Opinion

Should we pay to use global genetic diversity?

Christine Frison

A question of value

Should we pay to use global genetic diversity? To this straightforward question there is no simple answer. However, I will oversimplify my thoughts and reply in a direct manner. 

To understand the question and how I answer it, it is important to distinguish three aspects: 1) What global genetic diversity? 2) Who uses it? and 3) For what purposes? Furthermore, we must distinguish different types of ‘use’ of global genetic diversity. 

1) What is global genetic diversity?

Are we talking about all plant varieties being grown by farmers around the world for millennia or ‘modern’/improved varieties developed by high-tech breeding and/or biotechnology over the last 40 years or wild relatives of crops growing in the wild? 

2) Who uses global genetic diversity? 

One needs to distinguish between small-scale farmers who feed 70% of the world’s population, researchers in public institutions and private company breeders and multinational seed and agro-chemical companies. All these stakeholders ‘use’ global genetic diversity but in a different manner and above all for different purposes. 

3) For what purposes is global genetic diversity used? 

Is the purpose accessing varieties to produce local food on a small-scale farm, or is it to produce high-tech improved varieties on thousands of hectares of monoculture, the production of which is to be sold on the global market? 

4) What does ‘use’ cover? 

A smallholder farmer growing a crop mainly for subsistence is making a very different ‘use’ of global diversity from a multinational seed company breeding a variety that will be protected by intellectual property rights and sold in large quantities on the market. Conservation activities and breeding programmes on orphan crops, for example by public institutions which make these varieties available to farmers free of charge, is yet a different form of ‘use.’ 

Depending on the answers to all these questions, my answer will be a clear ‘yes’ or a clear ‘no’ to the question posed in the title of this opinion note.

If the use of the global genetic diversity consists of the everyday cultivation by small-scale farmers in developing countries, who still rely for the great majority of their seed on informal seed exchange systems of local and diverse varieties, then my answer is a clear no. Smallholder farmers should not pay for the use of the genetic diversity they have developed, conserved, used and exchanged over millennia. These small-scale farmers should rather be supported by states, as part of their duty to respect the right to food and achieve food security, through, inter alia, national and international breeding programmes focused on local needs and crops, working in partnership with small-scale farmers. Furthermore, I believe states should urgently invest in the conservation and sustainable use of global genetic diversity to limit the future cost of predictable food production crises resulting from climate hazards and from agrobiodiversity erosion. 

If the use of global genetic diversity covers accessing traditional varieties, improving them and then putting the improved variety on the global market, then my answer is a clear yes. Companies accessing genetic resources should pay a fair share to the Global Seed Commons created by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. And farmers from developed countries who choose to grow these improved varieties should pay fair royalties to the intellectual property right holder of these improved varieties. 

The most important question, in my view, would rather be: what kind of policies for food and agriculture should be adopted for a sustainable future? My personal view on this question is that we urgently need to stop imposing our ‘modern’ way of conceiving food production and using genetic diversity, restricted to a commercial value, as the only way forward. Today’s agrobiodiversity results from thousands of years of very diverse agricultural practices, which express the many different (social, cultural, spiritual, etc.) values associated with seeds around the world. We need to allow each farmer in the world to choose what type of farming they want to conduct and, most of all, we need to protect informal/small-scale farmers’ systems, as such farmers constitute the vast majority of farmers in the world and feed a majority of the world’s population.

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.