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A summary of the literature on Farmers' Rights

The substantial and increasing body of literature on Farmers' Rights provides a valuable source of insights in the potentials for, and possible difficulties in, realizing Farmers' Rights. Although authors differ in their points of departure, emphasis and perspectives, their contributions are largely compatible. The literature provides important points of departure for understanding the subject matter of Farmers' Rights, types of rights, rights holders, and appropriate measures for protecting and promoting these rights. It also draws lessons from initial efforts at realizing these rights, and warns against certain tendencies which might prove counterproductive.

Most authors seem to agree that farmers' rights should be viewed as collective rights in a broad sense rather than rights of individual farmers or communities, and that farmers' rights should not be exclusive and should not restrict access to genetic resources. They cannot be dealt with as classical intellectual property rights, as they represent a different type of rights. Various measures to protect and promote farmers' rights are proposed in the literature. Assisting farmers in in situ conservation and farmer breeding, and providing incentives for such activities are among the central components in this regard. The availability of a rich diversity of seeds and propagating material is the basis of farmers' rights, as well as for agriculture and food security. As yet, extremely little has been invested in the in situ management of crop genetic resources. Indeed, these resources can be viewed as subject to a 'tragedy of the commons' whereby professional breeders use material originally derived from traditional varieties, but without participating in the maintenance of these vital resources. It is suggested that development cooperation can provide the most realistic possibilities for greater financial support to conservation and sustainable use of crop genetic resources.

In the context of conservation, access to technologies and training is of central importance. The establishment of community gene banks is suggested a further means towards realizing farmers' rights, to complement and support in situ management of crop genetic resources. It is furthermore recommended that farmers should have the possibility of influencing future breeding efforts more generally, as a component of farmers' rights. Surprisingly, farmers' participation in decision making on crop genetic resources, which is comprised by the International Treaty, has been addressed by only a few authors.

Another central component of farmers' rights, according to many of the authors referred to here, is farmers' free choice of, and access to, genetic resources for food and agriculture, together with the freedom to share and sell harvested produce, and to improve cultivars. These are basic customary rights, and important preconditions for continued conservation and innovation with regard to plant genetic resources among farmers, and thus also for food security. Recent research has shown that such diversity includes not only farmers' varieties but often also improved ones from professional breeders. It is important to be aware of this when designing intellectual property laws and seed legislation. Several authors highlight the necessity of balancing the inadequacies and deficiencies in existing forms of intellectual property rights regarding plant genetic resources, and hold that the concept of farmers' rights offers an opportunity to do so. On the other hand, it is important to recognize that it has so far proven difficult to enact farmers' rights. Linking farmers' and breeders' rights may be risky, since breeders' rights are so much easier to enact. Linking the two may therefore result in further legitimizing the inequities of the intellectual property rights system.

Recognition of the contribution of farmers to the global genetic pool is a further issue dealt with in the literature. It is often referred to as compensation for the use of traditional plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and related traditional knowledge, and in some contexts as benefit sharing. Also here it is important to identify who is to be compensated and through what mechanisms, as there are many possible pitfalls. For example, it is not evident that developing countries would emerge as the winners if such a system were established at the international level, since most developing countries (and also developed countries) are net receivers of germplasm. Also, transaction costs and bureaucracy should be taken into account. Most authors seem to agree that farmers' rights are collective rights in the widest sense of the term, and that compensation should be channelled through some kind of financial mechanism to those farmers who act as custodians and innovators of present agricultural biodiversity. Local gene funds are suggested as one way to ensure that the financial and other resources actually reach the farmers.

The authors referred to in here discuss various means for implementing farmers' rights. One is the development of national legislation; another is to establish resource centres for farmers' rights. Several writers emphasize the need to implement farmers' rights at the international level, due to the globalized nature of these resources. The most promising approach would be to establish an international fund - stressed by several authors as necessary for the realization of farmers' rights. Such a fund could channel resources for farmer conservation and innovation in plant genetic resources. To provide financial resources for such a fund in addition to aid, some writers have recommended that plant breeders be required to disclose the sources of origin of their breeding material, and that a levy be placed on the royalties from the sales of their seeds, although this suggestion remains controversial.

As we can see, there has been a notable movement from the realm of ideas towards the design of feasible measures and systems for the realization of farmers' rights.
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 In this section:
  A summary of the literature on Farmers' Rights
  Major works on Farmers' Rights – global level
  Articles and book chapters on Farmers' Rights – global level
  Major works and articles on farmers' rights – regional and national levels
  Other literature of relevance for Farmers' Rights

Nepal. Photo: Regine Andersen, FNI