Current intellectual property rights, especially those for GMO seeds, threaten poor farmers, food security and the right to food
(New York, October 21, 2009) Returning from a country mission in Brazil, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Prof. Olivier De Schutter, presented in New York his report on the relationships between intellectual property (IP) rights and the right to food. Summarizing his analysis and recommendations, he called Members of the U.N. General Assembly to develop seed policies that encourage innovation, promote food security and enhance agrobiodiversity at the same time.
“The current intellectual property rights regime is suboptimal to ensure global food security today. It is unfit to promote the kind of innovation we need to cope with climate change”, said De Schutter, adding that his mandate was to make recommendations to ensure that seed policies ‘respect, protect and fulfill’ the right to food of the most vulnerable groups. This is the first time a UN independent expert has analyzed the intellectual property regime under the right to food framework, part of international human rights law.
“Climate change means more extreme and more frequent climatic events. This will severely impact agricultural systems”. In this context, said De Schutter, “seed policies should not just aim to improve yields. They should also raise the incomes of the poorest farmers working in the most difficult environments. They should help build resilience to climate change. And they should stem the loss of crop genetic diversity”.
According to the UN food expert, there are currently two
ways for farmers to access seeds: informal seed systems
where seeds are stored from one year to the other and
exchanged locally; and commercial systems marketing improved
seeds which are certified by public authorities.
Increasingly, the former disappear due to their neglect in
agricultural policies, while globalization and the current
IP rights regime strengthen the
According to the Special Rapporteur, the strengthening of
intellectual property rights at global level could result in
improved certified varieties being unaffordable for the
poorest farmers. But it creates other problems as well.
“Experts I meet everyday – in Brazil research institutions
for example – warn me about the fact that excessive IP
rights are becoming an obstacle rather than an incentive for
innovation. They say it is becoming harder and harder for
public scientists to access and exchange genetic material”.
have more innovation in the fields of small farmers, we need
to ground our vision and our public policies on two
fundamental principles. First, we need participation. When
you combine the experience of small farmers – who know their
fields and their needs – with the best of what science can
offer, tremendous progress can be made. That is what happens
with ‘participatory plant breeding’. Second, we must look
beyond the seed and adopt a systemic approach to
agricultural innovation. Improving plants is
Betting on farmers as innovators also makes economic sense. “Real improvements for the most vulnerable groups – those who are hungry – can sometimes be cheaper than multi-million research programs and high-tech biotechnologies. Investing research efforts in orphan crops – crops that have been neglected in research for decades – proves to have exceptional returns on investment.”
With only $10,000, a Peruvian researcher has been able to improve oca, an Andean tuber which is the basic foodcrop for 9 million people, but which scientists had neglected. Within two years, he was able to produce virus-free plants, leading to a doubling of productivity. “That’s what’s pro-poor breeding is. That’s where we should put our money.”
The Special Rapporteur provided journalists in New York with other examples of existing successful systems, such as farmers’ seed banks (local seed exchange systems promoting agrobiodiversity), seed fairs, participatory plant breeding, and farmer field schools. “We must scale up these systems if we want to cope with climate change and reduce hunger at the same time”.