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The World Seed Conference

by ROBIN WILLOUGHBY

Last week marked a little-known and under-reported symposium held in Rome under the auspices of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation – the World Seed Conference. Although the subject may appear obscure, the conference theme and the issues discussed, including plant variety protection and seed improvement techniques, could not be more important to millions of farmers in the developing world.

Between the heavy acronyms and technical terms used by the UN figures, government officials and industry representatives, the conference illustrated two clear themes; firstly, the desire of Northern-based business to continue a process of enclosure of key farming inputs such as seeds by way of technology. Secondly, a push by these same companies (supported by the US and EU countries) for an extension and tightening of intellectual property rights on plant genetic resources into the national law of poorer countries.
Under the guise of innovation and progress, breeding companies suggest that seed varieties developed in laboratories in the North and then sold to poorer farmers in the South can raise yields in crops, increase nutritional values, reduce pesticide and fossil fuels use as well as conserve biodiversity. In the words of one participant at the conference, his company utilised ‘the art and science of changing the genetics of plants for the benefit of humankind.’

Advocates from industry argue that to safeguard their investment in these manipulated ‘seed innovations’ governments should use a form of legal construction (intellectual property rights) to prevent farmers from re-using and changing seeds that are a ‘product’ of agribusiness. Industry lobbyists also suggest that such monopoly rights should extend to developed plants varieties that business cannot easily control by technology – for example due to natural reproduction.

However, the patenting of seeds, extension of plant variety protection and rollout of a global regime of intellectual property rights for agricultural inputs could have serious consequences for small-scale farmers in the developing world.

Techno-Fixes and Monopoly Control

Firstly, the intellectual property regime that many participants in the Conference wish to tighten and extend to poorer countries (what one participant called ‘the development of a new industry competitiveness on foreign markets’), legally prevents farmers from sharing and saving seeds for later harvests or for future generations.

Under a key intellectual property treaty first signed in the 1960s and last amended in 1991, called UPOV, and the later WTO TRIPS, governments agreed to prevent farmers from saving or sharing seeds with only a few limited exceptions. In countries that have accepted these intellectual property regimes, small-scale farmers have moved increasingly towards the use of imported seeds, suffering from a number of adverse effects including increased debt levels, displacement and worsening food security. Making the situation worse, under intellectual property laws, some governments refuse to subsidise or even prohibit the use of seeds that do not make an ‘official list’ – most often those that were previously shared and exchanged between communities.

Secondly, a strengthening of the UPOV regime, or a further rollout of TRIPS or the TRIPS-plus agreement would also represent a large net power transfer from poorer farmers to richer corporations based in industrialised countries, especially in the US and the EU. Intellectual property rights already tighten the grip of a small number of businesses across the entire agricultural system, from basic inputs through marketing and distribution. According to analysts at the ETC Group, 10 companies currently control more than two thirds of global seed sales. Of this total, just three industry giants – Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta – command 47 percent of the market. Research organisation GRAIN estimates that tightening and extending IP laws through UPOV could result in poor farmers paying US$7 billion a year to these ‘seed giants.’

Thirdly, the type of seeds that are promoted and sold to poor farmers by the global seed companies (and protected by IP rights) are often ‘hybrid’ in form, meaning that they have been bred in a lab from two parent lines. Because of their complex molecular structure, such seeds will not reproduce cleanly in the next planting season, resulting in a system of agricultural inputs that farmers must purchase on a seasonal basis. This business innovation has resulted in the commodification of a number of plant lines that previously reproduced naturally, tying poor farmers to companies in the North – a dangerous situation in the light of fluctuating commodity prices and potential monopoly pricing by dominant actors.

Importantly, such ‘hybrids’ also require a high level of synthetic inputs such as fertilisers to achieve high yields. Perhaps unsurprisingly these artificial inputs are often purchased from the same clique of agribusiness companies that also sell the seeds in the first place. Despite the perceived success of hybrid seeds in raising crop yields in experiments such as the Green Revolution in Asia, experts express severe doubts over the environmental sustainability of such seeds. By using large numbers of synthetic inputs, crop yields have increased in some countries but to the detriment of soil quality, biodiversity and future livelihood from the land.

Contrary to the claims of the seed business, analysts also suggest that plant variety protection and a strong IP regime encourages investment in only a few commercially valuable crop species, such as wheat and soya bean, and ‘ornamentals’ such as flowers. Companies will invest heavily in research for ‘designer’ crops that could gain high market value in richer countries. Evidence shows that a high percentage of the plant variety protection applications put forward by developing countries remain for export goods such as ‘cut flowers’ and other luxury items for export. Although these commodities have export market value and can gain foreign exchange, little indication exists of their value in alleviating food insecurity or promoting biodiversity.

An Alternative Paradigm

In order to protect biodiversity, adapt to climate change and promote food security, policy-makers must allow farmers to freely save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds in developing countries. Unfortunately, the current direction of international policy, as evidenced by the calls of many participants at the World Seed Conference and other fora such as the World Trade Organisation, appears to be a push towards techno-fixes in agriculture and the enclosure of common resources by legal means.

Rather than centrally controlled technological innovation by corporations in the North, local agrifood systems and community-led agricultural research and conservation encourages farmers to utilise on-farm innovation, choose the most appropriate crops for harvest and support biodiversity. Sharing and saving seeds allows farmers with knowledge of local conditions to breed seeds ‘in situ’ (on the farm) and develop plant varieties to evolve to the changing climate conditions. Food system analysts and civil society groups also note that small-scale, locally based food systems could be the most effective method in lifting millions out of hunger and poverty.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to technologically controlled agriculture and an ever-increasing intellectual property stranglehold that could increase corporate concentration in agricultural markets, displace poor farmers and worsen biodiversity. On the international stage, progressive treaties promoted by resource-rich but economically-poor countries such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture attempt to protect farmers’ rights, encourage genuine biodiversity and share the benefits of commercialising agricultural inputs and plants.

On the ground, examples such as the Navdanya project in India illustrate the benefits of both storing and sharing seeds as well as the benefits in food security and genetic diversity by allowing open-access to plant genetic resources. Organisations in the global farmers’ movement La Via Campesina also point the way to an alternative agricultural paradigm based on cooperation and reciprocity. In the UK, the Millennium Seed Bank Project at Kew Gardens further illustrates the importance and possibility of the collection, research and development of seeds for the public good. Countries such as Venezuela are also establishing cross-border collaboration and sharing of knowledge on the breeding of plants based on cooperation and for mutual benefit.

However, these examples represent only a few isolated instances that ‘go against the grain’ of an international policy paradigm that promotes market-concentration and the potential monopolisation of plant genetic resources. With converging trends of a worsening food crisis, climate change shocks and rising population levels, policymakers in developed and developing countries should now look to alternative examples to illustrate that another way is possible to achieve global food security and sustainable biodiversity.

A starting point for a new paradigm in agricultural development should be to devise a set of international rules that prevents the enclosure of common resources for profit, helps poor farmers, and promotes cooperation, sharing and the free-exchange of seeds.

ROBIN WILLOUGHBY is Research Officer at Share the World’s Resources (STWR), an NGO advocating for sustainable economics to end global poverty. He can be contacted at: robin(at)stwr.org.

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