The anti-science seed treaty

Does the Seed Treaty run counter to science, agricultural development, and intellectual property rights?

SOURCEProject Syndicate

In September, the United States ratified the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, known as the International Seed Treaty. Like so many international agreements crafted under the auspices of the United Nations, it is severely flawed. Indeed, the Seed Treaty is a politically correct, anti-technology fiasco.

To be sure, the treaty, which entered into force in 2004, emanates from some laudable intentions. But it is ultimately a jumble of pie-in-the-sky aspirations, translated into draconian legal constraints on the exchange of genetic resources (mainly seeds) among countries. The unreality of the treaty’s goals comes through in the official statement of its objectives: “the conservation and sustainable use of all plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity, for sustainable agriculture and food security.”

The guiding principle of the Seed Treaty is that genetic resources fall within the “sovereign right” of member states (that is, governments). This amounts to an explicit rejection of the long-standing understanding that genetic resources in plants and animals are the “common heritage of humanity.” It defies the notion that certain global resources, regarded as beneficial to all, should not be unilaterally exploited and monopolized by individuals, states, corporations, or other entities, but rather should be managed in ways that benefit all of humanity.

The Seed Treaty was motivated by fear of “biopiracy” – the pilfering of the world’s genetic resources by agricultural seed companies, which could then claim patents on them and wield monopoly control. But, though accusations of biopiracy may have emotional appeal, impartial analyses have shown that they have little factual basis. In fact, biopiracy is rare – so rare that it can be dealt with directly.

Instead, the world created a baroque, bureaucratic, politicized system that systematically inhibits scientific research, plant breeding, and the creation of intellectual property. The Seed Treaty achieves this by establishing a multilateral system for access to a negotiated list of agricultural genetic resources.

The Seed Treaty also brought under the control of its parties and secretariat the 15 research institutions that comprise the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an influential global research partnership. When a country ratifies the Seed Treaty, it agrees that its own seed banks – in the U.S., the repository at Fort Collins, Colorado – will adhere to the same rules as the CGIAR centers.

But common rules are little help. Unfortunately, as a result of the Seed Treaty, countries increasingly treat their genetic resources like a dog treats a bone: no sharing allowed, even among their own scientists and plant breeders, while most international exchanges of genetic resources have been shut down over the last 12 years. The CGIAR centers have been able to continue exchanges of genetic resources, but the process is now much more complicated and demanding that it was before the Seed Treaty came into force.

For the U.S., the precise impact of the Seed Treaty’s implementation is difficult to determine, not least because the treaty contains wishy-washy, ambiguous phrasing that obscures its meaning and requirements. What is clear is that the experience of countries that have implemented the treaty has not been particularly positive, unless those countries have a high tolerance for bureaucratic regulatory regimes that stifle innovation and development in the name of lofty aspirations.

The Seed Treaty is cut from the same anti-capitalist, anti-science, anti-innovation cloth as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It also mirrors the flagrantly unscientific, anti-genetic-engineering Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the CBD. And it has much in common with the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress to the Cartagena Protocol – yet another anti-genetic-engineering screed, which accomplishes little except to frighten potential entrepreneurs away from agricultural biotechnology. It is overwrought, confusing, and complex – in short, inimical to innovations that could benefit the world’s poor.

The Seed Treaty runs counter to science, agricultural development, and intellectual property rights. That, in the policymaking game, is three strikes – and should be an out. The U.S. Senate, which ratified the Seed Treaty, should reconsider, as Article 32 of the treaty allows. Thereafter, the U.S. State Department would notify the treaty’s secretariat, with official withdrawal taking effect a year later.

President-elect Donald Trump, author of The Art of the Deal, has promised Americans that he will put an end to bad ones. Withdrawal from the Seed Treaty would be an auspicious start to making good on that pledge.


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Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the US Food and Drug Administration. Drew L. Kershen is the Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law (Emeritus) at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.