Treaty to protect major food crops survives

Treaty to protect major food crops survives - but issues on patenting and trade still undecided


The flawed text of a new global treaty which could ensure future food security by conserving and protecting the genetic resources of the major food crop and forage species has finally been agreed, with reservations, at the 11th hour of a 7 year long marathon of negotiations in the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Rome.
The treaty is the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, or IU. It is designed to conserve and protect the key food and forage crops which underpin food security; to keep open access to these for all who need them for plant breeding, agricultural research and development and for farming livelihoods; and to ensure that benefits from the commercial use of seeds flow back to these farmers.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) immediately criticised it for providing yet further evidence of OECD countries' priority to support private profit rather than food security and making everything subordinate to the trade rules of the WTO and TRIPs.
OECD countries have reluctantly agreed to this treaty so long as it does not challenge existing intellectual property laws and have ensured that they will not be obliged, by this treaty, to rule over the seeds that are in the hands of big biotech industry. If the still undecided text is not challenged, rich seed and biotechnology corporations would increasingly be able to get hold of crop genes for a minimal payment and then privatise them.

"This amounts to giving that industry a free ride and exempting it from obligations under this treaty." Said Henk Hobbelink of GRAIN.
"The rich countries have asserted their corporations’ right to 'privatise genes’ over the rights to food and environmental security of poor people in developing countries. It is patents and profits before people and the environment."

Loss of access to these vital resources and their use in fields, especially by the smallholder farmers in developing countries who develop and conserve them on behalf of humanity, will increasingly lead to their extinction. Although concerned not to challenge TRIPs, European countries joined with some of the G77 developing countries in recognising the imperative of having the seed conservation elements in the Treaty in order to ensure long-term food security, and fought hard to keep it alive.

"But the treaty fails in many respects". Patrick Mulvany of the UK’s Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) said:
"Farmers, developing countries and many European countries desperately wanted an effective treaty, and are relieved it has survived this make or break meeting. But this falls far short of the fair, equitable and comprehensive agreement that 400 civil society organisations from 60 countries demanded.It is not fair - although Farmers' Rights are recognised they will be subordinate to national laws protecting the plant breeding industry.
It is not equitable - mandatory benefits returned to farmers in developing countries through this treaty will be a miniscule fraction of the food industry's $2 trillion annual turnover. and
It is not comprehensive - it will apply to a mere 34 food crops and a derisory 29 forages".

The OECD changes to text on access and benefit sharing undermined the confidence of developing countries, where most of this agricultural biodiversity is located, that they would get a fair return from this multilateral system for putting their resources into it. Led by a troublesome Brazil, who want most plant species to be traded bilaterally, they witheld many species from the central list, making the IU far less comprehensive than civil society organisations had wanted.

François Meieberg of the Berne Declaration said today:
"There are not that many key crop species – only about 100 – that provide food for all. Some countries have held back crops that originated in their territories many thousands of years ago, with an idea that they might profit more from selling them through bilateral deals, but we consider this a dangerous illusion.
However, the key issue is get fairness and justice back into the IU in November. If there is justice, more crop species will be forthcoming.

"The NGOs noted that not only can more crops be added to the list, the most threatening text on Intellectual Property Rights and relations with the WTO is still to be agreed when the treaty goes for adoption to the intergovernmental Conference of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in November 2001 on the fifth anniversary of the World Food Summit.

Christoph Then of Greenpeace said today: "There should be no patents on life and especially none on the genes and seeds that feed us. The IU was, and still is, an opportunity for the first time to exempt a category of genes from private ownership, and to put agricultural biodiversity before trade. We must keep up the pressure.

For further information:
See for Background Briefings, NGO news and views and the joint letter signed by about 400 civil society organisations from 63 countries, presented to the FAO Commission on Tuesday 26 June as well as links to official documentation

NB: In the last century an estimated 90 per cent of varieties of more than 100 crop species available to farmers have been lost, and the increasing rate of patenting and privatisation is threatening to the global public interest because it:

  • removes resources from the public domain
  • threatens farmers’ livelihoods as their access to crop varieties becomes restricted, and these are replaced by a very small number of commercial seeds
  • undermines local and international food security, which is largely based on free use and exchange of seeds
  • reduces the agricultural biodiversity which is managed by farmers on the world’s behalf

The IU will eventually be legally binding, once ratified by more than 40 countries, and will establish a multilateral system for access to and exchange of the plant genetic resources for food and agriculture which appear on a list of inclusions. The IU also provides a mechanism whereby a share of the wealth generated from any commercial use of these resources is paid back to developing country farmers (‘benefit sharing’).