Global Policy Forum

Concern Raised over Policies Marginalizing Traditional Seed Varieties

October 21, 2009


Speaking to reporters at Headquarters today, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food warned that increasing dependency on commercial seed varieties monopolized by a few very powerful multi-national companies could severely impact small farmers in developing countries.

Olivier de Schutter raised his concerns about increased monopolization of seeds through patents, as well as about declining bio-diversity, speculation in commodity markets, and the ongoing fallout from the global food crisis during a press conference on his report to the General Assembly (A/64/170), which he would introduce to the Third Committee (Social Humanitarian Cultural) later in the day.

He said that as a result of the global food crisis, Governments had invested massively in agriculture and had sought to provide farmers with the means to produce food. A challenge was the impact of intellectual property rights on seed systems and the policies States should adopt to provide access for farmers to the seeds they needed.

In many developing countries, two seed systems existed:  a commercial seed system of improved varieties that could be catalogued and certified by Governments; and the traditional seed systems emerging from farmers exchanging seeds on informal markets. Commercial seed systems were threatening the balance between the two, as traditional seeds could not be catalogued and certified.

Emphasizing that commercial seed varieties could be extremely useful as they improved yields and nutritional values, and were disease resistant, he said that, at the same time, they could increase farmers' dependency on those seeds and threaten their income. The top-ten agricultural companies -- all based in the North -- controlled 67 per cent of the global proprietary seed market.

The commercial seed system might also be a threat to agro-biodiversity, Mr. de Schutter warned, noting that today, there were barely 150 cultivated crops. Genetic erosion was a source of vulnerability and agro-biodiversity could be a source of resilience against the impacts of climate change.

Intellectual property rights had been strengthened significantly over the years, contributing to the risk of farmers' dependency. He therefore advocated that Governments should choose intellectual property suited to development needs instead of giving in to incentives. He also urged adopting compliance legislation going beyond the minimum requirements of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) agreement. Intellectual property rights might also be an obstacle to further research, even though it was defended as a way for innovation. Research must use pre-existing genetic resources, which were more and more difficult to obtain.

Moreover, he said research in breeding rewarded by intellectual property rights was mostly addressing the needs of rich farmers in developed countries. It neglected tropical crops on which many people were dependent. Because most seed companies were situated in the North, intellectual property rights resulted in resource transfers from the South to the North and from food producers to the owners of the patents.

He recommended that States do more to implement the farmers' rights under Article 9 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which would provide for protection of traditional resources and for farmers' participation in decision-making processes on legislation on intellectual property. He further recommended that States provide funds necessary to support the flourishing of farmers' seed systems. States should also re-examine their seed regulations in order to make them more hospitable to traditional farmers' rights. They should also develop local seed exchanges. Research should involve farmers at all stages.

Answering a correspondent's question, he said the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had indeed called for a 70 per cent increase in food production by 2050 in order to meet increasing demands. The debate was open on how and by whom that increase should be achieved. The promises of scientific developments in that regard had been unfulfilled. The huge potential in training farmers in agro-ecological techniques such as water-harvesting, agro-forestry, inter-cropping and the use of nitrogen-fixing plants had not been used. Although those techniques were labor intensive, they had the potential for hugely increasing productivity.

The vast majority of patents were retained by northern-based companies such as Monsanto, he answered to another question, and their oligarchic structure was worrisome, as it increased farmers' dependency. Those companies, moreover, had no choice but to expand. Legislation to address the issue was taken at the national, rather than global level. Antitrust legislation should be strengthened, also at the regional and international levels. Progress had been made, however, in research done in the South-by- South-based institutions, which usually was cheaper.

Although the United Nations had no position on the debate about organic versus genetic-based farming, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report indicated that agro-ecology could significantly improve yields in a sustainable matter, he said. His concern about intellectual property rights-based agriculture was that no investments were made in other means of food production.

It was in principle a good thing that after thirty years, the private sector was again investing in agriculture as a potential source of profit, he continued. There was, however, no real debate about the ownership of agricultural policies and the risk that national policies would not be taken into account when the direction of research and investments was guided by private interests. Governments should not develop policies dictated by the private sector.


Financial speculation in the commodity market was a major problem that had not been addressed, he said in response to a question. Although he had submitted proposals to the Human Rights Council in that regard, nothing had been done. States should re-establish food reserves they had abandoned during the nineties, which could be done at the national and regional levels.

Asked about funding for implementation of his recommendations, he said significant amounts had been pledged over the past months. The recent Group of Eight (G-8) meeting in Pittsburgh had pledged to invest $20 billion over three years to support agriculture in developing countries. The question was however, to do what, and for whom. It was important to move away from the idea that the right to food was about people being fed to the idea that the right to food was about the ability to produce.

He urged that the money pledged by the G-8 would be used in a way that strengthened and increased the incomes of small farmers in developing countries, whose needs were not necessarily the same as those of the large producers with access to global markets. There productivity could be significantly improved with not very significant investments.

Turning to another question, Mr. de Schutter said that some progress had been made on regulating the transnational buying of farms, and that the World Bank and the FAO were addressing the issue. A number of Governments now believed it was necessary to develop an international framework on that issue. The deeds often unfairly favored investors and the rights of local and indigenous people were often not protected.  Later this year, there would be a regional meeting where Governments of the region would try to share good practices in that area. West Africa could become a laboratory on the issue, he added.



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