he FAO Council should reconsider its agreement with pesticide lobby group CropLife International, according to the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Prof Michael Fakhri. He’s concerned the agreement could put the human rights of peasant farmers at risk.
In a new report to the UN, he says contradictory legal approaches to seed systems are damaging human health and the environment. The state of play is putting food security and the right to development at risk.
Michael Fakhri presented his report Seeds, right to life and farmers’ rights to the UN Human Rights Council’s 49th session.
Along with expressing alarm at the relationship between the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and pesticides lobby group CropLife, he recommends the gradual phasing out of dangerous pesticides.
And he counsels against the global trade and treaty pressure being wielded on developing countries to forgo their current seed system rights.
Michael Fakhri asked UN member states to protect farmers and Indigenous Peoples from exploitative legal practices.
“The world’s food security is put at risk by failing to respect peasants’ rights”
Activists welcomed the report, with Zainal Arifin Fuat, of La Via Campesina contributing to the UN dialogue about it.
He said La Via Campesina strongly opposes the privatisation of seeds, genetic manipulation, intellectual property, and all forms of “appropriation of life”.
The session came ahead of a statement from Michael Fakhri to mark the International Day of Peasants Struggles on April 17.
He called for a stronger recognition of peasant communities’ indispensable role in combatting hunger, saying “Peasants’ vital contribution to society remains inadequately recognised. The risks they encounter jeopardise the global population’s food security.
“Urgent global efforts are needed to support and protect peasants.”
“Pressure for seed patent laws across Africa needs to stop”
Michael Fakhri’s study for the UN revealed that on the one hand, at the heart of seed systems are farmers’ rights, supported by the Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.
On the other hand, commodity seed systems depend on contract law and property framework.
In 1991, European countries started promoting their property framework with the support of the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants and the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement that came into effect three years later.
“Unfortunately, more countries, especially in the continent of Africa, are pressured to enact laws that allow seeds to be patented, sign the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, or reform their national laws in a way that complies with the Convention,” he said. “This pressure needs to stop.”
Because farmers’ seed systems are foundational for all food systems, the starting point for any seed system must be the full realisation of farmers’ rights, the report says.
“Workers should be protected from exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace”
The core of this is the farmers’ right to freely save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds. Any disruption of that right must be avoided. Sometimes the notion of exchange is limited to barter or sale; this is too narrow, since gifting is a central feature of farmers’ seed systems.
His report says Member States should consider not pressuring other Member States to join the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants in any way.
He says being a party to that Convention should no longer be required as part of bilateral or regional agreements.
And Member States should implement all relevant International Labour Organization conventions on occupational health and safety, including protecting workers from exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace.
He also recommends gradually phasing out pesticides, starting with a ban on highly hazardous pesticides.
“The Special Rapporteur is alarmed by the strategic partnership between CropLife International and FAO”
The report says, “The FAO Council is strongly encouraged to review the agreement with CropLife International with an eye to human rights concerns and to consider directing the Director-General of FAO to rescind the agreement.”
It says, “The Special Rapporteur is alarmed by the recent strategic partnership agreement signed between CropLife International and FAO.
“The Special Rapporteur is concerned that institutionalised agreements between organisations, such as CropLife International, representing and lobbying for the pesticide producers, and United Nations agencies may raise questions of conflict of interest and result in undue corporate influence over international policymaking. The Special Rapporteur expects to engage further on this matter.”
CropLife International is an international trade association of agrochemical companies that includes the world’s largest agricultural biotechnology and agricultural pesticide businesses.
Four agrochemical companies control 60 per cent of the global seed market. Such market concentration means that a small number of companies will unfairly control the price of seeds, according to Michael Fakhri.
“Agrochemicals pollute the environment and reduce biodiversity, making farms vulnerable to climate change”
The Big Four also produce most of the agrochemicals associated with genetically modified seeds – 75 per cent of the pesticides market, “leading to a strangle-hold on seed varieties, distribution and price,” Michael Fakhri said.
Those agrochemicals pollute the environment and reduce biodiversity, which lowers agricultural resilience, making farms more vulnerable to climate change shocks. The increasing use of pesticides contributed to harmed health of agricultural workers, farmers and communities.
“Farmers using genetically engineered seeds find themselves obliged to buy accompanying pesticides, which benefits the pesticide industry without regard to the financial burden on farmers or the cost to the environment,” the report says.
The report adds, “The assertion that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security is not only inaccurate, but dangerously misleading.
“Rates of hunger, malnutrition and famine continue to increase, while global production grows.
“A gradual phasing out of pesticides in accordance with WHO and FAO norms is a realistic objective”
“Many of those who are food insecure are smallholder farmers or peasants and agricultural workers, particularly in lower-income countries. The problem is inequitable production and distribution systems that prevent those in need from accessing food.
“Safer practices exist and can be further developed to reduce the negative effects of such excessive and, in some cases unneeded, pesticide use.
“A gradual phasing out of pesticides, starting with highly hazardous pesticides, in accordance with WHO and FAO norms is considered a realistic objective by a large number of experts worldwide.
“The pesticide industry’s efforts to influence policymakers and regulators have obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions globally.
“In July 2021, for example, the personal data protection agency of France fined Monsanto for illegally compiling files of public figures, journalists and activists with the aim of lobbying support for controversial pesticides.
“Children in agriculture face a particularly high risk of pesticide exposure”
“The efficacy of chemical pesticides is greatly reduced owing to pesticide resistance over time.
“Agricultural workers are exposed to pesticides through spray, drift, direct contact with treated crops or soil, accidental spills, and insufficient personal protection equipment.
“Workers who apply the pesticides are exposed to higher levels, even with prescribed safety precautions. Agricultural workers’ families are also at increased risk, as pesticide residues enter their homes through contact with skin, clothing and shoes.
“Children who work in agriculture face a particularly high risk of exposure, since their organs are still developing and they are exposed to a larger dose per unit of body weight due to their smaller stature.
“The International Labour Organization estimates that about 60 per cent of child labourers worldwide work in agriculture, and children make up a substantial portion of the agricultural workforce in developing countries.”
“Pesticide application has served as a means of land-grabbing and diminishing land fertility”
He urges more research on the long-term effects of systemic pesticides and genetically altered crops.
Glyphosate, the key chemical in several herbicides, is a prime example of the debate surrounding genetically altered crops, the report says. “While corporations present glyphosate as less toxic, there is substantial debate about its environmental impact.
“In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer identified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.”
Michel Fakhri adds that pesticide application has sometimes served as a means of land-grabbing and diminishing the fertility of land.
“Pesticides can be applied for the mere purpose of forcing peasants and their families, including members of indigenous communities, from their traditional lands in fear for their health and the health of their children, who are being exposed to extensive aerial sprayings.”
“Industrial intensive agriculture has disrupted carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles”
Also, many low- and middle-income countries to use hazardous pesticides banned by high-income countries. That produce is then often imported back to the countries where the pesticide is banned.
The report says that productivity has not been measured in terms of human and environmental health, but exclusively in terms of commodity output and economic growth.
As a result, industrial intensive agriculture has disrupted carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles.
“In sum, industrial intensification is an extractive practice that unsettled the foundations of all ecosystems, leading to increased global rates of soil degradation and erosion and biodiversity loss,” it says.
It adds, “Human rights can be a bulwark against these threats to the environment and people’s lives.
“The Council of the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants is invited to develop mechanisms to ensure that national implementation of the Convention does not restrict or violate human rights.”
“Millions of small-scale women farmers in Africa supply 80 to 90 per cent of all seeds”
“The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture… recognises the importance of farmers’ seed systems and the enormous contribution that the local and indigenous communities and farmers throughout the world, particularly those in centres of origin and crop diversity.”
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as their human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines and knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, the report says.
Often, women are the seed stewards of their community. For example, many millions of small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, most of whom are women, still supply 80 to 90 per cent of all the seeds planted on the continent.
They manage seed diversity, preservation and use, including seed selection and storage. They decide which varieties to plant, when and how much to sow based on the weather.
So, when access to seeds is threatened, it makes it harder for rural women to enjoy adequate living conditions.
“From 1492 Europeans freely took seeds from the Americas, Africa and Asia, without regard for local laws”
Food plants selected by farmers over the millennia provide the necessary raw material for today’s plant breeding. Starting in at least 1492, European countries freely took seeds from biodiverse regions in the Americas and later in Africa and Asia, without regard for local communities’ laws or practices.
European powers, through their research centres and botanical gardens, used those seeds to economically buttress their empires. Since then, communities in the global South, especially in Africa, have been under constant threat of exploitation by European and North American powers because those communities are the main source of the world’s biodiversity.
The International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (1983) was in part an attempt to undo imperial patterns of exploitation through the doctrine of the common heritage of mankind. Unfortunately, this fell short, the report says.
It says Member States built a multilateral regime around the doctrine of permanent sovereignty over natural resources, through the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity (2010), and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
But this is not adequately functioning, and farmers’ rights remain vaguely defined.
Michael Fakhri points to the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants of 1961. The Convention was revised in 1972, 1978 and 1991.
“Seventeen countries remain party to the 1978 Convention which recognises farmers’ rights to seeds”
The move from the 1978 version to the 1991 version was controversial, as the 1991 version granted breeders more bargaining power over farmers by expanding the scope of breeder’s rights and curtailing farmers’ rights.
The 1978 Convention recognises farmers’ right to save, use and exchange seeds, leaving farmers to seek permission from the intellectual property rights holder only if they sell the seed or propagating material. The 1991 Convention reframes farmers’ rights to save, use and exchange seed or propagating material as an optional privilege that Member States can elect to enact.
Seventeen countries remain party to the 1978 Convention, having refused to sign the 1991 Convention. Since 1998, States can only join the 1991 Convention.
The United States and the European Union have levied further pressure on developing countries to ratify the 1991 version, adopt legislation compliant with that version, or even introduce patent protection for plants and biotechnological innovations that exceed TRIPS Agreement standards.
“There is a serious concern that international commerce will continue long-standing patterns of imperial exploitation”
These requirements appear in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership; European Union bilateral trade agreements with, respectively, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia; United States bilateral trade agreements with, respectively, Chile, Colombia, Morocco, and Peru; and in the Group of Eight’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, in the case of the United Republic of Tanzania.
“Without clear and robust systems of farmers’ rights and international law, there is a serious concern that international commerce will continue long-standing patterns of imperial exploitation,” the report says.
Ethiopia, India, Malaysia and Thailand, have woven together their obligations under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Nagoya Protocol and the TRIPS Agreement.
They have adopted innovative national plant variety protection laws distinct from the 1991 International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. In doing so, they are attempting to make room for both farmers’ seed systems and commodity seed systems by balancing public interests, the interests of commodity breeders and the interests of small-scale farmers.
“The right to food includes everyone’s right to share in dissemination of agrarian and nutritional knowledge”
Many global North countries and a growing number of global South countries treat farmers’ rights as a bundle of rights that can be divided up or monetised.
This creates an undue limitation of farmers’ rights. For example, some European countries permit farmers to save and use seeds on the condition that they pay royalties based on the types of crop and the size of the exploitation.
But the farmer is not allowed to exchange the seeds with other farmers or sell them.
The right to food includes everyone’s right to share in the full use and dissemination of agrarian and nutritional knowledge.
For too long, former colonial powers and private companies have disproportionately benefited from farmers’ and indigenous peoples’ seed systems and traditional knowledge, the report says.
The notion of benefit-sharing should be based on principles of protecting traditional knowledge and redistributing benefits back into the hands of farmers.