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Owning seeds, accessing food


Many industrialised countries demand that the countries of the South introduce stricter regulations for the protection of plant varieties. In order to illustrate what effects this has on the right to food, Public Eye carried out a human rights analysis together with partner organisations.

For years Public Eye has criticised Switzerland and other industrialised countries for the pressure they put on developing countries to join the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). In joining this intergovernmental organisation, states undertake to incorporate in their national legislation a high degree of protection for commercial seed and plant material. Public Eye has repeatedly highlighted the fact that in the development of the UPOV system the countries of the South were not at the negotiating table, so the system does not correspond to the needs of these countries. With the publication of a comprehensive pioneering study in October 2014 Public Eye showed how the existence of small-scale farming families dependent on traditional seed propagation is jeopardised through adherence of the respective countries to the UPOV.

The study ‘‘Owning Seeds, Accessing Food – A human rights impact assessment of UPOV 1991 based on case studies in Kenya, Peru and the Philippines“ describes and documents for the first time the concrete constraints caused by stringent plant variety protection laws for small-scale farmers in the use of protected seeds from the previous year’s harvest. For UPOV basically prohibits the exchange and sale of seeds produced in this way and significantly restricts freedom of use, even on one’s own field.

Bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) are a popular instrument to pressure developing countries into adhering to the UPOV. In earlier FTA negotiations Switzerland repeatedly expressed similar demands. However at the same time it has also refused to carry out the Human Rights Impact Assessments (HRIA) demanded by Public Eye for years. Through these analyses, potentially negative effects on human rights in the partner country can be identified in advance and thus prevented.

Due to the inaction of the Swiss government and increasing pressure on the countries of the South to modify their legislation on plant variety protection, Public Eye took the initiative itself and conducted out a human rights impact assessment, together with other NGOs, in a large-scale project. In cooperation with local researchers it investigated in Kenya, Peru and the Philippines how adherence to the UPOV and the consequent plant variety protection laws would affect the right to food of marginalised population groups. The results of this empirical study are disturbing:

  • Most producers in the South are dependent on the informal seed supply system for access to seed and plant material, which means that access to commercial seeds also takes place through own reproduction, exchange between farming families or purchase from other farmers on local markets.
  • If this informal seed supply system is restricted by the introduction of stringent plant variety protection laws, this will hinder access to seeds and can thus jeopardise small-scale farmers’ right to food.
  • Through these plant protection rights, traditional practices for the maintenance, sustainable use and further development of seeds are made illegal. The loss of this traditional knowledge can also, in the medium term, threaten the right to food.

On the basis of these findings Public Eye and its partner organisations address concrete demands to governments, especially that of Switzerland:

  • Carry out imperatively their own human rights impact assessments before the introduction or modification of plant variety protection laws.
  • Use the existing flexibility provided by the TRIPS Agreement and other international agreements to protect their small farmer populations. There are alternatives to the UPOV system.
  • In free trade negotiations Switzerland should refrain from making any demands with respect to plant variety protection.
  • The Swiss government must at last carry out human rights impact assessments before concluding new free trade agreements. Only in this way can it ensure that it fulfils its international human rights obligations.

Together with its partners Public Eye has filed these demands with the appropriate bodies. Through events at UN human rights bodies, at the FAO and on a national level we are informing key actors of the results of the study.


The report «Owning seeds, accessing food» in english (PDF, 2.2 MB) and spanish (PDF, 5.2 MB)
The Factsheet in english (PDF, 1.6 MB), spanish (PDF, 1.1 MB), french (PDF, 1.9 MB) and german (PDF, 715 KB)