Seed laws that criminalise farmers: additional country experiences

by La Via Campesina | GRAIN | 23 Feb 2015

Peasant seeds – the pillar of food production – are under attack everywhere. Under corporate pressure, laws in many countries increasingly limit what farmers can do with their seeds. These additional country experiences further illustrate the attacks on seeds – and popular resistance – around the world as described in the booklet, "Seed laws that criminalise farmers: resistance and fightback".

Argentina: the GM industry pushing for a law criminalising farmers

In Argentina, the new seed law that is currently proposed is aimed to suit the massive GM crop industry, for which Argentina produces 14% of total world output. Since 2003, Monsanto has been trying to change the law in order to collect royalties on its transgenic soybean seeds, which are currently grown on 21 million ha in Argentina. Because seed patenting is not allowed in Argentina, the company has even tried to stop the country’s shipments from reaching European markets, but failed.

In 2012, the Argentine government announced a change in the law and the opening of a new processing plant for GM maize in the city of Córdoba. Since then, resistance has been strong. Farmers’ organisations and social movements denounced that the law was being negotiated in secret and that Monsanto was working with the government at the local and national levels. The draft law of 2012 is extremely restrictive and criminalises farmers. Under this law, farmers are only allowed to keep their own seeds if labelled but they are not allowed to exchange or sell them. In addition, the PVP rights over seeds even extends to varieties that are similar to the declared variety. Moreover, the law allows for seizure and destruction of unauthorised farm-saved seeds, for which farmers could even go to jail. Additionally, the bill foresees enforcement being ensured by private agents, such as security forces that work for the seed companies themselves.

Given the strong resistance and organisation of social movements in Argentina, the law was not voted on by parliament. In 2014, the government presented a new version of the bill, arguing that peasant farmers were being taken into consideration. While the new proposal retains all of the negative elements of the previous one, it also proposes that farm-saved seeds will not give rise to royalty payments as long as farmers register their crops with the government. The resistance is not letting up, however.

Canada: the struggle to keep using traditional varieties

In 2004 and 2005, Canadian farmers and their allies successfully prevented the passing of a law that would have introduced UPOV ’91 into Canada, where UPOV 78 was already in effect. But in the current context of free trade agreements with Europe on the one hand and Pacific Rim countries on the other, a new bill to enact UPOV ’91 was brought forward by the government to amend Canada’s PBR legislation. 

This new bill forbids anyone from selling, reproducing, conditioning, or stocking seeds from PBR protected varieties without the seed breeder’s permission, with a few exceptions. The bill allowed for farmers to reproduce and condition seed for use on their own holdings – a provision called “farmer’s privilege.” Without being able to “stock” (store) seed, however, the so-called “farmer’s privilege” would be meaningless. While the law was eventually passed, constant and strong pressure pressure from Canadian farmers did force the government to include an amendment that specifies that farmers also have the right to store seed that they produce/reproduce and condition for use on their own holdings without asking permission of or paying royalties to the breeder.

The new law, however, does ramp up other restrictions and costs on farmers and opens the door to new ones. It provides a legal framework to set up a system to collect endpoint royalties. It also includes a claw-back clause  that allows future governments make regulations to restrict seed saving by crop kind, farm type, and number of growing cycles. So far this regulatory power has not been exercised, and, if it were, some Canadian farmers organisations will strongly resist it. 

The Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), also opposed by some Canadian farmer organisations, would extend the power of seed companies even further if ratified. CETA would enable the courts to order pre-emptive seizure of the seeds, crops and other assets of farmers suspected of having violated a seed company’s PBRs. Farmers suspected of infringement could have their seeds or crops destroyed as well as the materials and implements used to produce the seeds before they had a chance to defend themselves in court.

Such changes to the seed laws are happening in a larger context of drastic cuts to public breeding programmes and privatisation, and the take-over of seed markets by foreign companies in the pesticides industry. Farmers are fighting back against the privatisation of seeds and have found allies in urban food advocates, home gardeners, church and labour organisations and consumer groups who have joined in public campaigns to show that the corporate control over seeds is a major obstacle for achieving food sovereignty. Efforts are also being made across Canada to rebuild farmer seeds systems and farmer-friendly seed policy.

Dominican Republic's seeds threatened by a new law

In the spring of 2014, a member of the senate of the Dominican Republic with close ties to industry introduced a new law for the marketing of seeds. Since then, peasant organisations have been mobilising to demand that the law be amended and that peasant organisations be consulted. According to the bill, which has already passed in the senate, peasant varieties would be excluded from the market due to their inability to meet DUS requirements. Moreover, the bill prohibits the non-commercial exchange of non-registered seeds. The penalties for doing so include sentences of up to two years in jail and fines of up to 250 times the minimum wage. As is the case with the new wave of seed laws being passed throughout Latin America, Article 82 states that if farmers break the law, their seeds may be confiscated. The current proposal also includes ambiguous clauses that at first sight would appear positive, such as one proposing to restrain the use of seeds that could cause ”genetic contamination.” However farmers have warned that this may not necessarily refer to GMOs but could be interpreted to mean farmers’ varieties which the industry could argue are ‘contaminating’ its ‘improved’ varieties, as has happened in Peru with local cotton.

Guatemala: mass mobilisations won a victory over a Monsanto Law

In October 2014, after months of protests in the streets, the Guatemalan congress voted to repeal what was known as the ‘Monsanto Law,’ a PVP law that would have made it illegal for farmers to reproduce seeds of privatised varieties. Prior to the announcement, the Constitutional Court had already agreed to suspend certain articles of the law. Farmers’ organisations had filed a lawsuit arguing that the law was unconstitutional because it violated Mayan peoples’ right to the traditional cultivation of their land and mass mobilisations started in all the country. Taking the streets in the capital, farmers also blocked some of the main roads in the country. Even schools were closed in some communities so that the students could join the protests.

The Monsanto Law had been introduced as required by the US-Dominican Republic-Central America free trade agreement (CAFTA) ratified by Guatemala in 2005. The law would have meant that if farmers replanted, transported or sold PVP-protected seeds without permission they would be acting illegally. Under the law, they would have faced between one and four years in jail, and fines of between 1,000 and 10,000 quetzals (US$130-1,300).

Although the repeal of the ‘Monsanto Law’ has been hailed in the media as a major victory, Guatemalan organisations see it only as a partial one. There is still an earlier law, the Industrial Property Law, passed in 2000, that contains similar provisions. As a result, farmers – who make up 70 per cent of the population – vow to continue mobilising in order challenge the Industrial Property law and remain vigilant towards any reintroduction of a PVP bill.

Sri Lanka: farmers seeds becoming illegal

Sri Lankan farmers are currently opposing a new law proposal called the ‘Seed and Planting Material Act’. Organised in a network of over 700 organisations working for the rights of farmers, they have held marches and mass protests. The new draft law would require the mandatory registration of farmers and the certification of their seeds. In addition to requiring the state to maintain a list of seed producers and suppliers, the law authorises government officials to raid farms in search of ‘illegal’ seeds. If such ‘illegal’ seeds are found, farmers would have to pay a minimum fine of Rs. 50 000 (US$380) and could go to jail for up to six months.

The law benefits industrial seeds by rendering them the only legal ones, to the detriment of both farmers and state-run programmes producing essential crops such as rice. Those in favour of the law say that it is needed to safeguard farmers from seeds of bad quality on the market. However, farmers argue that this is not a main concern for them because, at the village level, they know who produces the seeds that they buy locally. The issue of bad quality seed on the market is more of an issue for multinational companies which want to safeguard their monopolies. With the law, this extends to protecting monopolies on other ‘planting material’including green manure made by farmers— in favour of the companies who produce synthetic inputs.

Finally, Sri Lankan farmers are also concerned that the new law will disrupt their collective seed use. In many villages, farmers maintain small seed houses that distribute seeds at the local level. Under the new law, these, too, would become illegal. In addition to losing their own seeds that are adapted to their needs and tastes, farmers argue that purchasing certified seeds and other inputs would add a burden of cost that will put their livelihood at risk. For this reason, farmers all over the country are mobilising. In October 2014, a group of 4,000 farmers, agricultural workers, fishers and people supporting food sovereignty and land reform travelled through 25 different cities in the country as part of a Caravan for Seed and Food Sovereignty. In addition to marches and rallies, they presented their crops and also held community theatre presentations in order to convey to the public in the streets what they are struggling to protect and defend.

Spain: local seeds and vegetable markets in the time of crisis

In Spain, the economic crisis has led people to seek out small-scale agriculture as an alternative, especially among young people who are unemployed. Many of these young farmers and gardeners organise collectively and produce directly for local consumers. Often, they are interested in local peasant varieties and have turned to national seed-saving networks organising seed fairs. Here, seeds are exchanged and workshops organised for learning to select and develop crops. In the region of Andalucía alone, the local seeds network maintains over 600 varieties of 90 different crops and collaborates with collective gardens maintained by community organisations and schools.

However, as in many other parts of Europe, a problem for the networks is their inability to sell seeds because local seeds do not meet the standards required by the official catalogue. Even if they did, certification would be too costly and bureaucratic. As a result, seed and farming organisations in Spain have put pressure on their local governments to enact policies favourable to promoting local seeds. An example is a regulation in Catalonia. Here, the local government compiled a catalogue of ‘local varieties of agronomic interest’ for the region. On the one hand, the regulation is welcome because it establishes non-DUS standards for registering the varieties. But it is also controversial because it sets geographic limits for sales (within Catalonia) and limits the quantities that can be sold. Moreover, the seeds can only be sold to people who do not farm professionally, a problem for those reclaiming small-scale peasant farming as their livelihood.

Farmers and seed networks are also worried that local laws may lead to new use restrictions. For example, a foundation in Catalonia whose goal is “using gastronomic and nutritional potential as a source of added value” has taken three traditional varieties of tomatoes for breeding and obtained official Plant Variety Protection on them for a period of 25 years. In addition, the foundation used the legal framework of geographic indications to restrict where traditional bean varieties can be sold, marketing them as a local brand and therefore restricting the area where these beans can be grown. Worried about this, some seed networks in other parts of Spain have begun to register local varieties of crops such as tomatoes using other legal schemes as a way of seeking to avoid their appropriation. All of this has led to a situation in which some farmers feel stuck in a legal framework in which conserving and using local varieties means keeping others out. In Spain, the debate continues. Can unfavourable laws written for industry be countered with local laws? How to make sure that the seeds are kept as a common good without restricting their use?


Seed laws that criminalise farmers: resistance and fightback

Table of contents

• Introduction
• How seed laws make farmers’ seeds illegal
• African seeds: A treasure under threat
• The Americas: Massive resistance against “Monsanto laws”
• Asia: The struggle against a new wave of industrial seeds
• Europe: Farmers strive to rescue agricultural diversity
• Conclusion

Further resources

Take action! – poster published by GRAIN and La Via Campesina

Seed laws around the world – map & table published by GRAIN

Trade deals criminalise farmers' seeds – table published by GRAIN


Author: La Via Campesina | GRAIN
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