FIDDLING IN ROME? Reflections on the International Seed Treaty

The UN’s International Seed Treaty’s Governing Body met last week. However, the session ended after midnight on Saturday in frustration and recriminations. Member of the Food Ethics Council Patrick Mulvany was there and, in this guest ‘long read’ blog, shares his views on what should have happened and what did not…

It’s timely to reflect on this in the UK’s #SeedWeek. We should remember the legacy, and applaud the current actions, of biodiversity-conserving farmers who feed most people in the world.

The United Nations’ International Seed Treaty (‘the Treaty’) is the only international instrument that enacts the promotion of the full realization of Farmers’ Rights to save, use, exchange and sell their biodiverse seeds. These seeds are at the heart of a sustainable, equitable, nutritious, ecologically-resilient and climate-friendly food system. Sustaining and enhancing peasant and small-scale farmers’ heterogeneous seeds and mixed varietal seed populations in biodiverse production systems will ensure good food for everyone forever.

Over millennia, in their peasant agroecology production systems, biodiversity-conserving farmers have developed the resilient and biodiverse seeds that feed us. The Treaty should enable them to continue to do so. The world’s small-scale food providers are the defenders of biodiverse seeds, and, indeed, all agricultural biodiversity, and should be afforded the highest recognition and support for their service to people and the planet.

Yet, listening to many governments meeting last week at the 8th governing body session of the International Seed Treaty (IT PGRFA #GB8 @PlantTreaty), that ringing endorsement and unconditional support was somewhat muted, if not deliberately undermined by corporate and other seed and agribusiness industry interests that control the commercial industrial seed chain.

The Treaty was designed, in part, to defend and enhance the biodiversity of these peasant/ farmers’ seed systems in situ, within fields and other food growing areas on-farm. As the ‘father’ of the Treaty, Professor José Esquinas Alcázar, said at the Special Event to mark the 15th Anniversary of the Treaty, held on the Saturday before the Treaty meeting, it’s not only important to maintain and enhance the diversity of crop species on-farm, but it is essential also to increase the ‘inter-varietal and intra-varietal diversity’ of these crops in farmers’ fields. In other words, enhancing heterogeneity of the agricultural biodiversity within and between crops and their varieties in productive and biodiverse ecosystems is imperative for securing future food.

This should be a core priority for the world’s governing bodies. To achieve this, governments, as arbiters of global good practice in the public interest, should be supporting small-scale food providers and ensuring the realisation of their Farmers’ Rights. And, even more so, they should be actively implementing policies to downsize the biodiversity-destroying and climate-destabilising industrial commodity production systems, with their homogeneous seeds, plants and trees grown in vast chemically-contaminated monocultures. In order to address the multiple biodiversity and nutrition crises, Governments need to prioritise the transformation of industrial commodity production towards biodiverse agroecology, developed in the framework of food sovereignty, and based on biodiverse, peasant/ farmers’ seeds.

But, last week in Rome, governments failed, yet again, to do so. In the context of improving food security and biodiversity conservation, the Treaty has three key pillars: to ensure Conservation, Sustainable Use and the fair and equitable Benefit Sharing from the use of farm seeds. This landmark Treaty, the outcome of seven long years of negotiation, marked its 15th anniversary since it came into force in 2004.

Since then, the Treaty has not really fulfilled its mandate. It has not implemented meaningful measures to ensure that farmers’ biodiverse seeds are conserved and used sustainably nor ensured that Farmers’ Rights to use, save, exchange and sell their seeds are fully implemented. It has not reduced the seed industry’s influence over the Treaty, resulting in ever increasing corporate concentration in the industrial seed sector (four megacorporations now control 60 per cent of all commercial seed sales), thereby accelerating the erosion of biodiverse seeds and other agricultural biodiversity. It has not reduced the privatisation of seeds, through patents and plant variety protection, and associated seed laws and regulations which limit the development and enhancement of seeds on-farm, so that they can adapt to new pressures including climate change. It has not effectively constrained the development and use of new technologies, which can modify or digitally capture genetic resources, when these are for the benefit of industry and damaging to the purposes of the Treaty. The issues of Gene Drives and other GM 2.0 technologies and Digital Sequence Information (DSI) have become bellwethers for society’s concerns about industry’s negative influence over the Treaty and the biodiverse food systems that it should be protecting. And it has not secured significant mandatory payments by industry in order to increase benefits to biodiversity-conserving farmers, all the more important, as the Angolan representative noted in an earlier meeting, at this time of increasing climate variability.

In advance of this session of the Treaty (GB8), the African Centre for Biodiversity warned in its review of some outstanding issues in the negotiations that this was “Crunch Time for the Seed Treaty”. In the event, the Governing Body failed to agree on measures to enhance one pillar of its mandate – how to share seeds and benefits in ways that would support biodiversity-enhancing farmers. It did not agree on how to enhance the Treaty’s Multilateral System of Access and Benefit Sharing (MLS) and secure real benefits. This, for some, “indicated it is time for sober contemplation on the future of the Treaty.” Also, in the context of the MLS discussion, it was said that “GB8 marked a missed opportunity for the Treaty to propose international regulations on DSI use in response to the needs of the global agricultural community.”

For the other two pillars of the Treaty, Conservation and Sustainable Use, and the implementation of Farmers’ Rights, this session only managed to agree on scant support. In the words of some commentators, extending the mandate of the working group on Farmers’ Rights was “one of the few positive outcomes of GB8.” For more on the detail of the negotiations see the Earth Negotiations Bulletin summary report.

Most Governments were frustrated by the way the meeting had been managed, much of it involving interminable and ultimately indecisive discussions by a few countries behind closed doors. This irritation spilled over at the end of the final Plenary when the spokesperson from a biodiversity-rich but economically-poor African country asked the Chair, who was from a powerful industrialised country, to reflect on whether she had made any positive contribution to farmers and improved food security during this Governing Body session. The perception of some observers was that it was almost as if this session had been managed in a way that would lead to the impasse. In anticipation, the European Coordination of Via Campesina (ECVC) had questioned ‘Should we accept the planned disappearance of the International Seed Treaty?

Farmers’ Organisations and their social movements in the IPC for Food Sovereignty, which brings together the voices and views of the small-scale food producers of the world into the Treaty, and other Civil Society Organisations, were present in greater numbers than ever. They made important interventions throughout the meeting and shared valuable information through publications and Side Events. A central concern, in the context of the recently agreed UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants, was to emphasise that ‘Farmers’ Rights are human rights, as recognized and described in many international human rights documents, which have a tight connection with many other fundamental human rights. Farmers’ Rights are not in any way an exception to intellectual property rights and cannot be seen as subject to such rights.’ However, the Treaty’s Governing Body did little to assuage these concerns.

Despite these setbacks, in its Closing Statement, the IPC said “…we continue our work, our life; we continue to provide food for people all around the world. This is what our ancestors have been doing for millennia, and now we are continuing to do so in our biodiverse, peasant agroecological food production systems. No matter how much multi-national corporations try to change this truth, nobody can ever discourage us. We continue our struggles, we keep our hopes alive, we pursue the realization of our rights, and we will survive not only for our future but also for the future of humanity as whole.”

In the context of the biodiversity, nutrition and climate emergencies, and the importance of heterogeneous peasant/ farmers’ seeds in addressing these crises, the failure of the Treaty’s Governing Body to act decisively in support of farmers and food security is, adapting the well-known expression, as if Governments were fiddling in Rome while the world burns…

The Treaty is, however, too important to be allowed to fizzle: it provides international governance at the nexus of agriculture, biodiversity and trade agreements; it is a potential bulwark against corporate control over seeds that developing countries can call upon; and it is the only international agreement that explicitly affirms “the past, present and future contributions of farmers in all regions of the world, particularly those in centres of origin and diversity, in conserving, improving and making available plant genetic resources for food and agriculture”. It is beholden on governments, with the support of civil society and farmers’ social movements, to ensure that the Treaty’s full potential is realised and influences wider forums.

Participants in the UK and Ireland Seed Sovereignty programme, in France’s recent ‘Sème ta Résistance’ seed event, in Europe’s Let’s Liberate Diversity coordination, in Via Campesina‘s global seed campaign and many more in every country, who are supporting biodiversity-enhancing farmers, are not going to remain silent. Nor are the millions of small-scale farmers who have so clearly articulated their vision in Rome last week going to cease their vital activities. These actions will continue and their voices will be heard. They will become amplified by citizens and wider civil society movements in national, regional and international forums – e.g. climate, food security, nutrition, SDGs. In these, the inescapable truth should prevail: that the emergencies the world currently faces can, in part, be resolved if the majority agroecological food system, served by small-scale food providers in localised food webs, were to replace the damaging international food chains of the industrial food system.

If we listen to these biodiversity-enhancing farmers, impress on governments represented in the Treaty and many other international bodies, that they need to take the required actions and, as citizens the world over, we ‘Eat more Biodiversity’, another biodiverse, food system that serves people, animals and the planet is possible.


Author: Patrick Mulvany