Written byCarlos Correa, Executive Director, South Centre
Farmers have improved over the centuries the plant varieties for food and agriculture.
Traditional breeding techniques and the use of a vast pool of genetic resources allowed them to preserve the biodiversity in the fields, improve the characteristics of the products obtained and increase yields.
Farmers’ contributions –as breeders, and not merely as users of genetic resources- were institutionally recognized for the first time by the FAO International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, adopted in 1983.
The Undertaking introduced the concept of ‘Farmers’ Rights’, which was later incorporated into the FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
The unrestrained circulation and exchange of seeds, and the unconditional right to save and replant farmers’ produced seeds, allowed the dissemination of adapted plant varieties within regions and even across continents.
These flows of plant genetic resources were crucial for food security at a global scale.
The progress in understanding the science of genetics, the possibility of genetically modify plants opened by the ‘modern’ biotechnology, the use of techniques such as molecular assistance selection and, more recently, CRISP-R, have given raise to claims of property rights over improved or modified plant varieties.
Such claims –the first important manifestation was the adoption of the US Plant Patents Act in 1930, followed by the UPOV Convention in 1961- led to a drastic change in the paradigm of plant innovation and diffusion, which became subject to temporary intellectual property rights.
These rights can limit access to plant innovations and, equally important, restrain in some circumstances the ancestral practice of exchanging, saving and planting the seeds produced by the farmers.
This change in the paradigm has become particularly evident with the progressive application of patents to plant innovations, including in some cases through claims on natural traits.
A recent report published by South Centre and Oxfam found that over the last few decades, the number of patents on plants and plant parts has greatly increased in various parts of the world, including developing countries whose economies are heavily dependent on agriculture.
This was confirmed by the analysis of legal provisions, patentability guidelines, court decisions and a sample of patents granted in a number of developing countries.
The findings indicated that despite the flexibilities of the WTO TRIPS Agreement –which allows WTO members not to grant patents on plants- 60% of the 126 countries in the Global South for which data was available do permit the patenting of plants or parts thereof, e.g. isolated genes, modified cells.
Many of those patents not only create exclusive rights on plant materials, but also on their derivatives, such as food and feed.
While the evidence on the impact of different types of intellectual property rights (plant varieties, patents, trade secrets) in promoting innovation is inconclusive, their broad recognition may negatively affect the role of farmers in conserving and sustainably using plant genetic resources and thereby reduce genetic variety of crops and food security.
These effects may be mitigated by more extensively using the flexibilities permitted by the TRIPS Agreement, by excluding plants and plant materials from patentability, applying rigorous standards to examine patent applications (where allowed), and providing for exceptions to the exclusive rights in order not to undermine the farmers’ right to save, exchange and sell (under certain conditions) the seeds they produce.
Like in other areas, science and technology can provide powerful tools to improve agricultural production and reduce poverty. But those tools must be used under an institutional framework that promotes the public interest in preserving agricultural biodiversity and ensuring food security.
 See https://www.southcentre.int/south-centre-and-oxfam-novib-research-report-december-2018/.
What must be done to ensure that the potential offered by science, technology and innovation towards achieving the SDGs is ultimately realized?
In the context of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development, the CSTD Dialogue brings together leaders and experts to address this question and contribute to rigorous thinking on the opportunities and challenges of STI in several crucial areas including gender equality, food security and poverty reduction.
The conversation continues at the twenty-second session of the CSTD and as an online exchange by thought leaders.