Ever since the origin of agriculture, farmers have preserved and further developed a vast diversity of food plants. This plant genetic diversity is the basis of all food production. A large part of it has been lost, and it is therefore important to take care of what is left. The farmer’s field plays a central role for preservation of plant diversity, both because farmers have preserved and made use of traditional varieties that are not found in gene banks, and because it is through use that the gene resources retain their capacity for adaptation.

Maintaining farmers’ rights to seed is a matter of acknowledging and rewarding farmers for their inesti­mable contribution to the world’s reserve of plant genetic resources. It is also a matter of making it possible for farmers to preserve and further develop existing gene resources. Not least, it is a matter of farmers’ opportunities to continue to till the soil, secure a livelihood and contribute to global food security.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

Farmers’ rights are acknowledged in The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Plant Treaty is an international agreement that seeks to ensure sustainable management of plant genetic diversity. The Plant Treaty acknowledges the vast contribution of farmers to the management and preservation of plant genetic diversity, and suggests actions to protect and promote their rights.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) established the Plant Treaty in 2004. It is a binding international agreement for management of the plant diversity upon which we depend for our food and agriculture. The parties to the agreement commit themselves to preserve and secure sustainable use of plant genetic resources, and the agreement contains elements that ensure that plant genetic resources remain openly accessible for use, research and refinement. It also seeks to assure an equitable distribution of the goods derived from the use of genetic resources. Previously, the management of plant genetic resources was placed under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The Plant Treaty is concerned with the rights of farmers to maintain, use, exchange and sell seed materials they have saved from their own crops. This is an important part of farmers’ seed systems and is the basis for the agricultural production of poor farmers. Through the seed systems, farmers can test and select the plant varieties that are most adequately adapted to local growing conditions, and also store or borrow seed in case of crop failure. But this right is limited by, among other things, patents and plant variety protection (link to internal text on patenting), which are regulated by other international frameworks and national laws. Farmers must not only have legal license to maintain plant diversity, they also need economic support to secure local preservation. At the same time, conditions must be arranged in such a manner that the farmers themselves are allowed to participate in decisions on how their rights to seed should be interpreted and implemented.

How does the Development Fund work for farmers’ rights?

The Development Fund works to sustain plant diversity and strengthen farmers’ rights on various levels. We support farmers’ local management systems for plant diversity. Local seed banks are essential for the maintenance, use, exchange and sale of seed, and in addition secure farmers’ access to seed. Through participatory plant breeding and participatory processes for selection of suitable seeds and varieties, we contribute to the further development of seed resources. In this way, plant varieties with higher yields and greater resistance to flooding and drought are developed.

We also support the advocacy work of farmers vis-à-vis national authorities. In several countries, our cooperation partners are represented in national government agencies for gene resources. In this way, we contribute to the implementation of farmers’ rights in practice. The Development Fund has documented and developed methods for strengthening farmers’ rights. We also conduct advocacy to strengthen the work on farmers’ rights in the Plant Treaty, where we, among other things, work to assure that guidelines are developed for implementation of farmers’ rights and achievement of equitable access to and distribution of goods derived from plant genetic resources.