Seeds of Corporate Power vs. Farmers' Rights

KCETLink is kicking off its environmental summer lineup with Earth Focus Presents, a series of seven of the hottest current environmental documentaries, as part of KCET and Link TV’s “Summer of the Environment.” We’re pleased to present this article to accompany our presentation of the documentary "Seeds of Time."


The consolidation of corporate power in agriculture has been in the news a lot lately, first with the proposed ChemChina-Syngenta and Dow-DuPont mergers, and now with Bayer’s proposal to purchase seed giant Monsanto. National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson testified in Congress in 2016 that the proposed mergers would enable just three corporations to control 80 percent of the U.S. seed supply (and 70 percent of the global pesticide market). The result is that farmers have fewer and fewer choices about the kinds of seeds they want to plant. The concentration of processing and distribution also limits options, and further squeezes farmers at a time when prices are tumbling around the globe.

This expansion of corporate control is also happening in three international treaties that establish the global rights of various stakeholders to seeds, germplasm, and plant varieties. Each of these treaties strikes a certain balance among those interests. And recently, like the agribusiness mergers, the balance has been tilting away from the interests of smaller-scale farmers and diversified agriculture. Unsurprisingly, corporations interested in accessing seeds and other genetic resources are pushing hard on all fronts.

Seeds of Time
The film "Seeds of Time" focuses on the journey to save the future of food: our seeds.

The most evident in the push to compel countries to adhere to the most corporate-friendly of the three treaties is the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). Although earlier versions of the treaty included some flexibility for family farmers to save and share seeds, the 1991 version eliminated those rights. According to analysis by Public Citizen and Third World Network, UPOV91 requires patent protection to be provided for all plant varieties for 20 to 25 years, and it stops farmers and breeders from exchanging protected seeds — a traditional practice common among farmers in many countries around the world.

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) includes provisions requiring countries in the trade deal to ratify UPOV91. President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the TPP earlier this year, but there are indications that it will serve as the blueprint for the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Mexico, considered the birthplace of corn, is not a member of UPOV91. Mexican farm groups are leading a campaign called “Sin Maíz, No Hay Paíz” (Without corn, there is no country) that advocates for a ban on GMO corn. They argue that the country’s biodiversity and genetic resources are at risk from contamination of GMO corn. They have vowed to resist ratification of UPOV91 or other efforts to change domestic laws and rules that protect farmers’ rights when it comes to plant breeding and seed saving.

The United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) struck a different balance in its Nagoya Protocol, which was completed in 2010 and enforced in October 2014. It has been ratified by 86 countries (but not the United States). It establishes a consultation process for prior and informed consent over decisions to share seeds and other genetic resources, as well as a process for benefit sharing. It’s a step forward in terms of ensuring developing country interests, but still generates controversy.

Wild spinach seeds
Wild Guatemalan spinach seeds. | Courtesy of Red Nacional Por La Defensa De La Soberania Alimentaria En Guatemala (REDSAG)

​Adelita San Vicente — from the Mexican NGO Semillas de Vida (Seeds of Life) and the Without Corn No Country campaign — explains that the Nagoya Protocol, while an improvement over UPOV91, fails to consider the context of the seeds, reducing them to commodities rather than essential elements of people’s cultural heritage. In 2016, a provisional Constitutional Court ruling suspended the Protocol’s implementation in Guatemala, in large part as a result of campaigns by indigenous and farm organizations led by the Red Nacional para la Defensa de la Soberania Alimentaria en Guatemala (National Network for the Defense of Food Sovereignty in Guatemala). They argued that the goal should be to protect biodiversity, not to commercialize it.

Companies eager to access genetic resources in other countries are finding the Nagoya Protocol too difficult to navigate, so some are turning to a third body, one actually seen as a model for protecting farmers’ rights. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA, also known as FAO Seed Treaty) was completed in 2001. The Seed Treaty governs access to seeds and germplasm included in its seedbank and establishes rules on fair and equitable sharing of the benefits.

When the treaty was completed, many organizations, including IATP, praised the FAO Seed Treaty as “a major step forward for farmers around the world by improving their access to seeds.” The most contentious provision states that farmers, researchers and others using the system “shall not claim any intellectual property or other rights that limit the facilitated access to the plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, or their genetic parts or components, in the form received from the Multilateral System.” Ratified by 143 countries, the treaty also includes a provision on farmers’ rights to save, use, exchange, and sell farm-saved seed. After more than a decade of refusing to join, the U.S. Senate suddenly ratified the treaty in September 2016, and the U.S. became a member in March 2017.

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This renewed interest seems to coincide with renewed efforts by multinational seed companies to influence its implementation. A report published by Third World Network on a July 2016 meeting of parties to the ITPGRFA described strong positions by African governments for a mandatory “subscription system,” with payments based on a percentage of seed sales and license income. According to the report, a U.S. delegate participated as part of the Canadian delegation, arguing for limits on the new proposals. A Monsanto representative participating as a stakeholder criticized the postponement of a proposal for a termination clause, which would eliminate any requirement for benefit-sharing payments after a fixed number of years. Developing countries argued against a termination clause, since companies could simply hold onto germplasm until they wouldn’t need to make payments. Negotiations are also underway over genetic sequence data (“dematerialization”), an issue that is also being debated more broadly (beyond plants and seeds) at the Convention on Biodiversity and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

New seeds arrive at Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway
New seeds arrive from Japan and the U.S. at Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. | JUNGE, HEIKO/AFP/Getty Images

At the Senate hearing on ratification of the treaty, John Schoeneker, testifying on behalf of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA, whose leadership includes representatives of Bayer, Dupont and Syngenta) urged ratification of the Seed Treaty in order to enable access to the seedbank. An ASTA letter to the Foreign Relations Committee signed by 80 farm and seed business groups urged ratification, saying: “Currently, public and private sector breeders are vulnerable to the Nagoya Protocol, which was established under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity and goes beyond the agriculture sector. The Nagoya Protocol is a far less favorable option [than the ITPGRFA] for germplasm exchange for U.S. agriculture researchers and the entire U.S. seed sector.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, the South CentreBerne Declaration, and Third World Network, among others, have pointed out the contradictions among the rules established in these various treaties. As the U.S. formally enters the process, the issue is who decides on the rules about sharing these resources, and how those decisions are implemented.

The ITPGRFA broke new ground on farmers’ rights over seeds and genetic resources, an advance that is effectively eroding under the TPP language and the proposed mergers. The balance needs to tilt back the other way, starting with enforceable new policy to establish that the right to food, biodiversity, and farmers’ rights take precedence over agribusiness profits, whether in these treaties or in trade deals. Ensuring that farmers around the world have access to seeds and seed breeding will be critical to climate change adaptation. Leaving agribusiness firms to set the rules on access to seeds and other genetic materials is a recipe for further corporate concentration and fewer good options for family farmers, local communities, and biodiversity.


An earlier version of this piece was published by Foreign Policy in Focus.

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