How much biodiversity will be available for future generations? IPC participation at the Governing Body of the International Seeds Treaty

November 25, 2019

All photos by IISD/ENB | Mike Muzurakis The International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC) participated massively to the eight session of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), thanks to the presence of delegates from all regions of the world[1], and with the support of different NGOs. This participation shows the importance that the IPC and its members attribute to this space and to the implementation of the Treaty, especially the enhancement of the functioning of the Multilateral System and the implementation of Farmers’ Rights. From 11 to 16 November 2019, after 4 days of preparation meetings of the IPC, the ITPGRFA started its work with high expectations and two main issues to be discussed: the enhancement of the benefit sharing provided by the Multilateral System and the effective implementation of Farmers’ Rights. The intersessional Working Groups on those issues resulted in poor results and it did not allow to any consensus agreements on the follow-up, so most of the contentious issues were left to the discussions during the Governing Body. The Farmers’ Rights Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group was not able to complete its tasks during the two intersessional meetings, due to the opposition of a block made by industrialized countries, willing to adopt a wide interpretation of the implementation of Farmers’ Rights restricted by the primacy of breeders’ Intellectual Property Rights. We spent hours and hours discussing about the way of classifying the inventory of submissions received on the status of the implementation of Farmers’ Rights at national level, reducing the debate to technical measures without addressing what constitutes a real implementation of Farmers’ Rights. The Open Ended Working Group on Multilateral System, after 5 years working and despite extra sessions, was not able to find an agreement on two main issues: (1) the payment rates (for the single access or multiple access in the form of subscription system) for sharing the benefits resulting from the utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA) and (2) the application of the rules of the Multilateral System and the Standard Material Transfer Agreement on the Digital Sequence Information (DSI) contained in the PGRFA. The aim of the block set up by the usual defender of industry interests were clear since the beginning: their objective is to avoid any discussions on DSI and give time to the industries to acquire DSI, included in the PGRFA that are now covered by the MLS, while there are no rules in the matter of access and benefit sharing coming from the utilization of that information. These Contracting Parties also claim that the term DSI is not an official term and that it would be more appropriate to name them as “Genetic Sequence Data”, which simple represent certain genetic components of PGRFA. As these data are not physical PGRFA themselves, they would not be subject to benefit sharing or the prohibition of patenting. However, as the IPC claimed already many times also within the MLS Working Group, industry can use these data to reconstruct the genetic components of physical PGRFA without having to access to the physical PGRFA from which they were extracted. Industry may also sell such data and/or patent the genetic information – or heritable trait – related to such data, extending the scope of such patents to all physical PGRFA containing the genetic information patented as such, including those from which the data used to claim such patents were extracted. Claiming that DSI are not genetic components of PGRFA, it will legitimize the appropriation of all PGRFA of MLS by such patents. So, the Governing Body was requested to discuss formally deeply on these issues and enter into the specific contents, in order to give the possibility to the Treaty to assume the political role, conferred by the CBD, within the international UN System for the protection of Farmers’ Rights and the sharing of benefits deriving by the utilization of the agricultural biodiversity, enhanced and conserved by farmers. However, due to deliberately biased procedures during the week, there have been no discussions at all. The African group, GRULAC and Middle East Group were supportive of the IPC positions, and insisted in having in-depth discussions, but with no results. The US Chair kept the discussions on DSI as informal for the first three days and waited until Wednesday to establish a contact group, composed exclusively of two Contracting Parties per region, which created a great imbalance between regions: Africa, with more than 50 countries, therefore had two representatives in the Contact Group, as did North America, composed solely of two countries. In this context, characterized by difficulties in intervening and no clarity on the procedures, the observers and Contracting Parties had many obstacles in influencing the discussions. The results show exactly this absence of discussion:

  • The discussion on MLS and DSI have been frozen (some European countries even joked about that, this saying that the discussions can be kept in Svalkbard for 2 years) and no agreements have been found to continue the working group to enhance the Multilateral System (including payment rates).
  • Even if the members of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Farmers’ Rights added two places for farmers’ organizations (from 3 to 5 places, out of 43 members), the change is not significant and the mandate remained the same, without recognizing the problems we faces in the last two years.

These results are sad considering the hope we attribute to the multilateral system. The Treaty represents a collective discussion space created by the democracies of the world and therefore has the extra responsibility to respect and abide by the basic underlying principles of Democracy of inclusiveness and transparency while undergoing treaty processes. The IPC is convinced that DSI constitutes a socio-political issue, which if not dealt now in its entirety, will jeopardize Farmers’ Rights to save, use, exchange and sell their seeds and those of their parents qualified as PGRFA. As recognized by various international documents regarding rights, Farmers’ Rights are human rights, which have a tight connection with many other fundamental human rights, such as the right to food. Farmers’ Rights are not in any way an exception to intellectual property rights and cannot be seen as subject to such rights. Considering that the Governing Body failed to safeguard Farmers’ Rights, by not taking any decision on the issue of DSI and on bio-piracy of PGRFA, IPC would like to extend support to all those peasants who wish to non-cooperate with the Treaty by not sharing their seeds as long as it does not ensure that no beneficiary of facilitated access to these PGRFA can claim an intellectual property right or other right limiting their rights to continue to conserve, use, exchange and sell them. Finally, IPC will continue its work in the engagement and support the Treaty in the implementation of its articles. Our ancestors have enhanced biodiversity for millennia, and now we are continuing to do so in our biodiverse, peasant and agroecological food production systems. No matter how much multi-national corporations try to change this truth, nobody can ever discourage us. We will continue our struggles, we keep our hopes alive, we pursue the realization of our rights, and we will survive not only for our future but also for the future of humanity as whole. [1] One from North America, two from Latin America and Caribbean, two from Europe, two from Middle East and North Africa, two from Asia and pacific, six from Africa.