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Human rights approach for EU action on seeds

The EU launch of the Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2016 allowed the first public debate within the European Parliament on the international dimension of seed policies and regulations as well as the implicit role of the EU.

The report comes at a timely moment, amid recent EU trade deals and giant mergers of seed industry on the horizon (Bayer & Monsanto; ChemChina & Syngenta; DuPont & Pioneer) that risk taking away the power and autonomy of the people. Bringing together members from the European Commission, the European Parliament, social movements and civil society organizations at a panel, the debate highlighted that seeds are not a commodity that peasants buy and sell. Nor are they a scientific invention.

Opened by Socialist & Democrat MEP Maria Noichl, the event recalled that seed diversity is vital to ensure food security and for climate change adaptation.  Seeds have been developed and saved for millennia by peasants – from Colombia, Guatemala through Senegal and on to Nepal – that feed most of the world population. Yet, current policy trends are increasingly limiting access to and exchange of seeds by peasants and eroding agricultural biodiversity.  

Lack of protection, threat to heritage loss

As echoed by Greens Group MEP Maria Heubuch, over the years, discussions have been revolving around the interests of the seed industry rather than around those “who actually produce food”. “We cannot afford that the peasants’ heritage gets lost. This is the foundation of our daily food, hence of our own existence. If we limit the peasants, then we are taking the risk to lose these genetic resources, and the knowledge of how seeds will be sowed, exchanged and stocked for the next sowing. If the peasants lose, then we all lose it too,” she warns.

Protection was an especially hot topic throughout the event. Sofia Monsalve, FIAN International’s Secretary General, drew a parallel with the Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests and said the recognition of customary and informal systems would be crucial. “These systems are completely ignored by the existing legal frameworks on plant variety protection including breeders’ rights and it is a key issue we must look into, as we did with the Tenure Guidelines”.

By the same token, MEPs underscored that policies should indeed protect and support the farmer-seed systems: it is not “suitable” that the EU promotes the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) in developing country contexts. Rather, there is a need for regulation that protects the selection, storage, maintenance, exchange and selling of seeds by peasants, so it is not restricted to business usage. This should be considered in trade agreements and in the protection of intellectual property.

Human rights must guide EU food and nutrition security policies 

In human rights-based approaches, access to seeds, plants and animals is framed as an evolving and collective relationship to nature in any given territory. This means that peasant systems, which underpin agricultural biodiversity, should be recognized, protected and promoted by States.

Speaking at the panel, the Commission official from DG DEVCO, Bernard Rey, said the European Commission is committed to enhancing global food and nutrition security and based on a human rights-based approach. Emphasizing that food and nutrition security can only be achieved sustainably, Mr Rey acknowledged the role of seeds on the matter. In his view, political spaces like the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) are essential to promote seeds’ biodiversity.

In the final remarks, MEP Maria Heubuch emphasized that what is used for seed breeding has belonged to peasants for centuries. “Peasants have never said it belongs to me and nobody is allowed to use them. We cannot turn it around now and limit farmers’ access to seeds through restricting their rights and usage of this material and intellectual properties. Here I see a huge imbalance about what justice is. We must proceed with the struggles against the commodification of seeds and bring the right to land, water and seeds together, so we gain a much stronger voice,” she concluded.

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