UN food treaty on plant genetic resources must protect farmers’ rights

The International Institute for Environment and Development urges the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to do more to protect farmers' customary rights over biological resources.

News, 14 March 2011

IIED has made the call in a paper submitted to the conference of the treaty’s governing body, which is underway in Bali (from 14-18 March) for its periodic assessment of the treaty’s implementation.

The Treaty (created by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization – UN FAO – in 2003) is meant to protect farmers’ rights in various ways, such as:

• Protecting rights over traditional knowledge to ensure benefit-sharing from commercial use
• Ensuring farmers get an equitable share of benefits that arise from the commercial use of traditional crops
• Ensuring farmers have a say in national decision-making on the conservation and sustainable use of Plant Genetic Resources

The conference will also hear the first report on the treaty’s multilateral benefit-sharing fund, which is meant to take a share of profits from patented plant genetic resources and share these benefits with farmers who contribute to the conservation of PGRs.

But so far though the treaty has been very poorly implemented in national law by UN FAO member nations, says Krystyna Swiderska, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

At the same time, other international agreements that protect the rights of commercial plant breeders (e.g. seed companies) are forging ahead (e.g. the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS agreement and the UPOV Convention for the protection of new plant varieties).

"The result is a perverse outcome," says Swiderska. "Small-scale farmers in developing countries are getting no incentive to conserve their local agricultural biodiversity, while commercial interests are being well-served."

"This gap undermines the rights of farmers because plant breeders can profit from genetic material conserved and improved by poor farmers without providing anything in return," she adds. "This is hastening the decline of agricultural biodiversity, and so limiting the options farmers have to adapt to a changing climate, which has implications for global food security."

The FAO Treaty recognises the enormous contribution that indigenous and local communities and farmers have made to the conservation and development of crop genetic resources. Yet the ability of farmers in developing countries to continue this role is seriously threatened — not only by a lack of benefit-sharing, but by a lack of secure rights to land and genetic resources and policies that promote industrial agriculture and monocultures.

IIED has submitted a paper to the conference. It argues for a broad approach to the protection of farmers rights, that goes beyond benefit-sharing to include protection of farmers' customary rights over genetic resources and associated landscapes, cultural values and customary laws, on which the continued conservation and improvement of crops by farmers depends.

The paper presents the findings of research in Peru, Panama, Kenya, China and India, which show that traditional knowledge, genetic resources, landscapes, cultural values and customary laws are all inter-linked and inter-dependent.

Download the IIED paper