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Farmers' Rights and Genetically Engineered Crop Varieties


A“maize scandal” erupted in the fall of 2001, intensifying the global debate about genetically engineered (GE) crops and focusing it on the biological and social effects of GE on small-scale farmers in traditionally-based agricultural systems, and the rights of those farmers to control this new technology.

The cause of the scandal—a scientific report in the journal Nature concluding that transgenes from GE maize varieties had flowed into farmers’ traditional maize varieties in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, despite a ban on the planting of GE maize in Mexico since 1998. These insect resistant GE varieties contain a transgene from a bacterium that produces a protein toxic to certain caterpillars that eat maize, and probably entered Mexico as grain shipments from the US.

It has been stated by Melina Hernández Sosa, of an indigenous farmers’ organization in the Sierra Juarez de Oaxaca, that this transgene flow is a “crime against all the indigenous peoples and farmers who have for millennia protected [maize], for humanity to be able to enjoy.” On the other hand, proponents of GE have stated that these transgenes are a “welcome” addition that augments Third World farmer’s traditional crop varieties and agriculture, which they get for free, as stated by the scientists who signed a petition about the “Mexican maize scandal.” Such dramatically contradictory viewpoints raise questions about the rights of Third World farmers over their traditional varieties, their agricultural systems, and their future, in the face of the rapid molecular globalization of agriculture.

Molecular Globalization
Dramatic advances in molecular biology and biotechnology are helping to fuel a globalization of agriculture at the molecular level, most visible in GE crop varieties created by moving genes directly into plants, often from distantly related organisms. In tandem with this process are increases in intellectual property rights (IPRs) at the molecular level—formal legal rights to plant genes and DNA segments, and to the technologies for manipulating them.

The march of biological and IPR molecularization presents dramatic new challenges and opportunities for the livelihoods and rights of over one billion traditionally based, small-scale farmers in the Third World. These farmers depend on their traditional crop varieties, use limited production inputs, have their own system of IPRs, and want to improve their lives and provide a better future for their children. Unlike industrial world IPRs, farmers’ traditional IPRs are diverse, including individual, community and ethnic group rights. They also have no time limit, and do not depend on expensive documentation by molecular biologists and lawyers.

How will molecular globalization affect the resources and rights of these farmers? How will farmers’ rights to their traditional crop varieties, and to GE crops, be defined, and by whom? How will new molecular technologies and IPRs affect farmers’ ability to save their own seeds, and exchange seeds locally? Can GE crops support traditional farmers’ own goals, or will they inevitably move them further under the control of a global agricultural system controlled by corporations? How can these farmers have more control over decisions at the global level that directly affect them?

Rights to Seeds
In the early 1980s some countries and farmer support groups sought to do away with all IPRs in crops, establishing “farmers’ rights” to all crop genetic resources, but this move was defeated by the US and other industrial nations, and private rights in plants and other living organisms now dominate, with industrial patents leading the way. Farmers were left with having to defend themselves from the advances of an IPR system in plants designed by industrial nations and corporations, a system that does not recognize farmers’ traditions or current needs.

The drive to globalize industrial world IPRs in plants has been intensified due to the pressure from agbiotech corporations. This means that as patented GE crops and their transgenes move intentionally or unintentionally around the world, so could the rights of the companies who own them. The World Trade Organization seeks a worldwide uniformity of laws for IPRs in plants and plant DNA to facilitate global enforcement. In the US patent holders have rights to seek damages from farmers who end up with patented genes in their crops, even though they don’t want them, and didn’t know they were there. While most corporations deny they would enforce their IPRs against Third World farmers, the global economic system is moving in a direction that will make this possible, and precedents have already been established. Control of local farmers’ crop genetic resources, and the traditional names and other cultural property that go with them through industrial IPRs, can legally and economically prevent local people themselves from reaping potential benefits in a global marketplace increasingly interested in traditional crops and foods.

There are already cases of this. For example, patents have been issued to a US company for yellow beans that have been grown and sold in Mexico for centuries. They were issued based on claims of very minor genetic changes to the beans—in the frequency of a particular shade of yellow; independent genetic research, however, challenges the genetic and legal basis of the claim. These patents now prevent sales of yellow beans, including Mexican imports, in the US by anyone but the patent holder, unless royalties are paid. A legal challenge has been mounted by the Mexican government.

Rights to Agricultural Systems
Seeds only have meaning as part of agricultural systems, so we need to consider farmers’ rights to make a decent living from farming, to choose the technologies they desire based on full disclosure of long-term costs and benefits, and to maintain their communities and cultures.

Wide-scale, unmonitored gene flow via seed and pollen from modern crop varieties into traditional ones has been going on at least since the green revolution introduced these varieties in the Third World beginning in the 1960s; yet details of the effects of this flow on farmers’ varieties and livelihoods are largely unknown, though there is much circumstantial evidence for negative as well as positive effects. With the advent of GE crops, it is now possible to more easily and accurately track the flow of genes, as with the case in Mexico. No one knows what the effects of transgenes will be on traditional farming, but with the advent of GE crops that produce pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals, the potential risk is likely to be greater. Biological studies and the Oaxacan example suggest that global or regional agreements are the only way to ensure GE-free zones in areas of crop diversity or origin where farmers’ do not want transgenes entering their traditional crop varieties.

GE crops being promoted in the Third World today are similar to conventional modern varieties, except that they have transgenes for herbicide resistance or for insect resistance. Proponents claim they will have positive effects in the Third World, yet it is likely they will accelerate the negative as well as positive effects of industrial agriculture and the green revolution, including the potential for greater yield, as well as greater dependence on global markets for seed and other inputs, and increasing loss of control over local resources with the advance of molecular IPRs and biotechnologies. However, GE could also be used to create varieties that better serve farmers’ needs, for example by transferring into traditional varieties genes for resistance to drought or important diseases, but this is unlikely unless farmers participate in decision making.

Rights to Participation
There is increasing recognition in the industrial world of the necessity for including the public in decisions about GE crops and foods. At both the global and local levels, however, Third World farmers have not been effectively involved. It is important to recognize that not only are the IPRs of Third World farmers different than those of the industrial world, but so is their agriculture; for instance, farmers save much of the seed they plant and have little access to agricultural support services. The trick is balancing requirements for a context-specific approach based on farmers traditional IPRs, and local conditions and needs, with those for access to global resources and for the global regulation of biological and IPR molecularization.

One important step is research to better understand farmers’ options, and bring farmers’ voices into policy discussions, to help farmers optimize benefits and minimize costs, in their own terms. This includes interviewing farmers about their knowledge, values and practices concerning GE maize and its possible effects on their farming. Another important step is to retain independent public research on GE crops and the needs of Third World farmers. This is a challenge when many public institutions, like our own university, are increasingly seeking links with private biotech corporations that may compromise their ability to carry out research in the global interest of Third World farmers and others.

Discussion between Nicasio Hernandez Sanchez and Daniela Soleri during an interview on traits in traditional maize varieties, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by D Cleveland, used with permission of subjects.


Photo by Daniela Soleriy.

Cleveland and Soleri have collaborated on research with farmers and plant breeders on the similarities and differences in knowledge, practice and biological outcomes. They have edited Farmers, Scientists and Plant Breeding: Integrating Knowledge and Practice (2002). Their current research includes working with colleagues in Cuba (Humberto Ríos Labrada, INCA), Guatemala (Mario Fuentes, ICTA) and Mexico (Flavio Aragón Cuevas, INIFAP), interviewing farmers about GE maize
(pewagbiotech. org/events/0929/presentations/soleri.pdf).