Golay, Christophe (2017): The right to seeds and intellectual property rights (PDF, 138KB)

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Key messages

For over 10,000 years, peasants have freely saved, selected, exchanged and sold seeds, as well as used and reused them to produce food. Today, these customary practices remain essential to peasants’ right to food, as well as to global food security and biodiversity. But the protection of intellectual property rights over seeds at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), and the promotion of commercial seed systems have posed serious challenges to the protection of these customary practices, and to the maintenance of peasant seed systems and agrobiodiversity.

In the great majority of states, seed laws and regulations have been designed with the aim to further develop the agricultural industry, and peasants seed systems have been largely neglected. In Europe, for example, national seed catalogues and the European Union (EU) Common Catalogue have been designed to promote industrial seeds and agriculture standards, largely excluding peasant seeds, and in a number of countries, peasant seed selling has been outlawed. This has discouraged, and in some cases hindered the continuation of peasant agricultural activities.

To respond to these challenges, among others, the United Nations (UN) in 2018 adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP), in which the right to seeds is recognized. According to the UNDROP, all states shall, inter alia, ‘support peasant seed systems, and promote the use of peasant seeds and agrobiodiversity’; and ‘ensure that seed policies, plant variety protection and other intellectual property laws, certification schemes and seed marketing laws respect and take into account the rights, needs and realities of peasants’.

The implementation of the UNDROP represents a unique opportunity to rebalance the lack of support given to peasant seed systems worldwide, compared to the support given to industrial seed systems in recent decades. This is essential for the protection of the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of peasants, as well as in the interest of all for the preservation of crop biodiversity.

In accordance with the priority to be given to human rights norms in international and national laws, reflected in the UNDROP, states shall ensure that their laws and policies, as well as the international agreements to which they are party, including on intellectual property, do not lead to violations, but to a better protection of peasants’ right to seeds.