A Global Agricultural Research Partnership

Recognizing and promoting farmers’ knowledge and rights: the policy challenges

Photo credit: D. Mowbray/CIMMYT
All over the world farmers like Bishnu Maya (in Nepal) are the main custodians of agricultural biodiversity through the conservation, use and improvement of plant genetic resources on-farm

Recent changes in CGIAR operations have led to a number of new policy challenges.  This was one of the findings of a study of how plant genetic resources move into and out of CGIAR.  The study ‘Flows under stress: availability of plant genetic resources in times of climate and policy change’ describes how eight members of the CGIAR Consortium, whose research is focused on plant genetic resources, are (re)organizing their conservation and improvement activities in light of climate change adaptation. It also analyzes how the collection, use, and distribution of plant genetic resources by members of the CGIAR Consortium are influenced by international and national policies, treaties and agreements.

The study was carried out for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) by researchers at Bioversity International, a member of the CGIAR Consortium, and partners. Issues reviewed include private-sector engagement, public availability of outputs, intellectual property, demands of donor agencies, and participation of farmers in crop improvement and seed production initiatives. An important theme related to these issues is how to properly recognize and promote indigenous and traditional knowledge and farmers’ contributions to the conservation and improvement of plant genetic resources. Farmers and their communities all over the world continue to be the main custodians of agricultural biodiversity through the conservation, use and improvement of plant genetic resources on-farm. 

The changes and challenges both up- and downstream

Upstream, a new CGIAR research focus on developing technologies to be taken forward by private companies requires striking a balance between providing incentives for this private-sector engagement and maintaining maximum public availability for the goods that are developed.

Downstream, in the form of participatory crop improvement, questions have arisen about recognition and access and benefit sharing related to newly developed varieties. Varieties produced through participatory plant breeding have multiple creators (farmers and breeders, and sometimes extension agents or other scientists) whose efforts often build on traditional farmer knowledge and the field experiments of previous generations. However, existing policies and laws do not always recognize or reward this kind of innovation.

Greater involvement with formal and informal seed systems at the national level (to produce and distribute quality seed) depends on national policies to determine the success of activities. Where members of the CGIAR Consortium have been working locally to bulk and distribute improved varieties, challenges concern variety registration, seed production, quality control, marketing and subsidies. In some cases, downstream work has led to alternative variety release, dissemination and quality assurance schemes that involve small-scale seed-producer groups using informal channels of multiplication and exchange.

Protecting local genetic resources and related knowledge

Members of the CGIAR Consortium have to consider rights of access, use, and sharing of benefits. Very often existing laws and mechanisms, such as intellectual property rights and national variety registration laws, are not tailored to protect indigenous and traditional knowledge.  For example heterogeneous farmers’ varieties do not generally satisfy criteria for recognition/protection in national lists of protected or marketable varieties.  Many existing methods are not suitable when it comes to collaboratively developed innovations, such as varieties resulting from generations of incremental crop improvement through farmers’ selection or more recently from participatory crop improvement. Laws are generally biased toward protecting individual as opposed to collective rights. In many countries, plant variety protection laws and regulations do not even recognize farmers as legitimate plant breeders. In several cases, farmers and farmer groups are not recognized as legal entities to produce and market (improved) seeds.

Policy processes and developing effective national mechanisms

A number of national and international policy processes are underway to allow for the development of sui generis systems — in simple terms, specially adapted systems — to protect local natural and genetic resources, and related knowledge about their management, use and maintenance. The best known are the longstanding negotiations of the International Regime on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing under the Convention on Biological Diversity culminating in the “Nagoya Protocol” and those of the International Regime for the Protection of Traditional Knowledge under the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), while recognizing national sovereign rights over plant genetic resources, represents a multilateral system for facilitated access to a limited number of agricultural crops for the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from their use.

The ITPGRFA pays special attention to farmers’ rights stating that their realization rests with national governments (Article 9). Three rights are mentioned: protection of traditional knowledge relevant to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture; the right to participate equitably in benefits arising from the use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture; and the right to participate in making decisions, at the national level, on matters related to the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (Article 9.2). A final sub-article (9.3) adds that “nothing in this Article [9] shall be interpreted to limit any rights that farmers have to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed/propagating material, subject to national law and as appropriate.

International policies require local context to be effective.  In a recent blog entry entitled “Salvadoran Proposal To Ratify Nagoya Protocol Highlights Genetic Resources Legal Issues”, Sullivan highlights that “although the [Nagoya Protocol] agreement provides for the protection of the “established rights” of indigenous communities over certain genetic resources, under the domestic laws of most countries, indigenous communities have no such “established rights.””  There is a responsibility therefore, for CGIAR to put farmers’ rights both into policies and into practice.  Article 3 of the “CGIAR Principles on the Management of Intellectual Assets“ agreed upon by the CGIAR Consortium and the Fund Council earlier this year recognizes Farmers’ Rights, and guidelines on how to implement this principle are currently being written.

Learning from examples: practices of indigenous farming communities

Many countries in which CGIAR operates are developing national mechanisms to implement one or more of the above mentioned international agreements. At the same time, members of the CGIAR Consortium and partners are learning how to deal with relevant policies and laws, but many challenges remain. One way forward is by learning from promising examples of local recognition, access and benefit sharing practices. Particularly useful are examples that are grounded in the practices of local and indigenous farming communities and linked to new partnership configurations of multiple stakeholders interested in supporting these communities. Such examples, including from work done by CGIAR, can be found in a recent book The Custodians of Biodiversity: sharing access to and benefits of genetic resources (2012) that includes case studies from China, Cuba, Honduras, Jordan, Nepal, Peru and Syria. The case studies offer concrete ways to put farmers’ rights in practice – see table below.

May these examples inspire current and future CGIAR efforts!

Post written by Ronnie Vernooy, Policy Unit, Bioversity International, a member of the CGIAR Consortium.  Contact: r.vernooy (at) cgiar (dot) org

Photo credit: D. Mowbray/CIMMYT

Further information:

Overview of Farmers' Rights in Practice. Click to enlargeFlows under stress: Availability of plant genetic resources in times of climate and policy change (CCAFS Working Paper no. 18. July 2012)

Genetic Resources Policy blog

Related articles on CCAFS blog:

Spotlight on policy challenges for plant breeders (CCAFS blog)

Access to genetic resources and genebanks – where are we in the process? (CCAFS blog)

Plant breeders respond to climate-related stresses in multiple ways (CCAFS blog)

Access to genetic resources in agriculture key to climate change adaptation (CCAFS blog)


López-Noriega, I., Galluzzi, G., Halewood, M., Vernooy, R., Bertacchini, E., Gauchan, D., Welch, E. 2012. Flows under stress: availability of plant genetic resources in times of climate and policy change. CCAFS, Copenhagen. CCAFS Working paper 18. On-line:

Ruiz, M. and Vernooy, R. (eds.) 2012. The Custodians of Biodiversity: sharing access to and benefits of genetic resources. Earthscan, Abingdon, and International Development Research Centre, Ottawa. On-line:

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