This article was first published on La Via Campesina’s website on September 16 2022. You can find it here.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture – commonly known as the “Seed Treaty” – is due to meet its Governing Body of 144 member states in New Delhi from 19-25 September 2022. Since its entry into force in 2004, the Treaty’s Multilateral System has managed access to several million seed samples, mostly collected from peasants’ fields around the world and stored in ‘germ-plasm banks’. It makes these “plant genetic resources” available to researchers and industry for use in breeding and marketing new varieties.
In return, Article 9 of the Seed Treaty promises to:
– Guarantee the rights of farmers who have selected, bred and maintained these “plant genetic resources” in their fields to use, exchange and sell them;
– Protect their knowledge, their right to share in the benefits of the use of their seeds and to participate in decisions that affect them;
– Oppose any intellectual property rights that may limit access to the seeds they distribute, their parts or their genetic components.
As part of the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC) delegation, La Via Campesina will be present in New Delhi, to remind the Treaty’s Governing Body that it must immediately enforce, respect and promote the full realization of peasants’ rights. Moreover, there is a new additional tool of struggle for rights to seeds, specifically the United Nation on the Declaration of the Rights of Peasant and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP).
This Declaration – adopted by the UN General Assembly – strengthens the position of Article 9 of the “Seed Treaty” related to State obligations to implement the full rights.
A Permanent Problem
Since 2004, none of the promises in Article 9 have been kept: so-called “benefit sharing” has been limited to a few symbolic crumbs offered by a handful of States or, more recently, thrown in by a few industrialists. Moreover, most of the little money collected is not returned to the farmers who gave their seeds. Instead they are distributed to academic institutions. Northern countries favor certification and intellectual property laws that limit or prohibit farmers’ rights and use free trade agreements to impose the same laws on historically colonized countries. Only a minority of States manage to resist these undignified trade pressures, prioritizing instead peasants’ rights.
Industrial seed laws seek an absolute monopoly over seeds that are made homogeneous and stable so that they can be privatized through intellectual property rights. This standardization of seeds imposes the same standardization of growing conditions by chemical fertilizers, pesticides and machinery – all dependent on high fossil fuel consumption. They criminalize the use or exchange of peasant seeds that are sufficiently alive to allow farmers to adapt them each year to the immense diversity of territories and growing conditions and their changes, particularly climatic.
These laws thus perpetuate an industrial seed system that is collapsing and prohibits peasant seed systems which are the only real way to guarantee the right to adequate food for current and future generations as is reiterated in Article 15 of UNDROP.
Peasants’ rights and a genuine benefit-sharing system are being obstructed by a minority of countries who are demanding a further expansion of the number of seed species to which the Treaty gives them access. This obstruction is causing increasing protests from the majority of member countries that are less wealthy financially, but richer in seeds that are bred and saved by their peasants. Faced with the risk of these protests turning into binding decisions, the industry has suddenly invented a new vocabulary to try to escape its obligations: it no longer talks about plant genetic resources but instead about “Digital Gene Sequence Information” (DSI) – as digital information of sequence of all characteristic in the plant genetic resources.
New seeds have always been selected by crossing plants and modifying their characteristics by various agronomic, physical or chemical processes, and then observing them to choose and multiply those that produce the most interesting crops. Today, the new genetic religion reduces living organisms to the mere numerical representation of their genetic content which is information present in every cell of living things that can be passed on to the next generation. The genetic material consist of – among other things – Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) and Ribonucleic Acid (RNA).
Our Concerns are Real
The Treaty* has therefore joined the DivSeek Consortium1** to mobilize millions of dollars to sequence the genomes (genetic material) of all the seeds entrusted to it and to coordinate the free access of these DSIs on the internet. It is also asking benefit-sharing funded researchers and NGOs to collect and submit new farmer-bred seeds to the consortium and to publish all data reflecting farmers’ knowledge of the traits of interest in those seeds. In order to replace their increasingly unsustainable industrial varieties more and more quickly with constant, equally obsolete innovations, the multinationals no longer need to have access to the physical plant genetic resources of the Treaty’s germplasm banks. Instead, they freely collect databases on the internet that compile the genetic sequences of millions of seeds and the associated knowledge of farmers. They then entrust these DSIs to the algorithms of very powerful computers responsible for identifying the genetic sequences associated with the most interesting traits in order to mass-market new seeds. After patenting this “genetic information” and using their communication officers to make as many promises as possible in order to raise as much money as possible, they instruct their geneticists to try to introduce these DSIs into new commercial varieties.
In international discussions, corporate-controlled countries that host the multinational seed companies claim that the seed DSI in the multilateral system of the Treaty are not plant genetic resources subject to the patent ban and benefit sharing, but research results. Their national intellectual property laws, however, say otherwise by extending the scope of a patent on genetic information to any organism that contains that information and expresses the associated trait of interest.
With Divseek, the Treaty thus recognizes a new form of biopiracy, which consists of depriving peasants of their rights to save, use, exchange and sell seeds that they themselves have selected as soon as they are collected, sometimes without their knowledge, to feed research or national collections made available to the multilateral system.
Beyond its unbearable injustice, this new biopiracy threatens the right to food and the food sovereignty of peoples. In a few years, three multinationals have seized control of more than 50% of the seeds marketed on the planet with these patents on DSIs and the genetic engineering processes designed to use them. They can therefore decide who does and does not have access to seeds to produce their food. Moreover, while the computing power of the algorithms is increasing, their intelligence remains zero. Intelligence is indeed the hallmark of living beings. The so-called “artificial intelligence” of genetic engineering repairs and designs new seeds outside the real world in the same way that machines are programmed to work. But seeds are not machines. They are the reproductive organs of living beings, the plants. Life does not obey computer models. This is why the machine seeds of the gene industry can only generate multiple damages to the living world, to health and to the environment in which they are disseminated. The new GMOs will not live up to their promises any better or be more sustainable than their transgenic predecessors. Their expansion threatens food security.
Our Seeds, Our Rights
Only seeds selected year after year by peasants in their fields are adapted to the real living world of each local growing condition and best able to adapt to changes in it, including climate. The peasant seed systems that sustain them are based on the rights of peasants to save, use, exchange and sell their seeds and to protect them from genetic contamination and biopiracy. They now produce three quarters of the world’s food using only a quarter of the agricultural land. They are the only sustainable systems that respect the common good. The industrial seed system may feed financial speculation with its patents for the sole benefit of a small elite, but it produces only a quarter of the available food by using three quarters of the agricultural land. It is not sustainable.
The States that have signed the Treaty must respect their commitments:
- La Via Campesina calls on the Governing Body of the Seed Treaty to recognize that Digital Sequence Information (DSI) of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA) ARE plant genetic resources, enforcing the obligation of members to implement in their national laws the Farmers’ Rights as defined in Article 9 and to reject all intellectual property rights on seeds of the Multilateral System, their genetic parts and components in accordance with its Article 12.3 (d);
- La Via Campesina is committed to developing peasant seed systems in all countries of the world, preferably with the support of a Seed Treaty that serves to realize the full realization of peasants’ rights as defined in UNDROP;
- If the Treaty chooses to facilitate or promote the violation of peasants’ rights and becomes an instrument of biopiracy through patents of multinationals on DSI, La Via Campesina will fight against it and call on peasants around the world to safeguard their rights by ensuring that their seeds cannot be used in research or national collections made available to its Multilateral System.
GLOBALIZE THE STRUGGLE! GLOBALIZE HOPE!
*The DivSeek International Network is a global community that connects, combines and communicates expertise among stakeholders engaged in the management1 and characterization2 of plant genetic resources. DivSeek comprises leading researchers and practitioners drawn from a broad base of academic and research institutions, government agencies, and inter-governmental organizations around the world ( https ://divseekintl.org/about-us/)
** Rome, Italy, 06 June 2022 – FAO, on behalf of the International Treaty, and DivSeek International have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) aimed at improving the interoperability of information systems dealing with crop germplasm around the world. ( https://www.fao.org/plant-treaty/news/news-detail/en/c/1538433/)