The Plant treaty is the only legally binding international agreement exclusively pertaining to the genetic resources in seed and propagating material for food and agriculture. It addresses the realization of Farmers’ Rights in Article 9, and has a number of supportive provisions in other parts of the Treaty, particularly in Article 6 on sustainable use of crop genetic resources. The Plant Treaty provides the international platform for negotiations on the realization of Farmers’ Rights related to crop genetic resources.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGFA) was adopted at the Thirty-first Session of the Conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome 3 November 2001. It entered into force 29 June 2004, and is the only legally binding international agreement exclusively pertaining to the management of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Its objectives are the conservation and sustainable use of these resources, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from their use – in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – for sustainable agriculture and food security. The most important benefit is that of access to these vital resources for food and agriculture. Central in the International Treaty is a Multilateral System of Access and Benefit-Sharing concerning 35 food crops and 29 forage plants that are under the management and control of the Contracting Parties and in the public domain, as well as the collections kept in major international gene banks that have entered into agreements with the Governing Body of the Plant Treaty.
Provisions on Farmers' Rights in the Plant Treaty
The realization of Farmers' Rights is a cornerstone in the implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, as it is a precondition for the conservation and sustainable use of these vital resources in situ as well as on-farm.
The Plant Treaty recognizes the enormous contributions made by farmers worldwide in conserving and developing crop genetic resources. This constitutes the basis of Farmers' Rights. According to Article 9, Contracting Parties, i.e. governments, are to protect and promote Farmers' Rights, but can choose the measures to do so according to their needs and priorities. Measures may include the protection of traditional knowledge, equitable benefit sharing and participation in decision-making. Also, the rights of farmers to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds and propagating material are addressed, but without giving any particular direction for implementation.
The Plant Treaty provides the international platform for negotiations on norms and rules for the realization of Farmers’ Rights. Much has been achieved in describing the contents of Farmers’ Rights and developing a joint understanding with regard to their realization since the adoption of the Plant Treaty. Read more about what the provisions on Farmers’ Rights mean in in practice here.
Provisions on sustainable use – supporting Farmers’ Rights
The Plant Treaty’s Article 6 on sustainable use of plant genetic resources can be understood as a practical way of implementing Farmers’ Rights. Article 6 provides that the Contracting Parties shall develop and maintain appropriate policy and legal measures that promote the sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Towards this end, Article 6 sets out measures that may be undertaken.
Pursuing fair agricultural policies that promote the development and maintenance of diverse farming systems are among these measures.
Strengthening research which enhances and conserves biological diversity by maximizing intra- and inter-specific variation is another measure. Importantly, this should be especially for the benefit of farmers who generate and use their own varieties and apply ecological principles in maintaining soil fertility and in combating diseases, weeds and pests.
Furthermore, promoting plant breeding with the participation of farmers, particularly in developing countries are among the measures. This should strengthen the capacity to develop varieties particularly adapted to social, economic and ecological conditions, including in marginal areas.
Another set of measures related to the above, is focused on broadening the genetic base of crops and increasing the range of genetic diversity available to farmers. In this context, also promoting the expanded use of local and locally adapted crops, varieties and underutilized species is included as a measure. Following from this, further measures concern supporting the wider use of diversity of varieties and species in on-farm management, conservation and sustainable use of crops. It is important to create strong links to plant breeding and agricultural development in order to reduce crop vulnerability and genetic erosion and promote increased world food production.
A set of measures that has received much attention at sessions of the Governing Body, is reviewing, and, as appropriate, adjusting breeding strategies and regulations concerning variety release and seed distribution.
As this overview of measures for sustainable use of crop genetic resources provided in the Plant Treaty’s Article 6 show, their implementation is highly supportive for the realization of Farmers’ Rights.
Other supportive provisions in the Plant Treaty
Other articles of the International Treaty are also important for the implementation of Farmers' Rights. For example, it provides that countries shall promote or support, as appropriate, farmers' and local communities' efforts to manage and conserve on-farm their plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (Para. 5.1 [c]) and take steps to minimize or, if possible, eliminate threats to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (Para. 5.2). Two other provisions (Para. 13.3 and Para 18. 5) state that funding priority for the Benefit-sharing Fund under the Multilateral System of Access and Benefit-sharing will be given to farmers, particularly in developing countries, contributing to maintaining crop genetic diversity.
In addition, the International Treaty supports the implementation of the Global Plan of Action (Art. 14), with its provisions on Farmers' Rights. Articles 7 and 8 provide for international co-operation and technical assistance with a particular view to strengthening developing countries capabilities to implement the International Treaty.
The Governing Body of the Plant Treaty consists of all Contracting Parties and shall promote the full implementation of the Treaty, including the provision of policy direction and guidance, and monitoring of implementation (Art. 19). According to Article 21, the Governing Body is to ensure compliance with all provisions of the International Treaty (not only obligations), and the Preamble highlights the necessity of promoting Farmers' Rights at the national as well as the international levels.
Crucial questions are how the Governing Body can promote compliance with the provisions of the Treaty related to Farmers' Rights, how the Contracting Parties may implement Article 9 and related provisions, and how they best could cooperate in solving the tasks. These challenges have been addressed at all sessions of Governing Body since the Plant Treaty entered into force. Read more about the negotiations at each session of the Governing Body here and about the intersessional work preparing for the negotiations here.
Text: Regine Andersen