The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


Farmers’ Rights and IPR
Can the conflicting concepts be reconciled?

Franz Heidhues,
Daniel Alker
University of Hohenheim

During the last decade, rapid developments in the field of agricultural biotechnology have resulted in a private sector-driven push to strengthen Intellectual Property Rights on genetic resources worldwide. Strong IPR attract R&D investments in biotechnology. In turn, higher R&D investments lead to more improved varieties and enhanced agricultural productivity.

However, strong national IPR can also bring about serious constraints for agricultural production in developing countries. Farmers could be hindered to exercise their privilege of replanting their harvested seeds, exchange and save them, resulting in a serious threat to food security. Public agricultural research institutions could be restrained from using state-of-the-art, but patent-protected biotechnologies to develop new plants geared to the needs and conditions of resource poor farmers. Moreover, there is certain evidence that the effect of strong IPR on the level of R&D investment in the agricultural biotechnology industry in developing countries is not as strong as suggested by economic theory.

At the same time, farmers sense that the results of their past, present and future efforts to conserve and improve genetic resources – namely landraces and traditional knowledge - have equal legitimacy to be rewarded. They claim Farmers’ Rights for their informal innovations

These two concepts – IPR and Farmers’ Rights - are, however, often claimed to be in conflict: The granting of Farmers’ Rights is supposed to inhibit innovation in agricultural biotechnology by restricting access to plant genetic resources for the formal innovators or requiring for compensation through taxation. On the other hand, the strengthening of formal IPR is argued to conflict with the granting of Farmers’ Rights, since it could touch the farmers’ privilege, deprive them of vital innovations and effect their export markets, if these are IP protected. The paper will discuss the trade-offs between these concepts and options for reconciliation through parallel implementation.

Structure of the Paper

The paper will characterize the concepts of Farmers’ Rights and IPR. Since the understanding of Farmers’ Rights is subject to various interpretations, the different notions of the concept will be introduced and explained in their scope.

Secondly, it will discuss the relevant provisions in the international agreements (TRIPS, CBD, International Undertaking) and examine, how they address the interests of formal and informal agricultural innovators through Farmers’ Rights and IPR and what options for developing country legislation are opened.

Based on this discussion, the economic implications of the different versions of the Farmers’ Rights concept are elaborated. The economic importance of continuously encouraging farmers in the creation and conservation of plant genetic resources before the background of new biotechnologies and global food security is examined, followed by an inquiry into the implications and difficulties of Farmers’ Rights as ownership rights on plant genetic resources by farmers, households or communities. Following this, an overview of the economic effects of formal IPR in agriculture is given. The work then looks into the economic interrelations and possible trade-offs between Farmers’ Rights and IPR in developing countries and describes their implications for resource poor farmers.

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