by GRAIN | 25 Apr 1991


From 15 to 19 April, the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources meets to continue the debate on how to manage the earth's genetic resources. One of the main issues on the agenda is the implementation of Farmers ' Rights. If Farmers ' Rights is meant as a compensation to farmers for their impressive role in the conservation and development of germplasm, it has to provide for mechanisms that ensure that farmers really benefit from it. This article dives into the background and concludes that there is a gap between the consensus reached in FAO and the day to day practice in the farmers ' fields. It argues for a direct voice from grassroots organisations in the priority-setting and implementation of genetic resources activities. Most importantly, it stresses that the FAO diplomats now have the opportunity and the obligation the move beyond words and start acting.


Official papers of many UN agencies spend numerous words espousing the important role of indigenous people in the conservation and development of biological diversity and the need to promote and protect these innovative efforts at the local level. Alongside the discussions in FAO, a flurry of high level initiatives has sprung up to save what is left of the world's biological diversity. But meanwhile, in the day to day reality of the farmer's field, everything seems to be done to destroy the wealth of knowledge that forms the basis of so many sustainable agricultural approaches.

It is now widely recognised that indigenous farming systems based on mixed cropping and biological pest management not only conserve and utilise a tremendous mosaic of genetic diversity, but also tend to produce more output and a wider range of harvested products. Yet the overall tendency at the formal level in virtually all countries is to push for uniform and vulnerable monoculture strategies that wipe out not only genetic diversity, but also the farmer's capacity to react to future adverse conditions. At the international level, the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs) are timidly starting to respond to Green Revolution critics that advocate a diverse farmer-based approach rather than the "miracle seeds" solutions. However, most of that response is to be found in policy papers rather than in the farmers ' fields, where the main recipe sold is still monoculture and chemicals.

Also, with respect to the conservation of genetic resources, there is increased recognition that today's nearly exclusive reliance on the high-tech genebank approach is technically vulnerable and politically untenable. Numerous calls to promote integrated strategies to conserve genetic resources also in the farmers ' fields and upgrade the role farmers organisations and other NGOs in the current conservation system, have until now resulted in nothing. On the contrary, as explained in another article in this Seedling, the trend in official circles is now to move towards ever more limited and elite "crop networks" that could not only do away with a large chunk of genetic diversity now present in genebanks, but also defeat any future input of the informal sector into the current global conservation efforts.

Getting the act together

The conclusion, then, is that while more and more agencies join the crowded world of the genetic resources conservation corner, it remains a heavily biased and ineffective one. One where government experts talk about the importance of grassroots NGOs without creating mechanisms really to involve them. One where some ministerial officials put positions forward to save the earth's biological diversity, while their colleagues from other departments put the contrary into practice. In that context, the upcoming fourth session of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources has a challenging task ahead indeed. The FAO debate has come to a crucial crossroad where the moment has arrived to start implementing some of the noble principles on which consensus has been reached after a full decade of intense negotiations.

If the delegates are serious about their task and responsibilities, we should expect some significant decisions ahead of us. The main issue on the agenda is, as it should be, the real implementation of Farmers ' Rights and firm support for the International Fund for Plant Genetic Resources as a concrete expression of it. At this point, Farmers ' Rights is still an empty concept on paper that recognises the role of farmers in the conservation and further development of genetic resources and their right to benefit from it. Similarly, the Fund has been sitting there quietly for four years or so but without much money coming into it. As pointed out above, the words and promises are nice, but farmers still have to see the results.

Intellectual Property?

There has been a lot of confusion about what the concept of Farmers ' Rights actually embodies. The notion of Farmers ' Rights was put forward as a reaction to the rights of plant breeders in the form of Plant Breeders ' Rights, as they are granted in many industrialised countries. This led several participants in the debate to attempt to devise a formula in which Farmers ' Rights could be developed as a parallel intellectual property right (IPR) to benefit farmers directly. Current IPR schemes in the form of patents or copyrights cannot have that function as they are rights conferred to individuals, while Farmers ' Rights specifically refers to a community right.

Alternative community-biased IPR schemes, such as the proposed UNESCO Model Law on Folklore, which recognises the rights of indigenous peoples over "the totality of tradition-based creations of a cultural community", might come closer to rewarding the innovations of the informal sector with respect to biological materials and knowledge. Still, trying to come up with an intellectual property answer for informal innovation might be as much a trap as a solution. Implemented to the letter, both adapted patent systems for farmer-based innovations and the recognition of farmer-developed plant varieties as folklore could undermine the principle that genetic resources should be freely available. In extremis it would mean that each seed sample in any genebank is tagged with an ownership title held by a farmer or community somewhere in the world, and that anyone who would want to use it would have to obtain permission and/or pay royalties to that community. Moreover, adapted IPR schemes can look nice on paper but are probably very difficult to implement in a way that they benefit communities and farmers directly or even indirectly.

Rather than approaching Farmers ' Rights as an intellectual property concept, it might be better to develop it in a more holistic way. After all, the question is more about control than about ownership. Creating brilliant schemes in international fora to protect informal innovation does not make much sense if in practice every action is carried out to devastate that type of innovation.

To be meaningful, Farmers ' Rights should be implemented as a vigorous socioeconomic right: the right to be able to choose, the power to do something and the possibility to benefit from it. Revindicating ownership over seeds is not so much the point if farmers are not in a position to further develop them. This holds true for all aspects of sustainable farming systems. In that sense, the whole logic behind Farmers ' Rights should result in capacity-building at the grassroots level, providing local communities with their own tools to improve stable, low-input production system. This equally implies a re-orientation of national and international agricultural research to better suit small-scale farmers ' needs and substantial new funding for farmer-based initiatives.

In this sense, Farmers ' Rights should translate into the right of farmers to innovate, and support for that process. Obviously, this entails more than just handing over money. Farmers ' Rights defined in this way also embraces a remodelling of views and practices on agricultural development, where farmers are both originators and recipients of adapted technology and where they fully participate in priority-setting and implementation of research. Just a few examples how this could translate in policy measures:

- Political recognition of people's right to save, improve and use indigenous landraces and wild materials: From the formal sector, acceptance and commitment is needed to allow farmer conservation and breeding programmes to get going. Apart from pushing up narrowly construed yield statistics, it has to be understood that supporting farmers ' knowledge and improving local farming systems is a major investment in food security as well.

- Hands-on training: Rural people should receive direct and personal training from scientists, technicians, conservation groups and NGOs in all the different phases of conservation, breeding and seed production. Such efforts should be a two-way dialogue where the trainees and the farmers learn from each other, and together ameliorate sustainable farming practices.

- Research to improve grassroots strategies: The formal sector also has to participate itself in developing viable grassroots conservation strategies. There's no sense in the governments saying: "Okay, here's some money, here's a technician with little to do, have fun." There must be provisions at the official level to help develop farmers ' strategies from their formal circuits. This means the Consultative Group on Agricultureal Research (CGIAR) telling its IARCs to get their "sustainable agriculture" act together and the IARCs helping the national programmes do the same.

Money and control

In practical terms, the first question that springs to mind is, "Where is the money going to come from?" On this one, the answer from the FAO delegates should be clear and unequivocal: "From a substantial and mandatory fund under UN control." The current call for voluntary contributions from governments, NGOs and individuals to the FAO Fund has resulted in scant availability of new tools for genetic resources work. If FAO and its Commission on Plant Genetic Resources are to have a substantial impact in re-shaping the world's genetic resources management, there is an undeniable need for a solid and systematic fund where the countries that currently profit most from the world's germplasm provide the bulk of the finances. This is a minimal return for the work of millions of farmers who currently conserve and develop genetic diversity. The FAO meeting this month has to come to a clear decision on that. If it fails to, the Fund will remain as empty as ink and the concept of Farmers ' Rights a patronising pat-on-the-back without any substance for farmers at all.

But equally important is the discussion on how to control and direct the spending of the funds, what to use them for and who will ultimately benefit. Here, the crucial question becomes: "How are farmers going to get anything out of Farmers ' Rights?" While ultimately a UN fund will be supervised by governments, there is a tremendous need to involve various sectors of society in the priority-setting and allocation of grants. If the Fund is to be an expression of Farmers ' Rights as a socio-economic right to develop local innovations, farmers and the NGOs which work with them at the grassroots level will have to have a voice in this process. It has been suggested that an advisory committee could be set up to provide a forum for discussion on these matters and recommend and monitor support for specific projects. The main point is to find an equitable balance in strengthening formal and informal conservation and innovation efforts.

There is little hope for sound management of the world's genetic resources if the current biases toward elitist, technically isolated genebanks and top-down monoculture approaches to agricultural "development" are merely reinforced. Conservation and innovation in the field of genetic resources must be broadened imperatively and without further delay. This means correcting the problems of the formal system, including genebank management and national and international agricultural research strategies and structures, while at the same time providing the mechanisms for strengthening innovation and conservation at the grassroots level. Only then will small farmers - the backbone of so many societies - have the real opportunity to move forward in improving and stabilising food production systems in a long-term perspective. Which is what "Farmers ' Rights" should be all about.

Author: GRAIN