South safeguards Farmers' Rights on agricultural biodiversity

The South foiled US attempts at the Fourth FAO International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources to whittle down Farmers' Rights on agricultural biodiversity.

by Vandana Shiva

THE Fourth FAO International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources, held at Leipzig in Germany in June, which adopted a Global Action Plan for 'the Conservation and Successful Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture', was a victory of sorts for the Third World with the United States failing in its attempt to amend the Action Plan to delete Farmers' Rights or reduce it to a mere 'concept'. After failing in its attempt to 'kill' Farmers' Rights the US tried to reduce it to individual Farmer's Right.

The amendment, which was opposed by Third World countries, would have enabled transnational corporations to enter into agreements with individual farmers for the purpose of acquiring patents for cornering huge profits at the expense of the farmers in developing countries.

The amendment which the US sought to insert included a clause which referred to the promotion of 'fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of plant genetic resources' and a sub-clause confirming 'the needs and individual rights of farmers and, collectively where recognised by national law to have non-discriminatory access to germ-plasm...'. While the 'individual rights of farmers' would, in fact, have given the transnational corporations the right to enter into agreements with the farmers, the proviso, 'collectively where recognised by national law', was not likely to be of much help as legislation on the subject is full of pitfalls. Further, a legally binding international agreement for Farmers' Rights remain an unfulfilled goal.


After having failed in its attempt to gain recognition (note that it is only recognition) for individual Farmer's Rights in the Action Plan, the US succeeded, through deceit, in having a sub-clause inserted in the clause on 'Policy/Strategy' to subject farmers' seed distribution to commercial seed industry criteria. The US prevailed upon Poland to move the sub-clause as originally presented, which had been modified in panel discussions with a view to excluding commercial criteria for farmers' seed distribution. The plenary had already adopted the clause when Third World delegates noticed the mischief and protested against it.

Before the start of the technical conference non-governmental organisations (NGOS) from 50 countries expressed regret that 'food and food policy is becoming concentrated under the control of transnational corporations and their local partners' and committed themselves to 'continued opposition to transnational agribusi-ness monopolies on production, processing and distribution of food'.

The NGOs affirmed that this was happening through the structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank and the agricultural trade liberalisation rules of World Trade Organisation (WTO), and committed themselves to ensuring that the WTO Review Process in 1999-2000 led 'to the removal of agriculture from the Uruguay Round agreement and to the elimination of Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) and to pressuring governments, the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and all other relevant institutions to establish mechanisms and structures that support food self-sufficiency'.

Neo-liberal free trade policy

As two NGOs said in a statement, the neo-liberal free trade policy promoted by the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO, has directly destroyed 'the basis of people's subsistence, livelihood and health, particularly of the most vulnerable groups in the South, of poor women and children. Due to this policy, they are not only losing access to their resources - land, forests, water, seeds - but also all obligations of the state to protect their survival, their health and education.

Also in the North, they said, 'this policy is destroying food security for all rather than promoting it. It has already eliminated the small farmers and replaced their sustainable agriculture by capital-intensive agro-businesses, based on internal inputs like pesticides, fertilisers and genetic engineering.

'It also makes consumers virtual hostages to a handful of transnational food processing and trading corporations.'

At the consumption end of the globalised food chain, they said, 'women as housewives can no longer guarantee that they give wholesome and healthy food to their families. And even in the North more and more people are faced with hunger in spite of super abundance of food in the supermarkets. Hence, food security for all - in a quantitative sense of adequate amounts of food and in a qualitative sense of food safety - is being destroyed by this policy, both in the South and the North.

The Global Plan of Action adopted at the Conference aims, among other things, at promoting 'sustainable utilisation of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, in order to foster development and reduce hunger and poverty, particularly in developing countries'. It also aims at promoting 'a fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA), realising the desirability of sharing equitably benefits arising from the use of traditional knowledge, innovations and practices relevant to the conservation of PGRFA and their sustainable use'.


The Action Plan document says the Plan is 'based on the assumption that countries are fundamentally interdependent with respect to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and that substantial international cooperation would be necessary to meet the aims of the Plan, effectively and efficiently'. It says 'securing the safety of the genetic material already collected and providing for its regeneration and safety duplication is a key strategic element of the Global Plan of Action.'

The document says, 'Despite the existence of a variety of sources of financing for the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, there are still gaps, overlaps, inefficiencies and unnecessary redundancies in the activities financed. In addition, national programmes are at very different stages of development in their coverage of conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. An agreed Global Plan of Action could help to focus resources on the priorities, which have been identified at various levels and increase overall effectiveness of the global efforts.'

On resources, as the author pointed out in an intervention, 'It is the biodiversity-rich and resource- poor communities and countries, who are being asked to carry an additional burden, so that the entire world community can have the benefit of conserved biodiversity.' The rich countries of the world, she was sorry to say, 'are feeling extremely poor when it comes to mobilising those additional resources to make that additional commitment possible.' The author suggested that agribusiness and agrochemical and seed sectors make social contributions given that they had obtained their resources 'from the free use and free access in the past decades to both the knowledge and resources of the Third World communities'.

The partial victory scored by the Third World at the Conference was due to the sustained campaigns of the farmers, the NGOs and the support they received from some people and countries. However, the campaign is far from over. The matter would come up at the Food Summit in Rome and Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biodiversity at Buenos Aires in the later part of the year. There is need for utmost vigilance, knowing the potential for mischief of the transnational corporations and their governments.

Vandana Shiva is a scientist and activist. She is also a contributing editor for Third World Resurgence.