UPOV 1991 and the ITPGRFA: Key issues for farmer managed seed systems in South Africa

The South African government has called upon stakeholders to submit comments and attend stakeholder meetings on the 23rd and 24th October 2018, on the implications of South Africa acceding to the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV 1991) and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGFRA).

In preparation for those meetings, the ACB has prepared this discussion document titled, UPOV 1991 and the ITPGRFA: Key issues for farmer managed seed systems in South Africa. In this paper, we briefly outline the South African seed landscape, changes taking place regarding seed legislation and the implications for smallholder farmers, farmer managed seed systems, agricultural biodiversity, and access to seed, if SA should accede to these international agreements. 

Twenty-four years after the political democratisation of South Africa, economic power remains in the hands of a small elite, with widespread poverty, malnourishment and lack of access to basic services on the part of the majority of black South Africans.

As South Africa considers joining UPOV 1991, while simultaneously considering joining the ITPGRFA, we believe these two international agreements are contradictory and conflicting. UPOV 1991 is heavily tilted in favour of commercial breeders, to the detriment of customary and historical practices of farmers of freely using, exchanging, and selling seed. Acceding to UPOV 1991, will further entrench the exclusion and marginalization of farmer managed seed systems, smallholder farmers, and traditional and historical practices around their seed. South Africa has both Constitutional and international obligations to ensure that plant variety protection (PVP), and seed marketing laws, do not impede the ability of vulnerable groups to access productive resources (e.g. seed) and income. 

We strongly support the government becoming a member of the ITPGRFA, implement farmers’ rights and operationalise the National Plant Genetic Resources (PGR) Plan, and the realisation of the right of all South Africans to sufficient food. We note with great concern, the extremely limited resources allocated to implement the National PGR Plan, especially the full realization of farmers’ rights. We call on DAFF and provincial departments of agriculture to allocate a larger portion of farmer support budgets to realising and expanding the national plan, and supporting and expanding farmer seed systems in tandem with greater support for linked agro-ecological activities.

The protection and recognition of farmer managed seed systems and the opening up of policy spaces in PVP and seed laws to ensure that small holder farmers are able to freely save, use, exchange and sell seed would in turn, open upon spaces for the protection of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) and associated traditional knowledge, which would otherwise be further eroded or lost.