Farmers in Malaysia threatened by intellectual property treaty

The Consumers’ Association of Penang strongly calls on the Government not to join the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants of 1991 (UPOV 1991).

There is a proposal in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) to require membership of UPOV 1991 by the participating countries.

However, there is growing concern globally that UPOV 1991 establishes an intellectual property system of “plant breeders’ rights” that favour developed countries’ corporate plant breeders and institutional researchers, at the expense of biodiversity and the rights and interests of small farmers and local researchers of developing countries such as Malaysia.

For years, the Government had correctly decided against joining UPOV 1991 and this is appropriate at our current stage of research and development in agriculture, where formal plant breeding research is predominantly done by domestic public research institutions. It is also appropriate to safeguard the rights of the country’s small farmers to breed and develop new plant varieties and the potential of farmers’ varieties for future plant breeding.

Malaysia already has the Protection of New Plant Varieties Act 2004 (PNPV Act). This fully meets our obligations under the World Trade Organization’s intellectual property rights agreement that requires protection of new plant varieties. There is no requirement for WTO members to join UPOV 1991.

Joining UPOV 1991 would mean that the PNPV Act would have to be drastically changed in such a way as to strike at the heart of what makes the Malaysian law unique to meet the needs of our country.

The parts in the PNPV Act that would be deleted in order to join UPOV 1991 include provisions that can protect against biopiracy of Malaysia’s agricultural biodiversity; provisions to ensure that our biosafety regulations are followed if a plant variety is genetically modified; a safeguard that allows small farmers to replant any commercial seed they have saved on their own farms without paying royalties; and a provision allowing farmers to exchange saved seed among themselves.

Studies have shown that UPOV 1991 can adversely affect farmers who are dependent on farmer-managed seed systems (the informal seed sector) and the customary practices of freely saving, using, exchanging and selling farm-saved seeds. These are fundamental farmers’ rights recognized in international norms. In the case of Malaysia, the native communities of Sabah and Sarawak, among whom are many small farmers who have important local seed varieties, will be threatened.

There are reports from the United Nations and agriculture experts showing that farmer-managed seed systems allow farmers to limit the cost of production by preserving independence from the commercial seed sector while the free exchange of seeds contributes to the development of crop diversity and locally appropriate seeds that are more resilient to climate change, pests and diseases. Such systems have therefore contributed greatly to conserving, improving and making available agricultural biodiversity, which is the basis of food security. UPOV 1991 can go against farmer-managed seed systems.

There are also potential adverse implications for Malaysia’s domestic public plant breeding research. The monopolisitc breeders’ rights that UPOV 1991 create can put public researchers in Malaysia at a serious disadvantage compared to foreign plant breeders. At the same time, our local seeds and plants researched by foreigners would end up being claimed by them at the expense of the nation.

We are unaware of any effort by the Government to consult our farmers on these important issues affecting their rights, livelihoods and food security. The Government is already a party to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources on Food and Agriculture, and must live up to that international commitment to implement farmers’ rights including their right to participate in making decisions, at the national level, on matters related to plant genetic resources.

CAP therefore strongly calls on the Government to immediately halt all processes to join UPOV 1991. In addition, the fact that the TPPA can be used to impose UPOV 1991 on Malaysia is yet another reason for the Government to immediately withdraw from the negotiations.

Press Statement, 5th June 2015