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Farmers as custodians of plant genetic resources: Need for legal space

Farmers are the custodians of agrobiodiversity worldwide, crucial for food security and poverty alleviation. However, the legal space for farmers to maintain this role is rapidly decreasing due to the proliferation of various forms of rules and regulations. This is documented in the Farmers' Rights Project, led by the Fridtjof Nansen Institute. Project results were presented during a recent FAO meeting, and may have contributed to a small breakthrough in the work towards realisation of Farmers' Rights.

FAO's International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) provides for the realisation of Farmers' Rights, but it does not define the concept and there is uncertainty as to how this can be done.

Since March 2005, the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI) has led the international Farmers' Rights Project, with affiliated experts in India, Peru and Ethiopia, aimed at providing an empirical basis for constructive proposals to ITPGRFA's Governing Body on how Farmers' Rights can be realised.

At a side event during the Governing Body's First Session in Madrid 12-16 June 2006, FNI Project Leader Regine Andersen presented the project's main conclusions so far:

- The active use of diverse plant genetic resources in agriculture is currently at risk in more and more countries. Various forms of legislation (like certification rules, intellectual property rights and access legislation) increasingly restrict farmers' legal space to continue these customary agricultural practices. Farmers' Rights represent a strategic instrument to create sufficient legal space within the legislative contexts in the various countries – to ensure that farmers' practices of maintaining agro-biodiversity can continue.

- With the rapid genetic erosion in agriculture, distinct incentive structures are needed to ensure further maintenance of plant genetic diversity. Farmers' Rights represent a strategic instrument also in this regard, as they involve rewarding farmers for their contributions to the global pool of genetic resources.

- There are different, and potentially conflicting, approaches to farmers' rights, which can be divided into two main directions of thought: The ownership approach emphasizes the right of farmers to be economically rewarded for genetic material obtained from their fields which is used in commercial varieties and/or protected with intellectual property rights. The stewardship approach, on the other hand, emphasizes the rights that farmers must be granted in order to enable them to continue as stewards of agricultural plant diversity. If the main objective of Farmers' Rights is to maintain agro-biodiversity and to eradicate poverty, then the stewardship approach is clearly the most suitable, and any measures to ensure farmers' ownership rights to plant genetic material should be subordinate to this.

Following the side event, Norway proposed in the Governing Body that Farmers' Rights be included in the programme of work, and requested the Secretariat to prepare for the consideration of this issue at the Second Session of the Governing Body. The proposal was supported by many developing countries and subsequently adopted.

– Farmers' rights have been a controversial issue since it was first brought up in the FAO in 1986, says Project Leader Regine Andersen.

– Our aim has been to build bridges across old controversies and seek to develop a common understanding of how these rights can be realised. The Farmers' Rights Project has succeeded in the endeavour and the results were very well received at the side event. Bringing farmers' rights back in on the agenda of the Governing Body provides unique opportunities to promote the realisation of these rights, she ends.

Regine Andersen | alfa
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