International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) (FAO, 2001) has been signed by 79 countries, including the United States (FAO, 2003), and ratified by 67 countries (28.04.2005). Following eighteen years of political mobilization and seven years of negotiations the ITPGRFA was adopted in November 2001, coming into force June 2004 (Siganporia, 2007).

The Governing Body of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA) promulgated the treaty. The ITPGRFA revises the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (IU), adopted in 1983, to harmonize with the CBD.

The treaty addresses that the conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA is necessary to solve the problem of world hunger and meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (FAO, 2001).

The treaty recognizes that international cooperation and open exchange of PGR is necessary because of transnational interdependence in terms of genetic resources. The treaty seeks to establish a global system to provide access to PGR, and recognizes the contributions of farmers in developing crop diversity. Finally, the treaty aspires to share the benefits created by PGR with the countries of PGR origin.

To accomplish these goals the treaty obligates signatory countries to create efficient, transparent and effective Multilateral Systems that allow access to sixty-five of the world’s main crops (FAO, 2001).

Furthermore the treaty requires the fair and equitable sharing of benefits. The benefit-sharing fund supports relevant projects. ITPGRFA benefit sharing agreements are conducted between ‘owners’ and ‘buyers’ of plant genetic resources or in other words between stewards of agrobiodiversity and society (Andersen, 2005, Brush, 2007).

Some developing countries have created legislation for direct benefit sharing yet none have been enacted. There are many examples of non-monetary, indirect benefit sharing agreements such as those that allow for participatory plant breeding, conservation projects and access to seeds.

However, only a small number of direct benefit sharing contracts have been instigated.

Article 9 in the ITPGRFA has initiated the process of international recognition for protection of Farmers’ Rights (FAO, 2001). The ITPGRFA is not a binding international resolution, but rather allocates the protection of Farmers’ Rights to national governments according to their needs and priorities. According to the treaty Contracting Parties are responsible for providing for Farmers’ Rights through the protection of traditional knowledge, by providing equal participation in benefits sharing and participation in decision making related to biodiversity conservation.

The forum for Farmers’ Rights was established through Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Resolution 8/83 in 1983, which encourages recognition of the (pre-TRIPS) common heritage principle for open access to genetic resources (Brush, 2007). The FAO Resolution defines Farmers’ Rights as:

Rights arising from the past, present and future contributions of farmers in conserving, improving, and making available plant genetic resources, particularly those in centers of origin/diversity. These rights are vested in the International Community, as trustee for present and future generations of farmers, for the purpose of ensuring full benefit to farmers, and supporting the continuation of their contributions. (FAO, 1998, p. 278)

Brush (2007) criticizes the FAO definition of Farmers’ Rights as problematic because it does not specify what genetic material is covered or who could claim ownership. However, the definition announces the intention to defend Farmers’ Rights by ensuring benefit to farmers and supporting their work.

The lack of legislative protection for the misappropriation of IK is a key issue for relevant NGOs in developing countries and public institutions in developed countries (Andersen, 2005). With this in mind the ITPGRFA has been created as a platform to advance Farmers’ Rights through acknowledging the world’s farmers contributions to conserving, improving and making available plant genetic resources.

The treaty suggests measures to protect and promote Farmers’ Rights and traditional knowledge.

For the treaty to successfully defend Farmers’ Rights a common understanding of strategies is necessary (Andersen, 2005). Towards this end The Farmers’ Rights Project was established at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Norway in collaboration with the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the German GTZ, with related proponents in Peru, India and Ethiopia.

The Farmers’ Rights Project provides a platform for proposals of concrete measures to the Governing Body of the ITPGRFA. Additionally, the goals of the Farmers’ Rights Project are to encourage stakeholders to actively participate in implementing the provisions of the ITPGRFA on Farmers’ Rights and to raise awareness about the importance of Farmers’ Rights for biodiversity conservation of PGR and for poverty alleviation.

The Farmers’ Rights Project has initiated a document and literature survey of the premise of farmer’s knowledge and to draw lessons from efforts to realize Farmers’ Rights (Andersen, 2005). The project has conducted an international stakeholders questionnaire survey in 31 countries on the state of Farmers’ Rights, which shows that efforts are underway with regard to all measures addressed in Article 9 in the treaty.

Four case studies have been conducted on the state of Farmers’ Rights in Peru, India, Ethiopia, and Norway. Comparative analysis indicates that the challenges in these diverse countries are similar despite varying socio-political and economic contexts.

The Farmers’ Rights Project explores two approaches to Farmers’ Rights.

The stewardship approach is an overall objective that upholds the need for legislation to protect Farmers’ Rights (Andersen, 2005).The ownership approach rewards farmers for genetic material that is obtained from their fields when it is used in commercial varieties and/or protected by IPRs.The purpose of this approach is to provide incentives for biodiversity conservation, access and benefit sharing legislation and the granting of IPRs to farmers.

However, it is difficult to reward specific farmers because of the collective heritage of genetic resources and ethic of sharing that exists amongst traditional farming communities. Additionally, the limited demand for farmers’ varieties would only benefit few farmers.

Considering these limitations the ownership approach is intended to be secondary to the stewardship approach.

Although some developing countries have the relevant legislation there are only few examples when farmers actually participated in decision-making process pertaining to PGR (Andersen, 2005). Farmers are more likely to participate in the decision-making process in wealthy nations even though relevant legislation and policies are absent.

Yet, farmers in developed countries have stated that their influence is decreasing.

The Farmers’ Rights Project has consulted with a diverse array of stakeholders who have varying expectations about the activities of the treaty’s Governing Body (Andersen, 2005). Stakeholders have requested that the Governing Body actively organize and promote the sharing of experiences of mobilization.

Stakeholders also demand that the Governing Body of the treaty monitor, support and advocate for the development of communications, national plans, institutional assistance, legislation, standards and models to promote farmers’ rights.


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