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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 (IPR) 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 European Union (EU) and EU Member States, seed laws and regulations have been designed to cater to the needs of the agricultural industry, and the rights of peasants have been largely neglected. Peasant seed systems and traditional knowledge have not been recognised, and therefore not adequately supported. European seed diversity has suffered a drastic decay in recent decades, largely as a result of a normative framing that disregards the needs and realities of peasants. National seed catalogues and the EU Common Catalogue have been designed to promote industrial seeds and agriculture standards, largely excluding peasant seeds. Due to strong IPR regimes, peasant seed saving, exchange and selling have been outlawed, or severely restricted in the EU. 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) adopted in 2018 the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP), in which peasants’ right to seeds is recognized. According to UNDROP, states shall, inter alia, ‘elaborate, interpret and apply relevant international agreements and standards to which they are party, in a manner consistent with their human rights obligations as they apply to peasants’ (Article 2(4)). They shall also ‘support peasant seed systems, and promote the use of peasant seeds and agrobiodiversity’ (Article 19(6)). And they shall ‘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’ (Article 19(8)).
UNDROP’s implementation represents a unique opportunity to rebalance the lack of support given to peasant seed systems worldwide, Europe included, 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 the interest of all in the preservation of crop biodiversity.
In 2018, the European Parliament (EP) called for EU Member States to support UNDROP’s adoption, and the European Economic and Social Committee called on European institutions and EU Member State governments to actively support UNDROP in all future work leading up to its realization. Following these calls, and in accordance with the need to apply international instruments adopted by the UN General Assembly in good faith, and the need to give priority to human rights norms in international and national laws, reflected in UNDROP’s Articles 2(4), 15(5) and 19(8), the EU and EU Member States shall ensure that their regional and national laws and policies, as well as the international agreements to which they are party, do not lead to violations, but to a better protection of rights of peasants, including their right to seeds.