In Seeds We Trust

Encounters / by Maywa Montenegro & Nikki Greenwood /

Because science won’t save us if biodiversity fails, a global effort is underway to collect and cache the genetic resources contained in seeds.

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Hot Summers 2080-2100: Red areas indicate regions where summer temperatures have a greater than 90% chance of exceeding today’s record highs. Credit: Battisti and Naylor

A view of living organisms as priceless intellectual property—an issue of national sovereignty—has generally prevailed since the 1992 adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the key document governing international sharing of genetic resources. But even the 192 nations that ratified the CBD (the US has not) quickly recognized that what makes sense for some genetic resources—medicinal plants, for example, that could be turned into pharmaceuticals—didn’t make sense when applied to food, a global resource. And so, in 1993, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization asked Fowler to begin drafting an alternate framework. It wouldn’t contradict the CBD per se, but it would define a different set of standards for biodiversity related to sustenance.

In 2001, the UN formally adopted the result of Fowler’s work: the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources (ITPGR), a multilateral “open share” agreement that covers 64 of the world’s major food and forage crops. Under the treaty, farmers, breeders, and scientists get unfettered access to those plant genetic resources as long as they agree to return an “equitable share” of profit from any marketed product they derive.

By all counts, the treaty is groundbreaking, but it has been described as both a victory and a defeat for Fowler. At 59, the apostle of seeds has spent roughly half his life advocating against the patenting of seeds. In 1985, he shared the Right Livelihood Award with Pat Mooney, formally for their work “in agriculture and the protection of biodiversity,” but informally for their long-fought battle against Northern seed multinationals—whom, they argued, had no more right to patent the seeds than the indigenous farmers who for centuries had cultivated the genes that went in to making those seeds. In fact, in their original concept for an international seed bank, formulated back in 1979, the North would have access to genes from the South only if the South—where the raw material for most of today’s global food production originated—could have free access to patented seeds. Fowler and Mooney preferred to think of seeds as a global genetic commons, the shared inheritance of our farming forbears, but if the North refused to see it that way, then the South could play that game, too.

Thus, the ITPGR is something of a compromise. Most crucially, it establishes open-access as the new paradigm. And the treaty’s “equitable share” language commands monetary compensation for any patented products. At the same time, opposition to the very principle of patenting has been dropped. Fowler’s dream of common shared heritage has taken on some caveats. 

Some might say Fowler has turned from ideologue to realist, but Fowler sees it more pragmatically. He’s convinced that most countries—both developed and developing—stand to gain much more by sharing their genetic resources than they would lose. Many seem to agree: To date the treaty has been ratified by more than 120 nations, including Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, the UK, Spain, and Australia. On the other hand, important players like the US, China, and Japan, have yet to ratify, and many details about practical implementation have yet to be ironed out. Fowler says that he anticipates a “very, very difficult” meeting when countries meet in Tunisia this month to continue negotiations.

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