Jan 6, 2020
Hundreds of representatives from around the world got together in Rome recently to resolve conflicts surrounding the United Nations’ International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources. The treaty was signed in 2004.
At the time of its signing, well-intentioned scientists and politicians foresaw possible threats to the very survival of the human race due to the combined effects of climate change and declining agricultural bio-diversity. They negotiated the treaty hoping to encourage the development of a wider variety of crops that would help maintain good soil quality, thrive in a warmer, wetter or drier world likely to be brought on by global warming, and have traits like drought- and pest-tolerance.
The problems that prompted the treaty’s signing certainly are real and growing. In large part, farmers worldwide currently cultivate fewer than 200 of 6,000 known food crop plant species, and of those, just nine account for 66% of total crop production. This lack of bio-diversity threatens the ability of farmers to adapt to changing climates. Wild food plants could potentially offer alternatives, but close to 1,000 of 4,000 wild species are currently decreasing in abundance.
For the most part, the treaty has failed to accomplish its signers’ goals. The treaty aimed to encourage countries and companies that signed on to share seeds that were under government control and in the public domain. Companies could patent newly developed varieties, but would then be required to pay a portion of their profits into a fund for global seed conservation.
This hasn’t happened. Signers of the treaty wound up agreeing to exchange seeds for only 64 crops, including for both human and animal food. Not surprisingly, given the capitalist nature of today’s agribusiness, most vegetables and the most profitable cash crops like soybeans and cotton were excluded.
As a result, industry money has not flowed into the seed conservation fund. The more powerful imperialist countries say genetic sequencing information shouldn’t be subject to the profit-sharing requirement, while developing countries interpret the treaty otherwise.
Naturally, a company like Monsanto that develops Roundup-resistant genetics is allowed to patent the trait and is not anxious to share its profits. Farmers needing to make more money from their crops need seeds like this. But as a result of their usage, in fact, the seeds’ high-profit potential further narrows the bio-diversity in farmers’ fields.
Solving the problems of climate change first of all requires preventing the catastrophe in the first place. In the long term, that requires overturning capitalism and putting the world on a different economic foundation. In the shorter term, it is certainly worth trying to protect and develop agricultural bio-diversity as the UN’s treaty attempted to do. But the realities of today’s profit-driven monopoly capitalism will continue to stand in the way.