Agricultural Innovation Needed In Africa, With Farmers’ Participation, WTO Panellists Say

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Farmers’ needs are not addressed by the current intellectual property framework or by innovation, according to panellists at the World Trade Organization Public Forum this week, and farmers should be invited to participate in international negotiations directly impacting their livelihood. Meanwhile, the African continent is seeking a way to address the food security problem, faced with a growing population and dire need to modernise their agriculture, other panellists said.

A session on agriculture and farmers’ needs was organised by the Quaker United Nations Office and the International Institute for Environment and Development during the WTO Public Forum taking place from 24-26 September. The session sought to bring elements to the discussion on what kind of intellectual property framework would be most adapted to improve food production, and what kind of innovations are or should be promoted by this framework.

There is a range of international instruments dealing with various aspects of IP protection and seeds, said Antony Taubman, director of the Intellectual Property Division at the WTO. Compliance with the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires protection for plant varieties either by patents or a sui generis system, such as the one provided by International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV).

The work on this topic at the WTO is not “enormously active” at the moment, Taubman said, as the review process of TRIPS Article 27.3 b (on exclusion from patentability of plants and animals) has been going on for over a decade. Article 27.3 b mentions that its provision would be reviewed four years after the date of entry into force of TRIPS. This process has not led to any specific conclusions, he said, but has provided “a good deal of information” on the subject, which gives the WTO a much stronger position to analyse and discuss specific choices that members have taken, he added.

IP Protection Coupled With Private Sector Involvement

Agricultural research used to be mainly conducted by the public sector, but the increasing role of the private sector has gone hand-in-hand with the development of the IP rights system and protection of new crop varieties, said Derek Eaton, executive director of the Centre for International Environmental Studies at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute.

The IP rights system, in particular patents, are seen as impinging on the freedom to operate for researchers, who might choose other research paths, he said, adding that there are clear signals of a decline of agricultural innovations in the pipeline. This is a new issue, he said, and there is a growing concern among researchers about the IP system and a call for its improvement.

The current IP system favours scientific innovation but misses a whole section of innovators who have domesticated seeds that are used today and who keep innovating, according to Krystyna Swiderska, senior researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). It is an impossible task to store all plant varieties in gene banks in which those plants are not evolving and adapting to climate change, she said. Plants need to be conserved in situ, she said.

Collaborating with farmers, IIED found interesting resilient genes in local varieties and underutilised crop species. These include species able to resist drought, pests, frost and flood damage. Those species are more accessible to poor farmers and such varieties are an important store for mainstream agriculture for future agricultural production, she said.

Strengthening local seed systems and linking them to modern scientific systems is key, so that they are mutually supportive. This interrelation would help scientific breeding systems answer the needs of the poor farmers, which “they don’t very well at the moment,” she said. Modern breeding systems are geared towards increasing productivity, but stability and uniformity do not help farmers as they need diversity for resilience.

At the moment, IP rights and scientific innovation are not supporting farmers’ needs, Swiderska said. Going forward, it would be important to link benefits derived by formal breeding to share them back with farmers, who for the moment have no incentive to keep conserving the wealth of genetic diversity, she added. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture has provisions to protect farmers and ensure benefit-sharing with farmers but the treaty has not been translated at national level and is rarely implemented, according to Swiderska.

Farmers, an Empty Seat in International Negotiations

Farmers are notably absent from international negotiations on agriculture, according to Guy Kastler, European coordinator of Via Campesina, an international peasants movement group. The way farmers innovate is by replanting a part of their harvest and exchange seeds with other farmers to promote adaptation, he said. Protection of plant varieties through UPOV would be fine if it did not prevent the exchange and the replanting of seeds. UPOV has several versions of its convention and, he said the 1961 convention answered farmers’ needs more adequately while the 1991 version was not acceptable for farmers.

By preventing exchange and replanting, the UPOV system also prevents complimentarity between farmers’ systems and conventional agriculture systems, he said. However, of more concern than UPOV are patents on varieties, Kastler said, because genes that already exist in plants cultivated by farmers can be patented. Patents can also be dangerous for plant breeders, he said, as they restricts their access to genetic material.

Patents also bring out the question of what type of innovation they are encouraging, he said. According to Kastler, patents are geared to generate benefits by creating a need, not to answer food security problems. The issue should be discussed at the World Intellectual Property Organization and at UPOV, he said, and farmers’ rights contained in the FAO seed treaty should be integrated into WIPO, UPOV and even TRIPS, he said.

Via Campesina, along with a number of NGOs such as GRAIN, Friends of the Earth International, and the ETC group, published a press release on 15 September questioning an article co-signed by Jose Graziano da Silva, director general of FAO, published in the Wall Street Journal on 6 September, presenting the private sector as “the main engine” of agriculture growth needed to feed the world. The letter calls for governments to “create a predictable policy framework that fosters private-sector investment by all market participants,” which the press release considers an open door to land-grabbing.

At the international level, the dialogue between farmers and plant breeders should be strengthened and more efforts should be developed to bring farmers into the debate, Swiderska said.

Food Security in Africa Needs Innovation, Infrastructure

Africa is both a continent harshly hit by malnutrition but also a place where there will be a significant rise in population, and food security is one of the main pressing issue of African countries, according to a panel on African’s trade and agriculture policy in 2025, organised by the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States.

During the period of colonialism, African countries depended on a small number of commodities combined with other factors such as the 1970s oil crisis and the concentration of global markets where a few transnational corporations dominating the processing, trading and retailing of food and inputs “from farm to fork.” This led to “very little innovation in terms of agricultural trade in Africa,” said Aimable Uwizeye-Mapendano, economic affairs officer, Special Unit on Commodities at the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

For Bernard Njonga, civil society activist for agricultural policy in Cameroon at the Association Citoyenne de Défense des Intérêts Collectifs, the accession of the country to the WTO has opened the market, which has been “flooded” with cheap imports competing with local production. Njonga said in Cameroon farmers still were underequipped, lacked access to agricultural inputs, and suffered from malnutrition. One of their main difficulties, he said was their enclosure with little means for movement.

How should multilateralism be approached when exchanges between fields and cities, between cities and cities are so complicated, he asked. Some basic steps are missing, he said, as when farmers are enclosed, they can only produce food that they can eat. Farmers are left on the side of the road to globalisation, he said.

African producers are partly to blame, according to Njonga, as they are “curiously amorphous” and lack strong demands. Governments also have a large responsibility, he said, for lack of policy and vision. Finally, part of the problem also lies with consumers, he added, for not encouraging local production by consuming it.

Catherine Saez may be reached at

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