(IPC) Farmers’ Rights are at stake: a week of diplomatic fight in New Delhi

From the 19th to the 24th of September, the 9th meeting of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) – the binding international treaty defining the regulatory framework for agrobiodiversity – was held in New Delhi, India.

ITPGRFA should be a tool for safeguarding farmers’ rights from the trade-oriented approach promoted by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Despite the fact that the ITPGRFA is binding, a report presented at the summit in New Delhi and assessing the compliance of national policies with its dictates, indicates that 25% of the Parties have not yet implemented legal measures to defend farmers’ rights. National implementation remains a key step to recognize farmers’ rights to seeds around the world.

The IPC organised the participation of small farmers’ delegations from four continents in the 9th meeting of the ITPGRFA Governing Body, with two clear objectives:

  • to recall the binding nature of farmers’ rights
  • to resume the discussion on the functioning of the Multilateral System of the Treaty, in order to make it effective and to avoid cases of legalised biopiracy through the digitalisation of genetic sequences (Digital Sequence Information – DSI), a practice adopted by seed industry to circumvent the Treaty and in no way compensate the local communities for landraces originally selected by them in their fields.

We reaffirmed that farmers’ rights must be protected by UN Human Rights law, not by trade law. It sounds like a technicality, but this implies that human rights (farmers’ rights included) cannot be subjugated to the market.

We have also pushed for a broad interpretation of the Multilateral System. The Multilateral System should ensure strict rules for those accessing the genetic material contained in gene banks, but also facilitate access by farmers, since the varieties contained in these institutions have been developed by them over decades, or even centuries of dynamic biodiversity management. The problems with the mechanism today are twofold: on the one hand, the payment of a fee for companies accessing gene banks to develop commercial varieties (in order to reward the farmers’ work); on the other hand, the DSI (Digital Sequence Information), that is the digital information of physical seeds. Till now, all the rules and articles of the treaty applied only to physical Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA). However, in the last few years the seeds industries developed techniques to use the digital information and create new seeds. In this way they don’t need anymore to access the physical seed and no need to respect any rules under the multilateral system. This means that if governments decide that the rules for access to seeds do not apply to their digital version, it will be easy to access to all seeds in the genebanks without any limitation. There’s more: they could impose intellectual property rights over the physical counterparts selected by farmers and contained in gene banks: a real paradox.

In this complex situation, the IPC movements managed to achieve important diplomatic results to revive the negotiations:

  • symposium on farmers’ rights will be organised in India next year, to revive the discussion on the implementation of the Treaty and its binding nature. We are confident that this will give more precise guidelines to the next Governing Body summit in Rome in 2023;
  • working group on the Multilateral System will be established, to better define reward mechanisms for access to seeds;
  • study on the impacts of DSI on the Treaty and its implementation will be promoted and presented to the next Governing Body.

Now we have to keep pushing on governments, because they must deliver on their promises. As IPC we will continue to lead this battle and we’ll continue to fight for farmers’ rights, so that biodiversity can continue to thrive in the fields, thanks to peasants’ and Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge.