by GRAIN | 15 Oct 1996

October 1996



Last June, a high level International Technical Conference - organised by the FAO - adopted a "Global Plan of Action on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture". This article assesses what is in it, its shortcomings, and the challenges ahead. It also highlights the discussions on agricultural biodiversity coming up in the November meeting of the Parties to the Biodiversity Convention and calls for action to counter the further privatisation of genetic resources under the WTO trade agreement.


Leipzig, Saturday 22 June, about three o'clock in the morning. It was with a sense of relief that the German chair of FAO's Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources closed the meeting. After a week of long discussions and much heated debate, the international community had adopted the first ever Global Plan of Action on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Government delegates expressed their satisfaction and happiness with the result: a 20-point plan to counter the further destruction of the World's agricultural diversity, to promote its utilisation and the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from it. A radically new turn in the history of the debate on plant genetic resources? Or just another piece of paper coming out of the United Nations bureaucracy?

The answer depends on who you ask. The main goal of the massive NGO force present in Leipzig was to gain recognition of Farmers' Rights, and a clear path of action towards the implementation of those rights. They were in for a disappointment. Many government delegations, especially those from the industrialised nations, were not ready for such a move and managed to postpone these negotiations until later this year, when revision of the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources is debated. In addition, the industrialised world was clearly not prepared to put money on the table for the implementation of the Plan, merely reaffirming the funding commitments it made in Agenda 21. Farmers' Rights and funding were the hottest debated issues in Leipzig, and on both government delegates slithered out of any real commitments.

The Plan of Action, as originally drawn up by the FAO secretariat, miraculously survived the negotiating process relatively unscathed. Where the negotiators did change the Plan, it was often for the worse by convoluting language and adding conditions. The case of Farmers' Rights is a clear example of this. NGOs lobbied for a strong recognition of the collective rights of farmers to their resources and knowledge. Most Southern countries also wanted a strong recognition of Farmers Rights in the Plan. The US delegation was only interested in talking about "the concept" of Farmers' Rights, thus making it almost meaningless. In the end, the US had to back down on "the concept of", but it did manage to include reference to the individual and non-discriminatory character of the rights of farmers. This resulted in confusing wording which will take time to undo when the real negotiations on Farmers' Rights begin later this year.

Another example is the fate of proposals to legalise the distribution and commercialisation of farmers' varieties - which is now a major problem for NGOs in many countries. The modified text that was finally adopted calls for legislative measures that allow for such seed distribution and commercialisation, but at the same time ties it to the quality standards of existing seed legislation. If one interprets "quality" as the current requirements for varietal uniformity and stability, then this is a step backwards rather than forward, as most farmers varieties are characterised by diversity and variability rather than uniformity.

The main problem with the agreed Plan, however, is that it does not base itself on the recognition that the main cause of destruction of genetic diversity lies in current mainstream agriculture. By not recognising the root cause of the problem, it does not set itself squarely on a coherent path of recuperation and protection. It therefore contains many contradictions and has a very technocratic approach to problem solving. In these times of neo-liberalism and free trade dogmatism it probably would have been too much to expect from the world's governments to agree on a major reorientation and genetic diversification of global agriculture. But, as NGOs in Leipzig pointed out repeatedly, the only way to move towards a real sustainable agriculture is through true diversification and by devolving more control over agricultural production systems (and the genetic resources they are based on) to local farming communities.

Still, there are a number of interesting proposals in the Leipzig Plan. There is a section on on-farm conservation and use, as well as several ideas for promoting agricultural diversification. The Plan also shyly recommends the development of initiatives to promote diversity through use by farmers, and its language is full of "participatory" wording. They may be timidly presented, but the proposals are there and for the first time in this type of document. However, the main thrust of the Leipzig Plan is to draw attention to the problems genebanks are currently facing and to recommend measures to prop up the precarious genebank approach as the dominant model for saving genetic diversity.

In that sense, the Plan - and the overall outcome of Leipzig — is very much a bazaar of ideas and proposals that contain something for everyone. The follow up and implementation process, and in particular the question of who takes control of it, is key in determining whether some of the useful proposals and commitments will materialise. In addition, the outcome of the upcoming negotiations on Farmers' Rights, on access to agricultural biodiversity and on funding, will all determine what will happen with the Leipzig Plan. These issues, in fact, are now the main challenges on the table.

Will the Convention take up the challenge?

What has become clear after Leipzig is that the whole question on how the international community handles agricultural biodiversity remains wide open. The subject comprises a multiplicity of related issues - such as the rights of control and access, the sharing of benefits, food security, finance, trade, conservation, seeds and appropriate technology. Many of the main issues for NGOs, local farming communities and indigenous peoples are far from solved, such as Farmers' Rights and the on-farm management of biological resources. The question of how to develop Farmers' Rights further will be dealt by the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture while revising FAO's International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (IU) in December. Even before this meeting, the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will come together in Buenos Aires from November 4-15, to discuss a whole range of issues, including agricultural biodiversity.

The question of agricultural biodiversity has already reached the agenda of the CBD's technical advisory body (SBSSTA), which met in early September in Montreal. Here, the first signs of debate and division over the roots causes of genetic erosion in agriculture started surfacing, the issue that Leipzig so carefully avoided. In a specific recommendation to the upcoming CBD meeting, governments highlighted the socio-cultural, economic and environmental importance of agricultural biodiversity. They agreed that "inappropriate reliance on monoculture, over-mechanisation, and misuse of agricultural chemicals diminishes the diversity of fauna, flora and micro-organisms," leading to unstable production systems. Unsustainable agricultural practices are also charged with causing socio-economic problems through the destruction of the local resource base, and well as causing the loss of cultural diversity in traditional communities.

But the problems really started when governments had to agree on what has to be — and is being — done about it. The Montreal recommendations talk about the benefits to biodiversity "accrued from sustainable intensification of agriculture" in an indirect reference to the Green Revolution. They also state that currently strong efforts are being made to preserve biological diversity important to agriculture, and that progress is being made in implementing biological diversity-friendly agricultural practices. Sweden and Germany felt obliged to formally file their reservations about such optimistic language. Sweden talked about the "unscientific assessment of sustainable intensification of agriculture" in the report, and requested a major assessment of the adverse impact of unsustainable agriculture on biodiversity.

Apart from the controversy over how sustainable high-tech agriculture is, the SBSTTA recommended that the Parties to the Convention should make agricultural biodiversity a key focal area. This is a welcome sign of support to those that have since long argued for the importance of agriculture within the Convention. It also recommended that Leipzig's Plan of Action should be actively implemented, and took note of the willingness of FAO to help countries achieve the aims of the Convention. A whole series of other interesting proposals on agriculture emerged from the Montreal meeting, including the idea of conducting a gap analysis of what is (not!) being done in this area, pressurising funding agencies to take the issue seriously, and a proposal to promote research partnerships through local fora for farmers, researchers and extension workers.

The Leipzig NGO declaration on Farmers' Rights

The NGO conference "In Safe Hands", organised prior to the FAO happening, pulled together some 160 NGO participants from more than 50 countries, representing probably the largest gathering ever of NGOs concerned with issues related to agricultural biodiversity. During the NGO gathering, participants reached consensus on the "The Leipzig Commitment to Agricultural Biodiversity: Towards a People's Plan of Action" (available from GRAIN) as well as on the following resolution specifically concerning Farmers' Rights.

IN SAFE HANDS: NGO Resolution On Farmers' Rights

Transnational corporations and the associated globalisation of the economy are destroying the livelihoods of women and men farmers, indigenous peoples and all collective groupings. We need to combine to resist these forces.

Southern countries rich in biodiversity should strengthen their control over their biological and cultural diversity. But even more important, the farming communities and indigenous peoples that have nurtured and developed that diversity should recover the rights over these materials, as a basis for sustaining their livelihoods. NGOs should take a radical stand to push for the definition and implementation of these rights in the national and international fora.

It is important to clearly recognise that Farmers' Rights and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are of a different nature, and should be complementary and mutually supportive. The UN draft Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Convention 169 should be endorsed and implemented.

The central objective of Farmers' Rights is to ensure control of and access to agricultural biodiversity by local communities, so that they can continue to develop their farming systems further and sustainably. Farmers' Rights as now defined by FAO do not meet this objective and should be radically broadened and strengthened. Farmers must have the right to benefit from their biological resources and related knowledge. The right to save, exchange, and improve seeds is inalienable.

Ownership and innovation at the local level are often of a collective nature. Farmers' Rights should be based upon this principle, and should protect and promote such collectively held knowledge systems and resources. Collective knowledge is intimately linked to cultural diversity, land and biodiversity and cannot be dissociated from either of these three aspects. Any definition and implementation of Farmers' Rights should take this fully into account. Farmers' Rights are not compatible with IPR systems based on private monopoly control.

A major problem in the development and saving of agricultural biodiversity is the lack of rights to land. Farmers' Rights should include legal recognition of land rights.

As Farmers' Rights are an expression of the contribution of farming communities to their innovative capacity as breeders, users and managers of biodiversity, they should include the right to appropriate and participatory research support. The current agricultural research system has to be restructured in the light of this recognition.

It is of utmost importance that all governments restate their commitment to Farmers' Rights in Leipzig and further develop it as outlined above. Any Plan of Action that does not build on the rights of farming communities to the genetic resources they developed would be ineffective or even counter-productive.

Leipzig, 16.06.96

Somewhat lost in the recommendations is the question of how to make sure that a coherent and non-conflictive division of labour is developed between the different agencies involved in this area. Inter-agency struggles were already cause for tension in Montreal, and could further complicate matters in Buenos Aires. The most disappointing aspect of the SBSTTA's otherwise excellent overview of the problems with current industrial agriculture is that it ends up with a non-prioritised list of "Options for Action" which touches upon virtually everything that can be done in this area. It is difficult to see how the list can be handled without setting up yet another big bureaucracy. Unless the governments clearly indicate who should be doing what, and especially focus on the division of labour and cooperation between FAO and the Convention, we risk endless inter-agency territorial fighting, and lots of overlap and duplication.

Rights for whom?

Besides the specific agenda item on agricultural biodiversity, governments meeting in Buenos Aires have a whole series of other related issues to deal with. One is the discussion on intellectual property rights (IPRs). The Convention states that governments should make sure that IPRs support and do not hinder the objectives of the Convention. For most NGOs it is clear that the current IPR system not only hinders access to and exchange of genetic resources, but also pushes a biased sharing of benefits (towards those that can afford to take out and defend patents) and totally neglects (and undermines) the informal innovation going on at the local level. Many industrialised (and some developing) countries will come to Buenos Aires defending the IPR system as a central tool to defend the interests of their biotechnology, pharma and seed industries. It is important that NGOs push for a strong stand against IPRs and use the Convention to create some space to counter the World Trade Organization's push to implement IPRs everywhere and on everything under the sun.


When the trend towards IPRs began in the early 198Os, many papers were published predicting the negative impacts of extending private property over life forms. NGOs in Brazil are now facing the reality of these predictions.

The PTA Seeds Network which links together Brazilian NGOs that are working with on-farm conservation of genetic resources and sustainable agriculture has established that cooperation with public research is an important goal for effective genetic resource conservation. It is clear to the Network members that on-farm approaches cannot simply be handed over to NGOs and farmers organisations, but that formal research bodies also need to be involved.

In early 1996, PTA received approval for a joint project with EMBRAPA (the Brazilian Institute of Agricultural Research) to characterise orally the varieties of beans recovered by the Seeds Network around the country. This was the first agronomically-focused project approved by EMBRAPA to be oriented to small farmers issues. Network members believe that this project offers an important opportunity to use strong support from scientific sector to improve the quality of work developed at the grass-roots level. Conversely, the scientists involved could use the experience being closer to farmers' realities to understand better the role of on-farm conservation and enhance their own work.

Unfortunately, a huge obstacle has rolled across the path. The contract presented by EMBRAPA to PTA contains clauses on IPRs related to the results of the project. It is totally unacceptable to both the NGOs and farmers involved to allow local varieties and farmers' knowledge to be appropriated, even by a public research institute.

The PTA Seeds Network has returned the contract to EMBRAPA, requesting it to remove all the clauses relating to IPRs. Instead, NGOs and farmers are demanding free access and sharing of seeds and information. If the Network's claim is not accepted by EMBRAPA, the project will be aborted before it begins. This would be a shame, because all the parties involved would lose out: EMBRAPA, PTA Seeds Network, Brazilian farmers and genetic resources conservation.

For more information, contact: Breno de Mello, PTA Seeds Network Coordinator, Fax: (5531) 8914785, e-mail: [email protected]

Yet another crucial issue on the table in Buenos Aires is what will happen to the rights of local and indigenous communities. Article 8j of the Convention commits members to respect and protect such rights, but the corporate sector is concerned that full implementation of such rights will undermine the current IPR system. Discussions on this at SBSTTA's Montreal meeting got nowhere, despite the heavy presence of indigenous peoples organisations and NGOs. The only conclusion they could come to was that a paper be presented to the Buenos Aires meeting "reflecting the diverse views and suggestions". This is an extremely serious issue. Unless concrete and meaningful steps are taken to implement this article in a way that truly allows local communities and indigenous peoples to gain control over the biological resources they manage and their related knowledge, the Convention could end up promoting the disappearance of what is probably the most crucial hub of all for biodiversity management.

That is probably what some of the countries in the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, better known as the industrialised world's country club), and especially the US, are hoping for. In Leipzig the US completely blocked any move towards developing Farmers' Rights. Key industrialised countries are obviously not willing to establish any sort of collective rights that could limit the IPR highway set by GATT-TRIPS rules. With the first ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO, heir to GATT) coming up in December in Singapore, the OECD's standpoint is that interpretation of the trade agreement by other fora than WTO is out of the question. In this sense, the Buenos Aires meeting has much in common with the Food Summit in Rome and with the renegotiating of FAO's International Undertaking later in December, in that the same type of political pressures will be brought to bear to bring Southern governments in line with the market globalisation strategies.

It is therefore critical that like-minded governments and NGOs send a clear message to Singapore that the Convention on Biological Diversity takes precedence in all matters relating to biodiversity, and that decisions taken by the Parties of the Convention in this area have the force of international obligations.


Note: GRAIN has published a special issue of the series Biobriefing (Number 6) on the Global Plan of Action and the Leipzig process. This 8 page briefing, which assesses the Plan and related politics, is available from GRAIN via e-mail or on paper via mail. We have also produced a detailed analysis of the different versions of the FAO Plan of Action, available by mail, and can facilitate copies of The Leipzig Commitment to Agricultural Biodiversity.

Author: GRAIN
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