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A commons for the 21st century

Perhaps ten thousand plant species have served as human food, throughout history. However according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), currently only 120 species make up approximately 90% of our diet — and of those, just four (corn, wheat, rice and potatoes) provide about 60% of human food energy. This narrow base threatens global security, especially when species extinction is escalating: of those thousands of plants we've eaten at one time, in the past 100 years more than 75% have been lost.

Our heritage of agricultural seed diversity comes from the practice of innumerable small farmers' year after year selecting the plants that yield best in their individual conditions, saving their seed and planting it the following season. When corporations select seed for marketing, and force farmers worldwide to buy their proprietary variety, our resources are diminished. In addition some important crops, like barley and oats, have become "orphans" because needed research on them is stalled by patents on previous research.

In 2001, after seven years' negotiations, the FAO enacted the Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (often called the International Seed Treaty). For the first time, genetic resources were legally defined as part of the global commons. In 2004, enough countries had formally ratified the treaty, and it went into effect.

Under the treaty, international seed banks preserve designated crops: 35 for food and 29 forage. All treaty members may use the seed, free of charge, for experiment and breeding (but not for chemical or pharmaceutical research). If users patent their results, they must pay a percentage of profits to a trust fund for conservation and sustainable agriculture in developing countries. If results are freely shared, they may make a voluntary donation.

The treaty also specifies an intention to protect "farmers' rights" — in which it includes benefits-sharing from commercialization, and participation in decision-making about benefits-sharing. But on the more basic issue of the right to to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed — the treaty waffles, affirming that this is "subject to national laws."

Even with these controversial concessions to corporate interests, the U.S. has refused to ratify the treaty, insisting on greater protection for intellectual property rights.

The people of the United States can't be fed by the U.S. harvest alone. And corporations too are hurt by loss of genetic diversity. We are all interdependent in this commons.

© Copyright 2007 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 5 January 2007

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