States can comply with their international obligations without undermining farmers’ rights, according to Prof. Carlos Correa of the South Center during the three-day workshop on Intellectual Property and Seed Laws held in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Correa, an international legal expert on intellectual property law, presented policy options for countries, especially developing countries, in designing their respective Plant Variety Protection Law (PVP Law). According to him, most countries have designed their PVP Law based on the UPOV (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants) model, notably the UPOV 1991 which is biased to commercial breeding and has excluded farmers’ right to save, exchange, and sell seeds, including their varieties.
Under the WTO-TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement, countries are required to have a form of protection for plant varieties, whether through patents or by an effective sui generis system, or a combination thereof.
Correa cited the PVP laws of India, Thailand, and Malaysia to be adapted to their local conditions wherein plant breeders’ rights co-exist with farmers’ rights, without necessarily excluding or marginalizing the latter. He highlighted the importance of the farmer seed system being linked with the formal seed system.
He also stressed that the alternative to the UPOV model which is followed by most countries should also be compliant with the TRIPS agreement and the relevant international convention such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Nagoya Protocol, and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).
“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ PVP law,” he stressed, recommending among others that any alternative PVP law should consider provisions combining positive and defensive protection for farmers’ rights and with broader scope to include non-uniform varieties and give exception for small-scale farmers.
Meanwhile, Prof. Gurdial Singh Nijar of the University of Malaya, lamented that we are now seeing a century of the closure of the sovereignty of states in favor of big business and corporations as shown by the free trade agreements (FTAs) notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) which US has entered into with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Japan, Vietnam, Peru, and Chile.
According to Gurdial, the TPPA is presented in template on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis even though some changes are allowed. For example, it is mandatory to join UPOV 1991 for countries that would like to sign the agreement. He cited the experience of Malaysia, where their PVP law has to be amended to conform to UPOV 1991.
Gurdial said that under the TPPA regime, the negotiation of which was done in secrecy, policy space for countries to create conditions for quality of life and health of citizens will shrink. Notable in this regard is the provision on Investment State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) which, among others, allows an investor to sue the government for any violations of the trade agreement. This violation may be in the form of passing a law or regulation that will have the effect of reducing their profit or expected income. He cited the Philip Morris case against the Australian government. The highest court in Australia ruled that there was no expropriation for health reason. The company then registered itself in Hong Kong, which had entered into FTAs with Australia and took Australia under ISDS. This has effectively bypassed the national court structure.
Gurdial, in discussing the significance of the CBD in the discussion of policy options in designing PVP law, noted the significant role of farmers as breeders and innovators and highlighted the need to marry the traditional knowledge (TK) of indigenous and local communities (ILCs) with the scientific knowledge system. He recommended among others that cost-benefit analysis should be done by governments whenever they decide any international agreement in order not to unduly restrict the rights of farmers and other equally important societal objectives for the welfare of the people.
Normita Ignacio, Executive Director of the Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE), discussed the farmer seed system in Southeast Asia. She stressed the significant role of farmers in maintaining the steady supply of farm-saved seeds in this part of the region and other developing countries in the world through the farmers’ breeding skills based on their traditional knowledge and cultural practices. Thus, the continued access of farmers to seeds should not be restricted by the PVP laws and instead should be strengthened and supported.
The discussion on UPOV and related international agreements was presented by Sangeeta Shashikant, Legal Advisor of TWN and Francois Meienberg of the Berne Declaration, respectively. Other resource persons were Lim Li Ching, Third World Network; Dr. Vu Dang Toan, Department Head, Research Planning and International Cooperation Department Plant Resources Center, VAAS, MARD; Dr. Song Yi Ching, Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, Chinese Academy of Sciences; Dr. Tran Duy Quy, President, Society of Science and Rural Development, Vietnam; Bambang Budianto, Ministry of Agriculture, Indonesia; Mohamad, Indonesian Peasant Alliance; Ruel C. Gesmundo, Chief of the National Seed Quality Control Services Bureau of Plant Industry, Department of Agriculture, Philippines and Mario Maderazo, Policy Coordinator of SEARICE.
The strengthening and linking of farmer seed system was also noted by other resource speakers and even the participants from government, CSOs and academic institutions. Policy coherence between agricultural production policies and other policies underpinning national development such as agricultural biodiversity, climate change adaptation measures, and food security should be undertaken by governments.
The discussions also highlighted how globalization has internationalized governance over seeds. What used to be the specific concern of farmers and farming communities has become a political and economic issue shaped by international treaties and transformed by global trade. Seeds are no longer just mere planting materials used by farmers alone as they have become defining elements of international negotiations and agreements that divergently seek, on one hand, to enhance agricultural biodiversity conservation and, on the other, to promote global free trade.
The three-day workshop from 18–20 August 2015 in Hanoi, Vietnam drew participants from governments, CSOs and academic institutions from Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Timpr Leste, Laos, Myanmar, and Iran. The workshop was a joint undertaking by The Plant Resources Center – Vietnamese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE), the Third World Network (TWN), and the Association for Plant Breeding for the Benefit of Society (APBREBES). –Atty. Mario Maderazo