millennia is conserved and that there is equitable benefit sharing from its sustainable use. To date 54 countries have ratified the Treaty representing a broad range of both developing and industrialised countries.

While the achievement of bringing this new Treaty into law is significant there is much work to do to make sure its laudable purposes are not undermined by economically powerful countries seeking rights to extract and privatise genetic resources covered by the Treaty and finding ways to minimise their financial contributions to the conservation efforts of farmers as required by the Treaty.

Smallholder farmers worldwide, the principal guardians and developers of these vital resources, have demanded full international implementation of their inalienable Farmers Rights to produce, exchange and sell seeds and they have insisted that agricultural biodiversity be kept free of the restrictions imposed by intellectual property rights (IPRs). The diversity that feeds the world was created through the free exchange of seeds by farmers within and between communities, countries and continents. Farmers Rights are an essential prerequisite for ensuring this free exchange can continue to be practiced by smallholder farmers worldwide.

The interpretation of the Treaty is ambiguous on this point. The text says clearly that no IPRs may be taken out on the genetic resources covered by the Treaty. However, the UK, EU countries and others are insistent that weasel words inserted into the Treaty text mean that they should have the right to privatise resources extracted from the common pool covered by the Treaty, if these resources are modified and are no longer “in the form received”. Furthermore, during negotiations, these same countries weakened the Treaty’s provisions on Farmers Rights subordinating them to restrictive national IPR rules.

The Treaty process is facilitated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) that has recently discredited itself by publishing a biased report on GM crops. In this report there is also a whole section devoted to arguments in favour of the privatisation of genetic resources: “…the essential role of IPR protection in stimulating research and technology development is clear.” This flies in the face of farmers experience and the reality that the diversity of foods and crop varieties that we now enjoy are the result of the free exchange of seeds. The FAO seems to have weakened its objective commitment to keeping agricultural biodiversity in the public domain, free from the restrictions of IPRs.

The combined pressure of economically powerful countries and advice from the body that hosts the negotiations that IPRs are good for development may force the negotiations towards acceptance of conservation-reducing restrictive IPRs.

Today, there should be new funds flowing to farmers for their conservation efforts, as promised. But long gone are the heady days of the negotiations of the innovative Leipzig Global Plan of Action for the conservation and sustainable use of agricultural seeds. It called for significant, new and additional funding for the on-farm conservation of the myriad but threatened diversity developed by farmers - up to 95% lost in the past century from the ravages of industrial agriculture.

This 1996 Plan was put on hold until the Treaty became law. Articles 5 and 6 of the Treaty provide the legal framework for this Global Plan of Action. Well, today is the day this Plan should be rolled out and countries should now be queuing to fund these programmes and where are they? The two trillion dollar food industry is based on these resources – now is payback time.

Developing countries eager to support the conservation efforts of their farmers will find themselves increasingly embattled as they struggle to defend free access in the upcoming negotiations on a universal Material Transfer Agreement – the agreement that provides the rules of access to the common resources covered by the Treaty.

The Governing Body, made up of all the countries that have ratified the Treaty, will be put under great pressure to accede to the demands of economically powerful countries for the privatisation of the resources taken from the common gene pool. And these same countries are the ones that should be paying for the conservation programmes – will they, without such concessions?

All is not yet lost but the battle continues. FAO and its donors would do better to support the enthusiasm of the global farmers movement, La Via Campesina, who in their recent International Conference reasserted their commitment to conserving the seeds of humanity, campaigning for the survival of ecologically-supportive farming and calling for the adoption of food sovereignty policies.

The sights of La Via Campesina are set not only on the conservation and development of seeds but also livestock breeds and the diversity of aquatic organisms. The Treaty should have provided the international framework for supporting this type of work and a possible model for the conservation of all types of agricultural biodiversity. But the signs are not good: it may only hasten its demise unless privatisation is outlawed, Farmers Rights are implemented internationally and funding for new conservation efforts is dramatically increased.

When the history is written of this sorry period of destruction of farmers, farming and the natural resources on which the world depends for its food, the writer may wonder why humanity was so foolish not to encourage those who best could ensure the diversity of tomorrow’s foods. Historians may well recall the words of Fidel Castro at the 1996 World Food Summit when he said: “The bells that are presently tolling for those starving to death every day will tomorrow be tolling for all humankind if it did not want, did not know how, or could not be sufficiently wise, to save itself.”

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