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Stronger plant variety protection may threaten the right to food

Governments in industrial countries regularly put pressure on developing countries to introduce stringent plant variety protection (PVP) regimes and to adhere to the 1991 Act of the UPOV Convention, without duly considering its consequences on the enjoyment of human rights of vulnerable groups such as small-scale farmers and in particular women. New research shows, the expansion of intellectual property rights on seeds might well restrict small-scale farmers’ practices of seed saving and use, exchange and selling in the informal seed supply system, limiting access to seeds and putting their right to food at risk.

9th of october 2014

A pioneering research published in the Report “Owning Seeds, Accessing Food” (PDF, 2.2 MB) by an international group of NGOs reveals worrying results. The human rights impact assessment of stringent plant variety protection and seed laws based on the 1991 Act of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV 91) provides convincing evidence of the threat to the right to food by small-scale farmers. Their widespread practice of freely saving, replanting, exchanging and selling seeds clashes with the UPOV 91’s provisions that restricts or even prohibits such practices for seeds arising from protected varieties of plants by plant breeders. Consequently, plant variety protection based on UPOV 91 will make it harder for small-scale farmers to access improved seeds as shown by the case studies in Kenya, Peru and the Philippines presented in the research report. Access to seed is a key feature of the right to food of resource-poor farmers.

While to date governments have not heeded calls from UN human rights bodies, academics and NGOs to carry out human rights impact assessments of new policies and laws, the new NGO research report (PDF, 2.2 MB)proves their value for policy-making in the public interest.

The report warns governments that accelerated introduction of stringent plant variety protection based on UPOV 91 might threaten the right to food. Based on the findings, the report provides key recommendations to be urgently considered by governments. These include:

  • to undertake a human rights impact assessment before drafting or amending a national plant variety protection law or before introducing intellectual property requirements in trade or investment agreements in the area of agriculture,
  • to use the flexibility provided by the TRIPS Agreement to draft PVP laws and related measures that reflects the needs and interests of the most vulnerable groups such as small-scale farmers
  • to promote implementation of other legal obligations such as realizing farmers’ rights, the protection of the rights of indigenous people and traditional knowledge,
  • to ensure national PVP laws allow small-scale farmers to freely save, use, exchange and sell all farm- saved seeds/propagating material,
  • to ensure that governments abide by a transparent and participatory process that includes all potentially affected stakeholders, especially small-scale farmers and public interest groups, when drafting, amending or implementing seed laws and related measures. Failing to do so risk the violation of the right to food of small-scale farmers and their families.

For more information contact
Thomas Braunschweig, Berne Declaration, +41 79 339 3701, t.braunschweig[at]evb.ch
Teshome Hunduma, Development Fund Norway, +47 99 546 282, teshome[at]utviklingsfondet.no
Sangeeta Shashikant, Third World Network, +44 79 7217 5128, sangeeta[at]twnetwork.org

Owning Seeds, Accessing Food: A Human Rights Impact Assessment of UPOV 1991

— Abstract
Many developing countries are under pressure to strengthen their plant variety protection (PVP) regimes, often as a result of pressure and demands in trade agreements with developed countries. In a pioneering research endeavor, a group of NGOs carried out a human rights impact assessment (HRIA) of stronger plant variety protection laws based on the 1991 Act of the Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV 91). UPOV 91 to some extent restricts the saving of seeds and propagation material of protected varieties and prohibits their exchange and sale by farmers. The case studies in Kenya, Peru and the Philippines provide convincing evidence of the threat to the enjoyment of the right to food by small-scale farmers as they rely heavily on the informal seed system with its wide-spread practice of freely saving, replanting, exchanging and selling seed. The report further reveals a lack of information and participation of small-scale farmers and other public interest stakeholders in the process of adopting and reforming PVP-related laws. Another key message relates to the methodological approach. While challenging and still new, the existing principles, methodological steps, and accumulated experience provide a sound basis for applying a HRIA of public policies. Finally, the report offers actor-specific recommendations, including the call on governments to undertake a HRIA before strengthening their respective national PVP regime (or including UPOV 91 commitments in trade agreements), to shield the most vulnerable groups such as small-scale farmers from human rights violations.

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