An international treaty designed to conserve the world’s seed diversity is instead legitimising the rights of global agri-business to steal ownership of genetic material whilst weakening the rights of peasant farmers.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, proposed at climate change talks in Bali in 2007, has established a copyright-free global seed bank. The stated aim was to protect the widest possible range of seeds to respond to climate change.
But because it was agreed by governments who always put the rights of global agri-business first, it included recognition of World Trade Organisation rules on industrial copyright as applied to genetic material including seeds. The rights of farmers, on the other hand, were left to the tender mercies of national governments, who entirely fail to enforce them.
The result is a treaty that is conserving seeds but at the same time undermining the rights of the farmers who have created them. As the organisation Via Campesina, which represents peasant farmers from across the world, states in its Bali Seed Declaration: “It is a contradictory and ambiguous treaty, which in the final analysis comes down on the side of theft.”
Some 127 countries have now signed the treaty, and the gene pool created has reached 1.5 million samples of the world’s 64 most important food crops and more are on the way. But Via Campesina say the bank is simply being used to “legitimate the industry’s access to those peasant seeds that are stored in collections around the world”.
They point out that the seeds which the global corporations use as their base material already represent thousands of years of knowledge and skill of farmers selecting seeds for successful replanting under their local conditions. The best way to respond to climate change is to support farmers in continuing this process of selection as close to the growing areas as possible.
The farmers state: “We cannot conserve biodiversity and feed the world while our rights to save, use, exchange and sell our seeds are criminalised by laws that legalise the privatisation and commodification of seeds. The Seed Treaty is the only treaty to date to contemplate farmers’ rights. However states do not respect these rights, in opposition to their respect of industrial property rights. Therefore, the Treaty must give peasant rights the highest priority, and these rights must be legally binding. They must be guaranteed in every one of the 127 countries that have ratified the Treaty.”
They point out the contradiction of responding to climate change by creating “seed museums for the benefit of biopirate corporations”, whilst banning farmers from themselves developing seeds that respond to changing growing conditions, as they have done for thousands of years.
The Via Campesina statement is a challenge to the monopolising power of the corporations and to the whole “high input, high output” approach which continues to be the main response to the food and agriculture crisis facing the planet. To respond to climate change with the same industrial methods that caused it is simply continuing down the road to destruction. As Via Campesina says, there is a clear confrontation between “greenwashed” capitalism, and the kind of sustainable agricultural methods which can truly respond to climate change and the need to feed the world.
Via Campesina quite rightly demands an immediate transformation of the treaty to repeal laws that privatise and commodify seeds and deny peasant rights. However, turning society upside-down, or rather, right way up, in this way is not a task the United Nations is equipped to achieve.
Such a transformation can only come about through the development of a global network of democratic people’s assemblies, who will work together to sustain humans and the eco-system they rely on. This will include the democratisation of ownership of the global corporations putting any scientific benefits they can offer at the service of the whole of humanity and not simply the service of profit.