Global seed treaty hangs in the balance
Patrick Mulvany
Keywords:  Intellectual property rights, regulations, Plant Breeders' Rights, Seed, FAO, CBD.
Correct citation: Mulvany, P. (2001), "Global seed treaty hangs in the balance." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 46, p. 20.

The achievement

At 3.00 a.m. on 1 July 2001, 161 governments of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA) agreed nearly all of the text of a legally-binding agreement that will govern the use of crop seed varieties and genetic resources that underpin food security. The agreement is needed to counter the rapid loss of these varieties from farmers' fields - more than 90 per cent in the past century - and also to limit the increasing use of intellectual property rights (IPR) to claim sole ownership over crop seeds and genes, which is further restricting farmers' access. The International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (IU), covers major food crops developed in farmers' fields and stored in public gene banks. It aims to ensure the conservation, sustainable use and 'free flow' of the genetic resources of these crops so that they are "preserved& and freely available for use, for the benefit of present and future generations". It recognizes Farmers' Rights to access, use and sell seeds, although these are subordinate to national laws and hence plant variety protection and patent law. It also ensures that when these genetic resources are used commercially, farmers in developing countries receive a share of the profits generated, in return for their contribution to the crops' development.

The Problems

Most of the text of the IU was agreed even though some articles, for example on 'consensus decision making' are severely flawed, but there are still three decisive issues outstanding that will have to be resolved at the FAO Conference and the World Food Summit - Five years later in November 2001. These are:

Access and IPR

IPR regimes create private ownership rights which remove locally adapted varieties and their genetic traits from communal ownership and exchange, threatening future development of these varieties. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and many Southern governments think the IU should keep these genetic resources for food and agriculture free of IPRs and hence any limitations to access. This should apply to seeds, vegetatively reproducing material, and also the genes they contain which express the special traits that farmers have bred into their crops. The USA, in support of the seed industry, is negotiating hard to reduce the scope of article 13 that defines access rules by specifying that any derived material (varieties, genes and gene sequences) can be patented. It is agreed, however, that mandatory commercial benefit sharing is based only on the use of material covered by the IU by the plant breeding industry. Thus, only if terms of access are attractive to the industry will there be commercial use and hence benefits. But these benefits to farmers will in any case be a tiny fraction of the US$ 2 trillion annual turnover of the food industry.

Relationship with other international agreements

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): Some Latin American countries, especially Brazil, fail to recognize the imperative for a multilateral agreement to cover the complex international composition and origin of most crop plants' genes. These countries prefer bilateral deals, within the scope of the Convention on Biological Diversity, despite the fact that the purpose of this renegotiation has been to bring the IU into harmony with the CBD.
World Trade Organization (WTO): USA pressure is trying to make this treaty subordinate to the WTO and especially TRIPS. This is part of an attempt to further weaken the IU.

The list of crops

At present, the IU only covers 35 food crops and 29 forages, representing a small proportion of the 100 food crops of importance to food security and 18,000 forages of value to food and agriculture. Soya, sugar cane, oil palm and groundnut are among important crops missing from the list. Without a significant expansion of the list of crops and forages, the European Union will probably not agree to the IU in November.

The Challenge - final negotiations in November 2001

The FAO Conference and World Food Summit - Five years later will be the forum for the final decision on whether the IU is adopted. It is imperative that agreement is reached not only for food security and farmers' livelihoods but also the future of the international gene banks and public agricultural research. The implementation of the 1996 Leipzig Global Plan of Action on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture also depends on a successful outcome. Failure to reach an agreement could damage the credibility of the FAO as it hosts the high profile food summit. The IU has the potential to be a prime example of responsible global governance, ensuring that those genetic resources which underpin social needs are maintained in the public domain. This agricultural biodiversity provides security against future adversity, be it from climate change, war, industrial developments or ecosystem collapse. An agreement in the public interest rather than for private profit would ensure the genetic resources that underpin food security are safeguarded in perpetuity.

From 2 to 13 November, in Rome, Italy, 180 governments will be responsible for the final negotiations of the IU at the FAO Conference and the World Food Summit - Five years later.

Patrick Mulvany

Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG)
E-mail Patrick_Mulvany@CompuServe.com

UK Agricultural Biodiversity Coalition IU pages: http://www.ukabc.org/iu2.htm

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