UN Conference Pushes Plant Breeding; Others See Food Security In Jeopardy 23/09/2009 by Catherine Saez, Intellectual Property Watch 7 Comments IP-Watch is a non-profit independent news service, and subscribing to our service helps support our goals of bringing more transparency to global IP and innovation policies. To access all of our content, please subscribe now. You also have the opportunity to offer additional support to your subscription, or to donate. Participants at a recent United Nations conference on the role of new plant varieties and seeds in agriculture agreed that access to genetic resources and the protection of intellectual property rights are essential to sustain plant breeding. But key opponents not present at the meeting claim that plant breeding will endanger biodiversity, sustainability and ultimately food security. The Second World Seed Conference, held 8-10 September at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) headquarters in Rome, aimed at promoting the development and distribution of new plant varieties in order to address the evolving agricultural demand. The conference organised by the FAO, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), International Seed Federation (ISF) and the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA), is the second edition of the event. In the face of a growing global population and climate change, the conference concluded that in order to meet those challenges, urgent, lasting government measures, as well as public and private investments were needed to help the seed sector to achieve food security. According to the conference press release, the conference was meant to raise awareness about the importance of new plant varieties and high quality seed and governments were prompted to implement a regulatory environment to “ensure that farmers have access to high quality seed at a fair price.” FAO members were particularly targeted and asked to participate in the internationally harmonised systems of the OECD, UPOV, International Treaty on Plant and Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, and ISTA. The conference conclusions emphasised the contribution of plant breeding in food security and sustainability and encouraged the development of reliable and internationally acceptable certificates “through collaboration between all stakeholders” as that would contribute to the “development of seed markets to the benefit of farmers.” IP Protection Crucial For Breeders, Says Conference A conference conclusion was that intellectual property protection guarantees investment in breeding and the development of new varieties of plants. If a country is a UPOV member, breeders gain confidence in introducing a new variety in the country, according to the conclusions. The conference also praised the International Seed Treaty for providing food security through conservation and for facilitating access to genetic resources. Upgrading the UPOV Convention to provide stricter exclusive rights to commercial plant breeders “will further undermine the rights of farmers and promote the loss of seed diversity that poor communities depend on for their resilience to changing climatic conditions,” said Krystyna Swiderska, researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). According to a presentation by Marcel Kanungwe, director of Pannar Seed, farmers in developing countries are not eagerly adopting new varieties and therefore cannot benefit from the advantages of the new products. This reluctance to use new varieties is mainly due to the lack of information on varieties and services, and the fact that farmers are unaware of the availability of the new varieties which could improve their productivity. He also explained in his presentation that the lack of defined seed policy in developing countries was a hindrance to seed breeding. Private seed companies could not use “their performances trials as part of the official variety release process” and this slows the introduction of new varieties. New varieties often require higher chemical inputs and are not sustainable, environmentally or economically said Swiderska. Moreover, those new varieties create a reliance on expensive external inputs and lead to decreasing traditional varieties “which provide a more varied and nutritious diet and enable farmers to adapt to climate change,” she told Intellectual Property Watch. The London-based IIED is currently conducting research with partners from several countries, such as China. India, Kenya, Panama and Peru, on traditional knowledge in agriculture, the benefit of preserving the diversity of traditional seed varieties, and the necessity for farmers to be able to freely save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds. The report should be available soon, according to IIED. The introduction of plant breeders’ rights has not encouraged research and development activities as expected, and has driven prices upwards, said Swiderska The World Seed Conference was aimed at policymakers, governments officials, breeding companies, different stakeholders such as farmers’ organisations, consumer organisations and international breeding and seed research centres, according to the announcement. However, for Robin Willoughby, policy officer at Share The World’s Resources, “it was very disappointing that more farmers’ organisations from the developing world were not present at the conference. This is especially true as the issue is vitally important to poor farmers, and the results of the meeting could potentially have a negative impact upon their livelihoods and on biodiversity.” The International Seed Treaty is a welcomed attempt to create a global commons for plant genetic resources, Willoughby told Intellectual Property Watch. Article 9 of the treaty explicitly describes farmers rights but the article “fails to mention specifics” and that comes in contrast to international treaties such as the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and UPOV which clearly describe owners rights and are binding on governments. Shalini Bhutani, Programme Officer at GRAIN in Asia, an NGO supporting small farmers and biodiversity, told Intellectual Property Watch that the conclusions of the conference were “serious concerns”. In particular, the participation of the FAO in co-organising the event was “very out of place,” she said, adding that the event “must be seen in the continuum of the systematic undermining of small farmers and peasant agriculture.” Given the global food crisis, governments should help rebuild the food and seed systems from the bottom up and not promote corporate interests, Bhutani said, adding that the conference conclusions were leading in the opposite direction. One successful solution, according to IIED, has been experimented with in southwest China with the development of participatory plant breeding research partnerships between farmers and breeders. On 18 September, during a Human Rights Council (HRC) follow-up discussion to the HRC special sessions on the economic and financial crises and the food crises, Olivier de Schutter, special rapporteur on the right to food, said that the global food crisis could not simply be attributed to insufficient agricultural production, nor could it be imputed to disparities between supply and demand. According to a HRC press release, de Schutter said that among others, organisation of the food production and distribution chain and the building of agricultural systems should be explored. Catherine Saez may be reached at email@example.com."UN Conference Pushes Plant Breeding; Others See Food Security In Jeopardy" by Intellectual Property Watch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.