|Keywords:||Farmers' rights; Indigenous Knowledge; Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); India.|
|Correct citation:||Swaminathan, M.S. (1998), "Farmers' Rights and Plant Genetic Resources." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 36, p. 6-9.|
The concept of Farmers’ Rights was developed in the forum of
the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) International
Commission on Plant Genetic Resources (now renamed Commission on
Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture). The concept of Farmers’
Rights has undergone considerable refinement during the last ten years.
As proposed originally, it was a method of acknowledging the invaluable
contributions of women and men farmers to the conservation and enhancement
of plant genetic resources. Enhancement takes the form of selection for
characters such as agro-ecological adaptation, resistance to biotic and
abiotic stresses and improved culinary qualities, as well as knowledge
addition through information on desirable traits.
There are many examples of valuable germplasm that are currently under severe genetic erosion. Among them are several strains of pearl millet in the West African region which are drought tolerant and which have 350 per cent more iron compared to maize. In addition, some Ethiopian varieties of Tef (Eragrotis tef) are very rich in micro-nutrients such as calcium, iron and manganese. According to FAO estimates, over two billion people suffer from micro-nutrient deficiencies, a phenomenon referred to as "hidden hunger". By conserving and cultivating such strains, it may be possible to use them in the preparation of processed foods. The only way to save these strains from genetic erosion is to find a utilization and a market for them. With an ever-growing demand for processed and semi-processed food, it should be possible to include these strains in the food basket.
Before the advent of well-structured government sponsored methods of in situ conservation and ex situ preservation, the dominant method was in situ conservation by local communities. This has resulted in numerous folk varieties and rich intra-specific variability. For example, the over 100,000 rice strains preserved cryogenically in gene banks such as at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, are the products of the in situ on-farm conservation traditions of farm families. Ex situ and in situ conservation methods are widely supported from public funds, since they are regarded as "public good" activities. However, this is not the case for in situ on-farm conservation by local communities.
Convention on Biological Diversity and Farmers’ Rights
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is a significant landmark among international agreements, since it incorporates for the first time the principles of ethics and equity in both access to genetic wealth and in sharing benefits. Article 15(1) of the CBD recognizes the sovereign rights of nations over the genetic resources occurring in their respective countries. Article 15(5) stipulates the need for Prior Informed Consent (PIC) in the use of genetic resources, while Article 15(4) proposes that access should be on mutually agreed terms between the source country and those seeking to exploit the genetic resources. Several articles of the CBD stress the need to recognize and conserve traditional knowledge. CBD also draws attention to the critical role of women in the conservation and improvement of genetic resources.
The CBD is legally binding, while the FAO International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources is not. Therefore, the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture has been discussing proposals to harmonize the International Undertaking with the CBD, and operationalize and strengthen Farmers’ Rights within the CBD. This was discussed at the Fifth Extraordinary Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture held at Rome in June 1998. Article 12 of the draft International Undertaking discussed at this meeting deals with Farmers’ Rights. This Article starts with the following statement:
"Parties recognize the enormous contribution that farmers of all regions of the world, particularly those in the Centres of origin and crop diversity, have made and will continue to make for the conservation and development of plant genetic resources which constitute the basis of food and agriculture production throughout the world."
The commission is considering different options for converting rights into financial rewards. The major difficulty arises from the fact that the contributions are often made by entire communities and therefore cannot be attributed to individuals. Hence, procedures are needed to recognize and reward community contributions to genetic resources conservation and selection. In order to make progress, the commission has requested the FAO to carry out an analytical financial study on possible formulas for the sharing of benefits based on different benefit-indicators establishing the total amounts and relative contributions corresponding to each country and region. The recommendations on possible financial formulas have yet to be published by the FAO.
TRIPS and Farmers’ Rights
An important element of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) treaties which came into force in 1994 is the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). According to article 27.2(b) of the TRIPS Agreement, "plants and animals other than micro-organisms" may be excluded from patentability. However, member countries are required to provide "for the protection of plant varieties by patents or by an effective sui generis system or by any combination thereof". Though not mentioned in the Agreement, it is generally assumed that an effective sui generis system will be one which is in conformity with the 1978 Act of the Convention of the International Union Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). From 24 April 1998, the 1991 Act of UPOV has come into force. The 1991 Act provides countries with the option of restricting Farmers’ "Plant back" rights. It strengthens breeders’ privileges and has the potential to reduce farmers’ options.
The UPOV Convention currently has 37 member states. Several other countries, such as India, are currently preparing legislation in response to the obligations under the WTO Agreement. The 1991 UPOV Act will impose restrictions on "seed savers". Following this Act, it will be necessary to draw a clear distinction between two categories of farmers:
Converting Farmers’ Rights from rhetoric to reality
Legislation which will simultaneously deal with breeders’ and Farmers’ Rights needs to be introduced in all countries. This can be titled the "Plant Variety Protection and Farmers’ Rights Act". This act should clearly distinguish between the rights of Farmer-Cultivators and Farmer-Conservers. As far as Farmer-Cultivators are concerned, each country will have to take decisions on issues such as plant-back rights and the use of "terminator technology" in accordance with national needs and socio-economic conditions. For example, in India where there are nearly 100 million operational holdings, denial of plant-back rights or the use of the terminator mechanism will be disastrous from the socio-economic and biodiversity points of view, since over 80 per cent of farmers plant their own farm-saved seeds.
The operationalization of the rights of Farmer-Conservers is causing problems in the international fora. The difficulties to be overcome are in the following areas:
M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, 3rd Cross street, Institutional
Area, Taramani, Madras 600 113, India. Phone (+91) 44 2351229, 2351698;
Fax (+91) 44 2351319;
E-mail MDSAAA51@giasmd01.vsnl.net.in and firstname.lastname@example.org
National Research Council, USA (1996), "Lost Crops of Africa". Vol.1 Grains, p383. Washington DC: National Academy Press.
M.S. Swaminathan (ed.) (1995), Farmers’ Rights and Plant Genetic Resources: A dialogue. Madras: Macmillan India Ltd.
M.S. Swaminathan (ed.) (1996), Agro-biodiversity and Farmers’ Rights. New Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd.
M.S. Swaminathan (1997), "Implementing the Benefit Sharing Provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity: Challenges and opportunities". Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter, No.112, pp 19-27.
M.S. Swaminathan (ed.) (1998), Gender Dimensions in Biodiversity Management. New Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd.
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