FAO, 1987: 'Report by the Chairman of the Working Group on its Second Meeting', Report of the Second Session of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, CL 91/14, Appendix F.
The Second Meeting of the Working Group of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources took place in Rome, 12-13 March 1987, and prepared the ground for discussions in the upcoming Second Session of the Commission with regard to several agenda items. At this meeting, Farmers' Rights were addressed in greater detail, so these parts of the report from the meeting constitute an important basis for understanding the history of this concept. The relevant portions of the text (paragraphs 8-9 and 11-12) are not easily accessible, and are quoted in full here:
"8. During the discussion of document CPGR/87/4, the Working Group agreed that the breeding of modern commercial plant varieties had been made possible first of all by the constant and joint efforts of the people/farmers (in the broad sense of the word) who had first domesticated wild plants and conserved and genetically improved the cultivated varieties over the millennia. Thanks were due in the second place to the scientists and professional people who, utilizing these varieties as their raw material, had applied modern techniques to achieve the giant strides made over the last 50 years in genetic improvements. In recent years some countries had incorporated the rights of the latter group into laws as 'Breeders' Rights', i.e. the right of professional plant breeders or the commercial companies which employ them to participate in the financial benefits derived from the commercial exploitation of the new varieties. However, as document CPGR/87/4 pointed out, there was presently no explicit acknowledgement of the rights of the first group, in other words, no 'Farmers' Rights'. The Working Group considered such rights to be fair recognition for the spade-work done by thousands of previous generations of farmers. And which had provided the basis for the material available today and to which the new technologies were in large measure applied. The Group agreed, that what was the issue here was not individual farmers or communities of farmers but the rights of entire peoples who, though having bred, maintained and improved cultivated plants, had still not achieved the benefits of development nor had they the capacity to produce their own varieties. Alternative names such as 'right of the countries of origin' or 'gene donors', were proposed, but the conclusion was that the name 'Farmers' Rights' was the most expressive.
9. The Working Group explicitly refused to give a definition of the 'Right of Farmers' but was unanimous in recommending its recognition by the Commission. Many delegations asked the Secretariat to examine possible mechanisms for giving concrete expression to this right (to the extent possible), in specific activities designed to promote and develop national germplasm conservation programmes, plant genetic improvement, and seed production in the developing countries, and through the International Fund (…).
11. The Working Group recommended that the foundations for arriving at this single interpretation be established by a small, informal contact group, made up of delegates standing for the various options. Participation in the contact group would be voluntary, and would be open to observers as well. This contact group would meet during the second session of the Commission, i.e. now. The Working Group agreed that the three major items which should be negotiated by the Contact Group were:
- Breeders' Rights
- Farmers' Rights, and
- The free exchange of genetic material.
12. The Working Group concurred that Breeders' Rights and Farmers' Rights were parallel and complementary rather than opposed, and that the simultaneous recognition and international legitimization of both these rights could help to boost and speed up the development of the people of the world."
As these quotes show, the main element of the Farmers' Rights concept concerned the need to reward farmers for their contribution to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. The rights holders were not to be single farmers or communities, but entire peoples, i.e. a form of collective right. The idea of developing farmers' and plant breeders' rights simultaneously in order to seek a balance between the two also emerged at this meeting. The Contact Group had a challenging task in seeking a single interpretation, a point to which we return below.