By Alfredo Acedo

Progressive small farmer organizations in Mexico scored a victory over transnational corporations that seek to monopolize seed and food patents. When the corporations pushed their bill to modify the Federal Law on Plant Varieties through the Committee on Agriculture and Livestock of the Mexican Chamber of Deputies on March 14, organizations of farmers from across the country sounded the alarm. By organizing quickly, they joined together to pressure legislators and achieved an agreement with the legislative committee to remove the bill from the floor.

What’s at stake is free and open access to plant biodiversity in agriculture. The proposed modifications promote a privatizing model that uses patents and “Plant Breeders’s Rights” (PBR) to deprive farmers of the labor of centuries in developing seed. The small farmers who worked to create this foundation of modern agriculture never charged royalties for its use.

Although the current law, in effect since 1996, pays little heed to the rights of small farmers, the new law would be far worse. Present law tends to benefit private-sector plant breeders, allowing monopolies to obtain exclusive profits from the sale of seeds and other plant material for up to 15 years, or 18 in the case of perennial ornamental, forest, or orchard plants–even when the plants they used to develop the new varieties are in the public domain.

The legislative reform would extend exclusive rights from the sale of reproductive material to 25 years. Further, it seeks to restrict the rights of farmers to store or use for their own consumption any part of the harvest obtained from seeds or breeding material purchased from holders of PBRs.

The proposed law would also include genetically modified organisms (GMOs) among the plant varieties covered, converging with the so-called Monsanto Law (Law of Biosecurity and Genetically Modified Organisms). This is an absurd inclusion, since GMOs are created by introducing genetic material from non-plant species.

GMOs cannot be considered a distinct variety, because they do not result from the genetic variability that underlies natural selection. They are the result of manipulation through biotechnology that crosses the boundaries between species and realms. Another absurdity is the private appropriation of genetic information from live organisms, even those altered with genes of other species.

The proposed law would create a “Monsanto Police,” by giving the National Service for the Inspection and Certification of Seeds the authority to order and conduct inspection visits, demand information, investigate suspected administrative infractions, order and carry out measures to prevent or stop violations of PBR, and impose administrative sanctions, which are increased by the proposal. It would have a government agency promote PBRs held by individuals or corporations.

Holders of PBRs already gain exclusive rights to exploit plant varieties and material for their propagation. The bill under consideration would extend those rights over the products resulting from use of monopolized plant varieties so that, for example, a special license would have to be obtained to use the variety in foods for human consumption or industrial uses.

Farmers Win a Battle, but the Offensive Continues

Now that the regular session has been concluded and the bill wasn’t presented, it will have to wait for a new session. Withdrawal of the bill was a victory for the social organizations over the transnational beneficiaries of the bill, particularly Monsanto.

The battle was won, but the bill is still pending as Monsanto and other large corporations wait for a better time. With Mexican elections just months away, they’re waiting for a time when the political cost of these measures that harm producers’ rights won’t have immediate electoral repercussions.

As now formulated, the reform would further strengthen the legal underpinnings for pillage that the Mexican Congress has been shaping since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) began to be negotiated and then went into effect. The proposed reforms derive directly from the intellectual property agreements contained in annex 1701.3 of NAFTA.

In 2005, the Monsanto Law opened the door for cultivating genetically modified seed in Mexico. The seed is the property of the same transnational corporations that produce the agricultural chemicals used on the GMOs, to their own benefit and the detriment of the food supply, health, and economic well being of the Mexican people.

When the reforms went through the Senate and Chamber committee, members of the Mexican Congress–with the exception of members of the Party of the Democratic Revolution–tossed caution aside and disregarded the warnings of scientists not paid by the transnationals. They decided to forget that small farmers and native peoples, with their ancestral practices of cultivation, selection, and free interchange of seeds, are the ones who created existing plant varieties and are the real owners of the agro-genetic wealth of the country.

Organizations of small farmers declared their opposition because the proposed reforms would deepen the crisis of Mexican agriculture and increase poverty and food dependency, both of which have increased alarmingly under the present administration.

The organizations presented a document to the leaders of all factions in the Chamber of Deputies requesting them to send the proposed law back to Committee. They demanded that the legislature open up a discussion on the inadvisability of continuing to privatize the means of production of foodstuffs, given the Mexican government’s obligation to uphold the right to food.

The right to food was only recently approved as a constitutional reform in Mexico. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, anticipated the debate by stressing the need to strengthen the legal framework to oppose the reform on Plant Varieties already approved by Congressional Committee.

In the final report of his visit to Mexico, submitted a few weeks ago, the UN official said that Mexico should approve a law establishing a framework for the right to food, declare a moratorium on planting genetically modified corn, and adopt measures against the monopolization of the production of seeds.

In addition, farmers argue that the nation needs community seed banks and decentralized, participatory programs to conserve agricultural biodiversity. The organizations are preparing to extend the debate and launch legal action against the bill, such as filing injunctions and claims of unconstitutionality, since Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution protects the genetic diversity of species as part of the national patrimony.

Alfredo Acedo is Director of Social Communication and advisor to the National Union of Regional Organizations of Autonomous Small Farmers of Mexico and a contributor to the Americas Program www.cipamericas.org.

Translated by Tom Holloway and Mikael Rojas