Diversified varieties of maize
The International Treaty on PGRFA was adopted in 2001, and came into force in June 2004. Its objectives are: conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources and equitable benefit sharing from their use. The Treaty establishes a Multilateral System for Access and Benefit-Sharing to facilitate access between countries for food security.
Farmers rights under the Treaty
Article 9.1 of the Treaty recognises the enormous contribution that indigenous and local communities and farmers have made to conserving and developing plant genetic resources. Article 9.2 identifies three measures to protect and promote farmers’ rights:
protection of traditional knowledge relevant to PGRFA;
the right to equitably participate in sharing benefits from the use of PGRFA; and
the right to participate in national decision-making on conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA.
Article 9.3 states that “nothing in this Article shall be interpreted to limit any rights that farmers have to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed.”
Implementing farmers’ rights
Farmers’ rights should be implemented and guided by the overall objectives of the Treaty and related provisions on in situ conservation and sustainable use, in particular:
Article 5.1 on supporting farmer and community efforts to manage and conserve plant genetic resources on farm; and in situ conservation of wild crop relatives and wild plants for food production, including indigenous and local communities’ efforts; and
Article 6 on promoting sustainable use of PGRFA through appropriate policy and legal measures, which may include fair agricultural policies that help maintain diverse farming systems.
Taken together, these provisions call for a broad interpretation of farmers’ rights which goes beyond the right to benefit-sharing, to include the right of farmers to continue the practices which contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA, and to maintain the traditional knowledge and livelihood systems needed for this.
Therefore, in the context of the Treaty, protection of farmers’ rights requires protection of a broader set of rights than those identified in article 9.2. In particular, farmers’ customary rights over genetic resources, landscapes, cultural and spiritual values and customary laws which sustain traditional knowledge and livelihood systems.
Implementing farmers’ rights will also mean addressing the negative impacts of other policies. In particular, intellectual property right policies that protect plant breeder’s rights but not farmers' rights; and agricultural subsidies that limit market access and benefits for smallholder farmers. Support for farmers' initiatives and organisations at local levels is also required.
The FAO Treaty’s Governing Body (at its third session) called for information and views on the implementation of farmers’ rights, and held a global consultation in Ethiopia on 23-25 November 2010. These informed the fourth meeting of the Governing Body in Bali in March 2011.
The Treaty’s benefit-sharing fund
Although the Treaty’s objectives on conservation and sustainable use apply to all plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, the Multilateral System for access and benefit-sharing covers only crops and varieties listed in the Treaty’s Annex. These are major food crops such as wheat, potatoes, rice, maize etc. Materials accessed from the Multilateral System can be used for research, training and breeding for food and agriculture, which can include developing commercial products.
If any intellectual property right that restricts the further use of a product for research, training and breeding purposes is obtained, benefit-sharing is mandatory, at 1.1 per cent of net sales. Where there are no such restrictions on product use, voluntary contributions are called for. These funds go into a benefit-sharing fund that gives priority to farmers in developing countries who conserve and sustainably use plant genetic resources. Proposals have to be submitted via national focal points of the Treaty and are for a maximum of US $50,000. While this does provide a mechanism for benefits to reach farmers, the first round of grants went mostly to research organisations.
See: FAO Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
Implementing Farmers' Rights under the FAO International Treaty on PGRFA: The need for a broad approach based on biocultural heritage. Argumedo et al (2011). Paper prepared for 4th Governing Body, Bali.
FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Implementation of Farmers' Rights. Information and views submitted for the Fourth Governing Body meeting, Bali, March 2011.
How US Sorghum Seed Distributions Undermine the FAO Plant Treaty’s Multilateral System. Edward Hammond (2011).
Protecting Farmers' Rights with Indigenous Biocultural Heritage Territories: the experience of the Potato Park. Argumedo and Pimbert (2008).
Protecting community rights over Traditional knowledge. IIED and Partners' Workshop. Burnham Beeches, July 2009.
Protection of smallholder farmers: the need for a resource rights approach. K. Swiderska. Trade Insight Magazine Vol 6 No1, 2010.
Seed industry ignores farmers' rights to adapt to climate change. IIED Press release, September 2009.
Democratising agricultural research, IIED and Partners
Sustaining local food systems, agricultural biodiversity and livelihoods, IIED and partners