Informal And Formal Seed Systems, Usually Enemies, Can It Be Otherwise? 27/06/2017 by Catherine Saez, Intellectual Property Watch 1 Comment Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)Can the farmer seed system most widely used in the world, and the system of seeds produced by plant breeders certified and protected by intellectual property rights, be complementary? The question was addressed during a recent webinar organised by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, with no easy answers. In particular, speakers mentioned several challenges, including the lack of a common agreement on what are farmers’ rights, and the inability for small farmers to register their seeds so they are protected, in particular against biopiracy. Seed market The webinar took place on 30 May, and gathered several speakers representing different stakeholders. No farmers organisation was represented, although, according to the organisers, one representative was invited but could not attend. The webinar aimed at reaching a common understanding of farmers’ rights, and exchanging information on examples enhancing complementarity. The Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) is a global platform for agri-food research and innovation, and includes the private sector, international development agencies, farmers organisations, and civil society organisations, according to its website. The webinar was also organised with the participation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). Both Systems are Necessary According to Juanita Chaves Posada, senior advisor on genetic resources at the GFAR, all farmers, whether large industrial farmers or small holders, contribute to food security through crop genetic improvement, farmers’ selection, classical plant breeding or modern biotechnologies. The formal seed system as explained by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is based on plant breeding and selection, “resulting in different types of varieties, including hybrids, and promotes materials leading to formal variety release and maintenance.” According to the FAO, the informal seed system “is basically what the formal system is not,” with integrated and locally organised activities. The informal (or local) system “embraces most of the other ways in which farmers themselves produce, disseminate, and access seed: directly from their own harvest; through exchange and barter among friends, neighbours, and relatives; and through local grain markets.” Chaves Posada said although seemingly very different systems, they share important points of integration, for example on the demand side. Farmers are accessing seeds from different sources, she said, and on the supply side, an increasing number of breeding programmes involve farmers in variety selection. Clear Definition in Treaty, Not in Countries Mario Marino, technical officer at the ITPGRFA, underlined treaty Article 9 [pdf] (farmers’ rights), and the fact that there are different meanings and understanding about farmers’ rights despite the “clear definition of farmers’ rights in the treaty.” The issue of farmers’ rights was discussed during a Global Consultation on Farmers’ Rights, held in Bali, Indonesia from 27-30 September 2016, and organised by Indonesia and Norway. A set of recommendations to the ITPGRFA were made by the two co-chairs of the meeting, Regine Andersen of Norway and Carlos Correa of Argentina. One of the recommendations called for member states to revise their seed laws, intellectual property laws, and other legislation that may limit the legal space or create obstacles for the realisation of farmers’ rights (IPW, Biodiversity/Genetic Resources/Biotech, 15 November 2016). Marino said some 40 countries participated in the consultation, and the report of the meeting is soon to be published, and is expected to be presented at the ITPGRFA governing body meeting at the end of the year. According to Marino, the emergence of farmers’ rights in the 1980s “was first presented as a proposal to balance the increased demand for plant breeders’ rights.” Marino cited the Indian Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act of 2001 as being the most representative law in terms of providing protection to farmers, plant breeders, and encouraging research, as explained [by] the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority.” Suitable Seeds Out of Reach, ABS Mechanisms The most pressing challenges faced by farmers today include climate change, pests and diseases, according to Gloria Otieno, associate expert, genetic resources and food security policy at the Bioversity International regional office in Uganda. Challenges also include the inaccesibility of suitable seeds, such as seeds tolerant to drought, or with better cooking characteristics, she added. In Uganda, some 80 percent of seeds that are used come from the informal sector, she said, some of which are of poor quality. When improved varieties are available, farmers cannot access them or afford the inputs that are needed to use those improved varieties, she explained. She detailed the efforts of Biodiversity International, which is a research center of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), to work with communities to find suitable seeds, through access and benefit-sharing mechanisms. She underlined challenges linked to the different access and benefit-sharing regimes, and to some stringent policies which prevent farmers to save, and exchange improved varieties. Suitable genetic resources or adapted genetic resources can be found in international gene bank collections, she said. Those suitable genetic resources can be used by farmers to try, select and use, and also by breeders to find varieties adapted to climate change, or pest and diseases. Otieno aslo mentioned efforts at protecting traditional knowledge and conservation through community seed banks, and the registration of farmers’ varieties. However, in most countries, she said, such registration is not yet possible. Trust needed, Industry Concerned About Food Security There are different understandings of the basic concept of farmers rights, said Szonja Csörgõ, director of Intellectual Property and Legal Affairs at the European Seed Association. Some clarity at the ITGRFA level is needed on this concept, she said. She underlined the “lack of trust in the conversation” about farmers’ rights, which needs to be overcome and addressed at stakeholders’ level. Csörgö presented project “AGUAPAN” [pdf] (Association of Guardians of Native Potato Varieties from Central Peru), which is a benefit-sharing project supported by the National Institute for Agricultural Innovation (INIA) and the Peruvian Association for Environmental Law (SDPA), and in collaboration with HZPC, an international potato breeder, based in the Netherlands. She said seed companies are “truly concerned” about food security, and challenges such as climate change, and are “eager to find solutions.” She added that companies want to provide the best quality seeds to all farmers and make sure that genetic resources are conserved and available for further breeding. Legal System Not Supportive of Farmers System Bram de Jonge, seed policy advisor at Oxfam Novib, the Netherlands, said participatory plant breeding can be applied to all kind of areas and crops. However, the current policy framework is impacting farmers in the informal seed sector. The legal system, he said, focuses on the formal system and does not support the environment for a farmer seed system. He suggested that there is a need to link community seed banks with international and national gene banks. He, too, underlined the difficulty of registering farmers’ varieties, as registering requires many steps which are not feasible for small farmer communities, and often are not necessary, he said. How to Avoid Biopiracy Answering a question during the general discussion about protecting farmers’ seeds against biopiracy, de Jonge said if anything is being submitted to have IP rights granted, “we want to know where it comes from,” and some countries really do go far in that. “We want to have people working in IP offices able to see what is already there in the fields,” he said, adding it should not be possible to have a situation in which patent or plant breeders’ rights impact accessibility of what is already there. Some countries patenting single genetic traits could impact the use of material containing the same traits, and a solution needs to be found, he said. Csörgõ said biopiracy is not the biggest issue to address, even if there “might be some cases which you might call biopiracy,” in reference to wrongly attributed patents. Criteria in IP laws are there to avoid these situations, she said. According to Otieno, there has been cases in Africa when genetic material was taken and patented. “This is real, this is happening,” she said. The question is how to characterise farmers’ varieties and them register them in a way in which they can be documented, she said. However, this kind of exercise needs financial capabilities, which farming communities do not have, she added. Voice of Via Campesina The webinar did not include any representative from a farmers’ organisation. Intellectual Property Watch asked the organisers about this absence of representation and was told that Marvin Gomez of the farmer organization FIPAH, Honduras, was invited but eventually unable to participate. Intellectual Property Watch asked Guy Kastler, from the Via Campesina, a global farmers organisation, about the possible complementarity of the informal and formal seed systems. The formal seed system is providing less than a third of seeds and plants cultivated each year on the planet, and is based on intellectual property rights, following the requirement of the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), he said. To the contrary, the farmers’ seed system is based on the rights of farmers to save, use, exchange and sell their farm-saved seeds, he said, adding that those rights are negated by legislations which only protect industrial plant breeders. Farmers’ seed systems are thus alienated in an illegal space, sometime tolerated in an “informal ” framework, but more and more criminalised, he said. The formal seed system is based on genetic modifications of genetic resources coming from farmers’ seed systems, and to use improved varieties, they have to be integrated in locally adapted varieties, which can only be done efficiently by farmers’ seed systems, he explained. The complementarity of the two systems should be self-evident, he said, as long as it is confined to written or electronic descriptions, or in meetings where no farmers’ representative is present. In reality, no complementarity is possible today in most countries of the world that refuse to acknowledge and protect the rights of farmers on their seeds, he said. Image Credits: FLickr – SarahTz Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) Related Catherine Saez may be reached at email@example.com."Informal And Formal Seed Systems, Usually Enemies, Can It Be Otherwise?" by Intellectual Property Watch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.