Case for farmers owning their seeds

The common understanding is that seed and farmer go together. The concept of farmers’ rights has a long history of debates in the United Nations (UN) system. But it is only now that a historic UN declaration on peasants is on the horizon.

This creates an opportunity for India to also check how well it is faring on this front with its laws and policies on the subject, and whether its smallholder farmers are really being able to keep their seeds.

In a notable development at the UN Human Rights Council, on September 26, 2018, a resolution was passed for a draft declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas.

An important provision therein is the proposed Article 19, which elaborates seed rights. Bolivia’s delegate introduced the draft resolution through the social, cultural and humanitarian committee of the GA on November 8, 2018.

On November 19, 2018, the committee met again to pass a majority vote in favour of the Declaration. India was among the 119 countries that voted for the Declaration. The UN General Assembly will next formally ratify the Declaration in December, 2018.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has been the venue for the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture approved in 2001.

The said treaty came into force in 2004. It is also referred to as the seed/plant treaty. But the farmers’ seed freedoms recognised therein are yet to be realised. India is a party to this seed treaty.

Article 9 of the Treaty recognises farmers’ rights which includes their seed freedoms. These freedoms include the right to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed. But the seed treaty also makes these rights subject to national legislation.

There is acknowledgement by the treaty’s Governing Body that governments are not entirely certain how to go about implementing farmers’ rights and the challenges to implement are different in every country. For that reason there are ongoing Treaty processes to assist governments. An Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) on Farmers’ Rights has been constituted. Its task is two-fold:

• Produce an inventory of national measures that may be adopted, best practices and lessons learned from the realisation of farmers’ rights, as set out in Article 9 of the International Treaty; and,

• Based on the inventory, develop options for encouraging, guiding and promoting the realisation of Farmers’ Rights as set out in Article 9 of the International Treaty.

The first meeting of the AHTEG was held at the FAO HQ in Rome, Italy in September 2018. India holds an important position there as co-chair.

India’s Law: India props up its intellectual property law, namely the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001 as the key legislation to implement farmers’ rights.

In the Treaty meetings, India’s law is held up as one possible way to effect farmers’ rights. This law is a constant reference point for Indian negotiators at international fora. Two good reasons why it is crucial to get its implementation right on the ground in India, with respect to farmers’ rights.

As per the law, farmers do have a legal identity as cultivators, conservers and plant breeders. Farmers’ right to save, use, sow, re-sow, exchange, share or sell their farm produce including seed is also recognised. But a farmer is not allowed to sell branded seed of an IPR-protected variety in the official seed market. That area is dominated by the seed industry — be that IPR-protected seed products from either the public sector or the many seed companies and MNCs.

No state support

Despite the law, in reality, farmers do not have any guaranteed state support for the inclusion of their own seeds in the official seed supply chain.

Farmers’ varieties, land races and the folk varieties they conserve are regarded and even rewarded by the Indian law. But things have to move beyond the tokenism.

The push can come from the new Declaration in-the-coming. Among other obligations it requires governments to take measures to respect, protect and fulfil the right to seeds of peasants and other people working in rural areas.

This includes ensuring that seed policies, plant variety protection and other intellectual property laws, certification schemes and seed marketing laws respect and take into account the rights, needs and realities of peasants and other people working in rural areas.

The Peasants Declaration is an example of human rights being recognised by a bottom-up process. Peasants worldwide have struggled for years to get this kind of formal legal recognition in the UN system. Yet that recognition has to be made real in their home countries.

(The writer is a Delhi-based legal researcher and policy analyst)

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Case for farmers owning their seeds

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