Without seeds and without peasants, agriculture would not be possible. Ever since farming and livestock rearing began, peasants and farmers have freely developed, shared and preserved millions of different crop varieties, adapted to new and different socio-environment conditions. But today, peasants and farmers are facing extreme threats from the privatisation of seeds by intellectual property laws. In addition, seed marketing laws ban local and indigenous varieties which don’t fit the industrial model, restricting access and circulation.
One institution is at the heart of this: the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). UPOV was initiated in 1961 by a few European countries to allow plant breeders to impose a patent-like intellectual property rights over seeds. This regime is called plant variety protection and trade agreements often require countries to adopt or mimic UPOV’s rules.
UPOV requires and promotes uniformity in seeds, and therefore in the food supply. It grants a small group of transnational corporations the means to appropriate and control seeds without taking into account people’s and communities historical socio-cultural relationships with seeds. This serves the industrial food system, which feeds 30% of humanity. But it promotes genetic erosion, economic vulnerability and loss of autonomy for small scale farmers and peasants who feed 70% of the world.
Not only do smallholder farmers, producers and fishers feed most of the world, but women in particular are main custodians of seed and life. Often existing under already precarious circumstances, the weight of patriarchy and economic subordination, UPOV adds further to their burden by criminalising their practices. In addition to serving corporate interests, UPOV is therefore anti-women. For the poor living on the margins of urban areas, it is most often women who carry the burden of care for their families, such as providing food. This shows that seed is more than an act of farming; it is social relationships of care and solidarity that are crucial for wider progressive action. UPOV is therefore a direct attack on care, solidarity, community, and on our ability to work together in solidarity for a better future.
As an intergovernmental body, UPOV’s sole purpose is to oblige countries to operate laws that privatise seeds worldwide, enabling corporations to capture the world’s farmers who are currently using their own seeds with dignity and for free. Under these laws, companies get the right to extract hefty royalty payments from people and communities that grow or save protected seeds – often at a 10-12% mark-up. Governments especially in the developing countries are often under strong pressure to internalize UPOV into their legal systems either through trade agreements or direct pressure from the seed industry lobbies. When a country become a member of UPOV, it must comply to its strict rules which are regularly revised to protect even more the interests of the seed industry and undermine policy and regulation that protect and guarantee the rights and interests of farmer and peasant communities e.g. by preventing loopholes and making it a crime to save and share seeds.
Free exchange of seeds being the basis of community seed management at present and for thousands of years, joining UPOV will be catastrophic as it leads to the criminalisation of farmers and peasants for simply doing their daily practices: saving, breeding and sharing or distributing seeds. It also boosts the concentration of the seed industry. People in many countries call seed laws “Monsanto laws” because they help companies like Monsanto (now Bayer) or Syngenta merge their interests in chemicals, farm technology, GMOs and seeds. There are a few countries, like Venezuela, that have laws that defend peasant seeds, and the freedom to save them and exchange them, as well as peasant life. But right now, even the UN Food Systems Summit, led by the FAO and private entities, is giving UPOV a central role to provide farmers with so-called “improved” seeds.
Instead of adopting UPOV-based seed laws, governments should put in place legally binding and discrete measures to recognise and support farmers’ rights and seed systems. Such measures would ensure the right of farmers to save, exchange and sell seed unrestricted by commercial imperatives of transnational corporations. To rise to the challenge of our ecological and social crises, farmers’ rights should not simply be defended, but actively deepened and widened as a core organising principle of our food systems. UPOV-based laws cannot do this, and only seek to support a narrow set of interests, and decreased diversity. Diversity is life, and core to a shared and just ecological future.
Sovereignty over seed is a prerequisite and core component of the exercise of rights by family and community farmers and peasants. Protections are needed against patents, seed and plant variety protection laws, digital sequence information and the like which erode the exercise of farmers’ rights. In an already fractured world, UPOV only attempts to further fracture life, seed, community and ecologies.
The freedom, right and capacity of communities to save, use and exchange their own seeds are central pillars of people’s Food Sovereignty. To this, we respond with wholeness, because this is the nature of life, and therefore of a just and harmonious future and why we must defend them. After decades of campaigning in different parts of the world, we would like to propose a global week of action against UPOV starting on 2 December 2021, UPOV’s 60th birthday. We extend it to a week of action to include December 3rd, the global Day of Action Against Agri-Chemicals. The purpose would be to draw attention to the role that UPOV plays in privatising seeds and threatening food sovereignty and to call for it to be dismantled. It would allow groups to heighten their resistance to national or regional seed laws, highlight examples of pro-peasant seed legislation, in whatever form they take, and expose the role of free trade agreements in pushing seed laws all over the planet. It could be a week of education and mobilisation, allowing peasants, farmers and allies to stand up in unity to stop UPOV and seed privatisation.
How to get involved?
– Get informed, join or organise trainings, discussions and debates about UPOV and seed laws in your communities/countries. Resources to check out: UPOV the great seed robbery; how UPOV is misleading developing countries; UPOV animation
– Join struggles against UPOV and related laws currently taking place at national level (e.g. Nigeria, Ghana, Japan, Thailand). Contact groups in your country/region and join forces.
– Support movements against FTAs that are promoting UPOV and other seed laws that criminalise peasant seeds , call for pro-peasant seed legislation.
– Participate in the global week of action in December 2021 which includes the global day of action against UPOV on Dec 2 and the global day of action against agrochemicals on Dec 3.