Peasants’ Right to Seeds and Intellectual Property Rights

13 November 2020

Our new Research Brief The Right to Seeds and Intellectual Property Rights discusses the protection of peasant’s right to seeds notably in light with the protection of this right in the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP).

Written by our Senior Research Fellow and Strategic Adviser on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Dr Christophe Golay, it begins with a presentation of the right to seeds and intellectual property in international law, as well as of their inherent tensions. It then outlines UNDROP’s definition of the right to seeds and states’ obligations under international human rights law and explains why these shall prevail over other international instruments, as well as national and regional laws and policies.

Intellectual Property Rights versus Peasants’ Seed Systems

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.

‘The protection of intellectual property rights 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’ explains Dr Golay.

In the great majority of states, seed laws and regulations have been designed with the aim to promote the agricultural industry, and peasants seed systems have been largely neglected. In Europe, for example, national seed catalogues and the European Union (EU) Common Catalogue have been designed to promote industrial seeds and agriculture standards, largely excluding peasant seeds, and in a number of countries, peasant seed selling is prohibited. This has largely discouraged the continuation of peasant agricultural activities.

UNDROP: The Opportunity to Rebalance the Lack of Support Given to Peasant Seed Systems

To respond to these challenges, the UN adopted the UNDROP back in 2018, in which the right to seeds is recognized. According to the UNDROP, all states shall, inter alia, ‘support peasant seed systems, and promote the use of peasant seeds and agrobiodiversity’, 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’.

‘The implementation of the UNDROP represents a unique opportunity to rebalance the lack of support given to peasant seed systems worldwide, 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 in the interest of all for the preservation of crop biodiversity agrobiodiversity’ underlines Dr Golay.

The Protection of the Right to Seeds as a Human Rights Norm

Today, the majority of people living in rural areas in developing countries rely on peasant food and seeds systems. The recognition of the right to seeds in the UNDROP is therefore crucial for the realization of peasants’ human rights, notably their right to food.

In accordance with the priority to be given to human rights norms in international and national laws, reflected in the UNDROP, states shall ensure that their laws and policies, as well as the international agreements to which they are a party, including on intellectual property, do not lead to violations, but to better protection of peasants’ right to seeds.

‘There are precedents that show that this can be done. The 2001 Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act in India is one of them, as well as the recognition of the prevalence of the right to health and access to medicine in the context of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS agreement)’ highlights Dr Golay.

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