Global Assault on Seed Sovereignty through Trade Deals Is Assault on Human Rights, Protest is Fertile
The multinational seed industry is continuing its multipronged attack on the most basic of human rights, the access to seed. Lobbyists of the seed industry are using trade agreements to pressure nations into adopting strict measures such as UPOV agreements that ensure the protection and ownership of new plant varieties for plant breeders. On top of this, corporate seed industry lobbyists are proposing revisions to the UPOV convention that promote further monopolisation of the seed industry through ‘harmonisation’ of procedures for registering and testing new plant varieties.
Protests in many regions around the world are putting up much needed resistance against this corporate takeover of the food system, successfully forcing governments to delay and even repeal the agreements. These movements are an inspiration for our continual global struggle against the relentless onslaught of agribusiness whose current biggest targets are the ‘untapped’ markets of the global South, with the spotlight on Africa and other regions where seeds have not yet been commercialized, and are still used in traditional systems that allow seed saving and exchange.
What is UPOV?
The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants or UPOV is a Geneva-based intergovernmental union so far of around 70 countries that accept common rules for recognizing and protecting the ownership of new plant varieties by plant breeders. First established in 1961, the convention entered into force in 1968 and was revised in 1972, 1978 and 1991. The latest version, UPOV-91 significantly increases the protection of plant breeders, handing over monopoly of seed rights, and even making it illegal for the farmer to save and exchange seeds for replanting. See  The Corporate Takeover of Seed under Many Guises, SiS 64, for more details.
UPOV builds on the World Trade Organisation’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that was adopted in 1994 as the first international treaty to establish global standards for intellectual property rights over seeds. This has allowed corporations to force the “harmonisation” of patent laws across countries, ostensibly to create a unified global intellectual property regime with minimum standards and establish a dispute settle system to ensure its application and compliance.
Today all member countries are part of the 1978 or 1991 Act. Back in 1998, there were only 37 countries in UPOV, the majority industrialised. With recent international trade agreements however, the global South have been pressured to join, being told that intellectual property protection benefits the biotechnology industry and hence the national economy as well as food security. These claims are unfounded, and in fact untrue; UPOV works to increase the profit of multinational corporations in the North, and is proving to be a threat to food security especially for people in the South.
Proposed ‘harmonisation’ of UPOV system further erodes seed sovereignty
In the 88th meeting of the Consultative Committee (CC) of UPOV on 15 October 2014 in Geneva, lobby organisations representing the corporate seed industry pushed for further ‘harmonisation’ of the UPOV plant breeders system . Their proposals include an international filing system, a UPOV quality assurance program and a central examination system for variety denominations, disguised as an “international system of cooperation” that would actually provide further protection to breeders with regards to filing and examination of new varieties in destination countries. In reality, these changes would increase patenting and biopiracy by commercial plant breeders, while placing the costs of the new system on individual nations and not the corporations commercialising the seed variety.
The International Seed Federation, the International Community of Breeders of Asexually Ornamental Fruit Plants (CIOPORA) and CropLife International, represent corporations that include Monsanto, DowAgroSciences, Syngenta, Bayer, and DuPont Pioneer, which together already control 75 % of private sector plant breeding research and 60 % of the commercial seed market. The new proposals would further increase the monopoly. These pro-industry organisations proposed an international filing system of cooperation (IFC) for registering a plant variety that would use a single application form in the language of choice of the breeder and submitted to the destination country for planting the seeds. The IFC would then be involved in distributing processed applications to target countries. This, they suggested would result in more applications by breeders for more crops, in more regions and countries. One of the most dangerous aspects of the proposals is that such applications would be confidential with regards to the pedigree and parental lines of hybrids, thereby greatly facilitating biopiracy. A preliminary review of the IFC would be sent to the destination country for DUS (Distinct, Uniform and Stable) testing, all at the expense of the destination country, which the lobbyists proposed, should take place in centralised “centres of excellence” that would need to be developed. Breeders would send plant materials and fees for DUS testing to the centres of their choice, likely leaving governments without access to the plant material. The industry lobbyists further propose that the IFC should force UPOV member countries to implement these procedures themselves. These changes will compromise the right of UPOV member states to control the processing and examination of plant variety protection applications, and hence their national right to control their own food system in accordance with local climactic and ecological conditions that can decide the success or failure of a crop.
The proposed changes, such as the potential to increase the number of crop varieties, do not necessarily translate to lower food prices or higher food production. It does however impact small-scale farmers who rely on informal seed saving and swapping systems, a common practice in most developing nations, pushing up the price of seed and affecting livelihoods and food access in the process.
The seed industry claims that such proposals would benefit small and medium scale farmers, though as shown in the case of the EU Community Plant Variety Rights (CPVR), which was the premise for these new changes, it increased the share of breeder’s rights for large corporations. The CPVR, based on UPOV-91, gives sweeping intellectual property (IP) rights protection valid throughout the EU territory via a single protection title obtained in any EU country. Data from a 2011 Greens/EFA Group in the EU Parliament show that this system overwhelmingly benefits large-scale breeders such as multinational corporations, with the top five seed companies applying for 91 % of intellectual property right protection. Monsanto and Syngenta were responsible for 57 % of plant protection rights applications for tomatoes in 2011, compared to 12 % in 2000. Further, most applications come from just a few EU countries, mainly Germany, The Netherlands and France, suggesting that few countries are benefitting from this system. The European Patent Office has already gone so far as granting patents on over a hundred conventionally bred varieties, such as broccoli bred to have a large head to facilitate mechanical harvesting (EP 1597965), and fungus-resistant tomatoes. Thanks to work by the large coalition of organisations behind No Patents on Seeds, the tomato patent (EP1812575) of Monsanto has now been revoked, on grounds of fraudulent abuse of the seed laws in claiming as invention an already existing natural variety of tomato .
International trade agreements force seed privatisation, destroy livelihoods and enslave people
The first globalisation of the seed/food market came with European colonialism. Colonising countries forced local farmers in many nations to give up their local food production for plantations, to be replaced by enslaved and indentured labour to grow luxury crops for export back to their countries. Today, the philosophy of food production underlying the new international trade agreements align with the colonial way of thinking – that food should be produced for international export to the financial benefit of powerful corporations and nations – in a direct assault on people’s sovereignty over their natural resources, farming systems and food access as well as their human right to dignified living standards free of exploitation and dependence.
One of the first international trade agreements negotiated outside the multilateral arena that incorporated seed privatisation policies was the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Canada and Mexico in 1994. The NAFTA agreement set a precedent for all US trade deals to follow, with the EU also following suit with its own similar trade agreements so they too, would not lose out in the Mexican market. NAFTA obliged Mexico to join UPOV. Not only did the agreement directly restrict seed saving in Mexico through UPOV, but it also undermined their agricultural industry through other mechanisms including the dumping of staple crops at below production costs to Mexico. The US subsidises farmers for many overproduced stable crops which are then sold so cheaply that they undermine local agriculture, destroying farmers’ livelihoods and local peoples’ access to food. The dumping of US staple crops (corn, soy, wheat, cotton) and meat wiped an estimated 12.8 billion US dollars off the Mexican producers’ earnings during 1997-2005 . Corn, in particular, originated in Central America and was considered sacred by the Mayan people and others. Another pre-condition of NAFTA was the liberalisation of the communally owned ‘ejido’ land system. Under 1991 reforms, the constitutional right to ejidos was eliminated, though already existing ejidos were allowed to remain under community control . These policy changes seriously damaged the Mexican food system originally focused on local consumption and replaced it with an export-orientated fiefdom of the US. Food imports in Mexico have gone up from 16 % before NAFTA to 42 % in 2014 . While the US exports its overproduced staples, it imports much of its fresh produce from Mexico.
Horrendous work conditions are endured by employees of huge mega farms that supply blemish-free, immaculate produce to the US, highlighting the real impacts of these trade agreements on peoples’ lives. A recent report by Richard Marosi and Don Bartletti for the LA Times reveals a land of mono-cropped fields, devoid of people and filled with billboards for agribusiness in these poor, rural indigenous areas of the country . Following an 18 month investigation, they found that many farm labourers work 6 days a week for 8-12 US dollars a week; often trapped for months in rat-infested camps without reliable water supply and clean toilets. Many have had their wages withheld for months to prevent them leaving at peak harvest time; they face threats of violence, and can head home at the end of the week penniless after getting past the barbed wire fences designed to keep them inside working.
Mexico and the 11 other members of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Free Trade Agreement (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and of course, the US) are now facing even more extreme attacks on their agricultural industry. The TTP is being dubbed one of the most ambitious trade agreements in history, and also one of the most dangerous not least because of the secrecy surrounding the negotiations. Details of negotiations have come mostly through leaks. Some of the negotiation text from May 2014 called for all member states to adopt UPOV-91 and the outright patenting of plants and animals . Many agreements also come with severe punishments for farmers who break the IP laws. It will also undermine local agriculture as seen with NAFTA, where harmonisation of trade policies will pit farmers from different regions against each other, forcing for example the Mexican coffee farmers to compete with Vietnamese coffee farmers. The existing communal ejido land is proposed to be under a fast-track system for privatisation. TTP will also prohibit labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods, so countries with existing labelling laws such as Japan would have to reverse their policies.
In 2006, the US closed big deals with Colombia and Peru that included the adoption of UPOV-91, as well as with all Central American countries through other agreements. The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) made similar agreements with Colombia and Peru in 2008 and with Central American countries in 2013 (see  for in depth report). The Caribbean states currently have an agreement to consider adopting UPOV-91, though only one nation Trinidad and Tobago has signed up. The Americas have been where agribusiness made their largest gains in recent years, but now Africa is the new target. African countries and the EU recently finished talks that contain a commitment to negotiate common IP standards expected to lead to UPOV commitments. The G8 New Alliance has also pushed for over 200 policy changes in participating African countries to open up their seed markets, with Ghana fighting vigorously to prevent their politicians from passing the new plant breeder’s bill that includes UPOV-91 (see ).
In Asia, Sri Lanka is proposing a new Seed Act that would require farmers to register and certify all seed and planting material in the country. This has led to large campaigns by organisations such as the Movement of Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) to prevent it coming into force. Elsewhere, other nations such as Canada are facing similar battles, where Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act that includes UPOV-91, was passed in November 2014. The National Farmers Union are deeply concerned over the bill ; the President of the Union Jan Slomp called it “one of the most farmer unfriendly mechanisms we have ever seen”, while the Vice-President Anne Slater stated: “This legislation makes it possible for seed companies to collect End-Point Royalties on a farmer’s entire crop. It also gives seed companies the possibility to create monopolies to control future breeding by others through the Act’s ‘essentially derived’ clause, which gives breeders full control of any new varieties that exhibit characteristics of a company’s already-protected variety.”
Thankfully many nations have seen successful protests hinder the free trade agreements and seed privatisation policies. Guatemala repealed the ‘Monsanto Law’ this year after it failed to meet the requirements of consulting indigenous communities, resulting in a 10-day protest. The “Law for the Protection of New Plant Varieties” was highly unpopular with civil societies and indigenous communities that would prevent them from saving seeds. Colombia has temporarily suspended its deals to adopt UPOV-91, also as a result of large scale protests. We need to build on the successes of these movements and comprehensively reject UPOV 91 if we are to protect the sovereignty of the seed.