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EFTA threatens food security in the Global South

The members of the European Free Trade Association - ALES (or EFTA - European Free Trade Association) have introduced clauses in the free trade agreements with the countries of the South of the world capable of putting at risk the exchange of seeds between farmers, the foundation of food safety. This was reported by Michael Fakhri, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food.

The free trade agreement that threatens food systems

The four EFTA countries, Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, are negotiating free trade agreements with Malaysia and Thailand, two countries whose livelihoods are still heavily dependent on peasant agriculture.

Such agreements contain a clause requiring acceding countries to adopt into their legislation the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants Act of 1991 (UPOV 91). (1)

What is UPOV 91

The UPOV Convention (2) is a harmonized system for the protection of plant varieties throughout the world. It provides an exclusive right comparable to patents that applies to the protection of the intellectual property of plant varieties. The current version, from 1991, is much more restrictive than the previous one (UPOV 78) and severely limits farmers' rights to seeds.

Currently 76 countries and two international organizations have joined UPOV, but for many of these it was a consequence of having signed trade agreements with the European Union, the United States or Switzerland.

The seed business

The Convention it prevents small farms, which are the majority in the countries of the South of the world, from obtaining seeds through their own crops or through exchanges between farmers.

By adhering to the Convention, farmers are forced to buy seeds from large agribusiness companies at a higher price every year. Seeds that often have not been developed to adapt to the climatic and environmental conditions of those territories. And anyone who violates this agreement can even risk prison. (3)

The opposition of international organizations

The rapporteur United Nations special on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, sent a letter to the members of EFTA to underline how this imposition puts the right to food of these countries at risk.

Risk also highlighted by Malaysian civil society, which fears the rise of biopiracy as well as the jeopardizing of biodiversity and food security. (4)

Other organizations too farmers and NGOs, such as the Swiss Coalition for the Right to Seeds, have joined the call for the withdrawal of the UPOV clause. Recalling how this clause violates the right to seeds enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on Farmers' Rights and the FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources.

The ambiguity of EFTA members

Switzerland and the other EFTA members remain deaf to this request. Yet, the EFTA States are the first not to apply UPOV 91 in their national laws.

Liechtenstein It does not have a law on the protection of plant varieties while Norway sticks to the less stringent one from 1978.

Switzerland signed UPOV 91 but only formally, allowing farmers to exchange some seeds, such as wheat or potatoes. Only Iceland applies UPOV 91, but at present there are no protected varieties in the country.

one wonders therefore which interests are protected. The only agro-industrial company based in Switzerland is Syngenta. (5) However, ownership is now Chinese and the seed business is located in Chicago. On the contrary, it is in the interest of the entire community that these clauses are prohibited and that genetic diversity in agriculture and the right of farmers to select their own seeds and be able to exchange them are truly protected. (6)

Dario Dongo, Alessandra Mei


(1) Communiqué de presse de la coalition suisse Droit aux semences. Droit à l'alimentation: la Suisse épinglée par l'UN. Public Eye. 7.6.24 https://www.publiceye.ch/fr/coin-medias/communiques-de-presse/detail/droit-a-lalimentation-la-suisse-epinglee-par-lonu?fbclid=IwZXh0bgNhZW0CMTEAAR3egAM_DjsOR-TN62A3Txig_RDOYsakPN0mo2M_ohmZepAVqhRSc-YAklk_aem_AcbCz7mkFkIMKD6xS1JwMivDZPQ7NgXE37FebDm0qu4mSVkEVvRuBV4gFXgUp0eOxv_cyqtPcs26zDeUEkR3E82j 

(2) UPOV https://www.upov.int/portal/index.html.en 

(3) Droit aux semences. What problems did UPOV pose? https://www.recht-auf-saatgut.ch/contexte/quels-problemes-pose-lupov/?lang=fr

(4) Dario Dongo, Alessandra Mei. New GMOs and seed exchange, the shame. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(5) Dario Dongo. Seeds, the 4 masters of the world. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(6) Dario Dongo, Camilla Fincardi. Agroecology, SDGs, salvation. The FAO Decalogue. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

Alessandra Mei

Graduated in Law from the University of Bologna, she attended the Master in Food Law at the same University. You participate in the WIISE srl benefit team by dedicating yourself to European and international research and innovation projects.

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