UN expert raises concern over policies marginalizing traditional seed varieties

21 October 2009

Government policies in many developing countries which promote the planting of a narrow base of agricultural crops may hurt farmers in the long run, a United Nations human rights expert warned today.

As a result of the global food crisis, developing countries “have massively reinvested in agriculture and have sought to provide farmers with the means of production they need to produce food,” Olivier de Schutter, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, told reporters in New York.

However, there is increasing pressure for farmers to use more uniform, genetically improved commercial seed varieties that have been adjusted to produce higher yields in certain instances and become more resilient to specific diseases. These seed varieties have been catalogued, certified and given patents.

More traditional seed systems, on the other hand, emerged from farmers saving, replanting and exchanging seeds on informal and local markets, a system which still dominates many developing countries and on which farmers largely depend.

“As a result of a number of pressures, these commercial varieties are now threatening to disrupt the balance between these two seed systems,” said Mr. de Schutter.

An increasingly wide range of government-supported seed certification schemes which approve commercial varieties only allow traditional seeds to be sold through very limited channels.

In addition, governments provide support packages, including seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and sometimes access to credit, that induce farmers to adopt the modified commercial seed varieties.

“We have today barely 150 crops cultivated in the world and most efforts in fact are going into improving 12 varieties, particularly four major types of crops – wheat, maize, rice and potato – for human consumption and, in addition, within each crop genetic diversity is disappearing,” said Mr. de Schutter.

He noted that in Sri Lanka in 1959, for example, some 2,000 varieties of rice were cultivated, whereas today, there are fewer than 100, and some 75 per cent of agro-biodiversity has been lost as a result of the pressure towards to the adoption of uniform improved seed varieties.

“This genetic erosion is a source of vulnerability because it means that we will be unable to respond to attacks of nature,” stressed Mr. de Schutter. “We will be unable to develop new varieties if new pests and diseases attack.”

Recommending that States re-examine their seed regulations to make them more hospitable to traditional farmers’ varieties, he also pushed for the development of local seed exchanges, community seed banks and seed fairs, noting that some countries, such as India, the Philippines and Mali, are already moving in this direction.

Professor de Schutter, who teaches at the University of Louvain in Belgium and Columbia University in the United States, serves in an independent and unpaid capacity as Special Rapporteur and reports to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council.


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