The UN on privatised seeds: A bad idea

The ever-excellent InterPress Service reports on a new UN report on whether it’s a good idea to privatise seeds. The answer: not if you want poor farmers to benefit. The report, written by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Food, is available here. Full disclosure: I advise the Rapporteur, but didn’t advise on this report. More below the fold.

For-Profit Seeds Hurting Farmers, Biodiversity

Inter Press Service
23 October 2009

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 23 (IPS) – Large biotechnology firms are not only depriving poor farmers of inputs essential for their livelihoods, but are also pushing up food prices, according to a new U.N. report.

“Excessive protection of intellectual property rights in agriculture is an obstacle rather than an incentive for innovation,” says Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, who authored the report released Tuesday.

In “Seed Policies and the Right to Food”, presented to the General Assembly body tasked with discussing human rights issues, De Schutter pointed out that the world’s proprietary seed trade is dominated by a mere 10 companies.

There are currently two ways for farmers to access seeds – storing them from one year to the next and exchanging them locally, or depending on commercial systems that market “improved seeds” certified by regulatory authorities.

The traditional seed system, according to the report, is rapidly deteriorating due to neglect of agricultural policies. The commercial system, on the other hand, is flourishing as a result of globalisation and the strengthening of intellectual property laws by institutions like the World Trade Organisation.

“This trend must be reversed,” said De Schutter, adding, “We need both systems for a successful approach to food security and climate change. Indeed, each of these systems has specific function to fulfill, and each corresponds to different needs.”

The 22-page report suggests that improved certified varieties of seeds can produce high yields and may present certain desirable traits. However, it also recommends that farmers’ local seed systems be encouraged.

“The vast majority of farmers still depend on these systems,” said De Schutter. “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.”

The report warns that overuse of commercial seeds could lead to further loss of biodiversity. Citing numerous studies, it says the world has already lost about 75 percent of plant genetic diversity due to the weakening of traditional seed systems.

In addition to their adverse impact on agro-biodiversity, the problem with genetically modified seeds is that they are very expensive. Research shows that in poor countries, many small farmers become hostage to debt.

De Schutter said small farmers need greater legal protections from governments, adding that otherwise the current situation would lead to “a serious threat” to food security.

“The intellectual property regime is not working for poor farmers in the developing world,” he said.

Calling for an end to the global trade imbalance, he noted that rich countries of the North still play a dominant role in shaping policies while many developing countries remain marginalised despite their hefty contribution to agricultural production.

“Ninety-seven percent of patents are owned by the companies of the North,” he said.

“We see vertical concentration, which is a very serious threat,” De Schutter told IPS. “Countries should re-examine their seed regulations. They should set up local seed banks.”

The top 10 seed companies account for 67 percent of the global propriety seed market. The world’s largest seed company, Monsanto, alone accounts for 23 percent. Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont combined control 47 percent.

De Schutter’s report was welcomed by independent researchers who have been calling for bringing the intellectual property rights regime of the World Trade Organisation in line with the U.N. treaty on biodiversity.

That 1992 treaty ensures the conservation of biodiversity and “the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources”.

“There is a lot involved in it,” said Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First, a U.S.-based policy think tank. “Monsanto and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are promoting biotechnology. It increases production for a while. But it doesn’t solve the problem.”

Last month, Holt-Gimenez and colleagues released a study entitled, “Challenging industrial agriculture and the Green Revolution,” in which they arrived at, more or less, at the same conclusions as those in the latest U.N. report.

The study suggests that hunger is linked more to the distribution of food rather than farmers’ capacity to produce, an argument that De Schutter also shared with the U.N. press corps and delegates at the General Assembly’s third committee.

The Gates Foundation has embarked on an effort to transform African agriculture. It helped establish the so-called Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2006, and since then has spent more than one billion dollars on grants.

In Holt-Gimenez’s view, however, this strategy isn’t going to work because it is modeled on the 1960s model of agricultural development which doesn’t take into account local concerns and choices for crop production.

“In a number of grants, for instance, one corporation appears repeatedly – Monsanto,” he wrote in the study, noting that “both corporations [Gates’s Microsoft and Monsanto] have made millions through technology and aggressive defense of proprietary intellectual property.”

The Food First study noted that Robert Horsch, a former senior vice president at Monsanto, is now interim director of Gates’s agricultural development programme.

Protected by the intellectual property rights regime, Monsanto and other biotech companies spend billions of dollars on research and development, yet very little of that research ends up benefiting poor farmers in developing countries, critics say.

“There is too much emphasis on developing plants, genes and seeds, and too little on harvesting technologies, water technologies, agro-forestry, and agro-ecological techniques that can raise yields without involving the use of high technologies,” de Schutter told delegates.

“Farmers can make a good living” under the right conditions, he said, adding that “this issue should be placed high” on the agenda of the food security meeting due next month.