The Italian and European Legal Framework for Farmers’ Seeds System: Who Owns the Seeds?

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The Italian and European

Legal Framework for Farmers’ Seeds System:

Who Owns the Seeds?

Position paper written by Stefano Mori and Antonio Onorati

for Centro Internazionale Crocevia

November 2016

The modern agriculture imposes an industrial production model within a strong social and environmental negative impact, threatening the pillars of peasant agriculture.

The erosion of biodiversity generated by peasants’ selection and differentiation of crops are the most negative features of industrial production system. Agro-industry relies on fertilizer and agrochemicals, limiting the Right to Food Security and Food Sovereignty of communities and peoples. Moreover, agro-business made the agricultural market more and more dependent on transformation and distribution systems which integrate farmers into global value chains. Today the world population is consuming more food than before, due to changes in livelihoods in industrialized countries. However, food it is less nutritious today: researchers from the University of Texas in 2004 studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data regarding 43 different vegetables and fruit from 1950 to 1999. They discovered “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century[1].

Even if agro-business is the predominant system, nowadays more than 70% of worldwide food is provided by small-scale producers[2]. Small-scale agriculture, seasonal products, local markets and participatory research take back agriculture, land and consumers at the centre of the food systems.

Peasant agriculture’s main contribution is the agricultural biodiversity. While industrial system focus its production on few products, peasant agriculture push for a great variety of plants and crops, necessary for a sustainable development. Peasants’ production is centred on “Farmers’ seeds systems”. Seeds and agricultural biodiversity did not receive a proper recognition in the discussion within the Right to Food and the legal frameworks at national, regional or international level. The actual global legal framework focuses on the protection of Property Rights and breeders’ rights, with the support of TNCs, Academia and R&D institutions, aiming the privatisation of seeds. On the contrary, there is no recognition of the autonomy of Farmers’ seeds systems: peasants and rural communities are losing control on their traditional seeds. Peasants’ practices, such as the re-sow or the exchange of seeds, are increasingly declared as illegal by the law system.

TNCs and Governments developed the following narrative:

  1. The actual production model cannot feed 9 billion people by 2050;
  2. New seeds varieties will be adapted to climate changes.

The situation drawn by these companies, it’s not representing the facts as they really are.

Since more than 70% of worldwide food is provided by small-scale producers[3], a relevant part of this sector relies on peasant seed systems. In facts, peasants’ seeds systems feed the world and are even resilient in terms of natural disasters, since they adapt to climate change thanks to the adaptability to local conditions. Furthermore, the practices related to peasants’ seeds systems are ensuring biodiversity.

The agro-business is working exactly in the opposite direction. Throughout the 20th Century, almost 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform varieties. For this reason, by 1999, the 75% of the world’s food was generated from only 12 plants and five animal species[4].

Food provisions of rural communities and small-scale farmers relies on the access, use and sell of seeds, plants and animals reproduction material. For this reason – and for those underlined above – it is important to have a strong legislation that prevent the privatisation of the seeds in favour of the agro-industries and against the real food producers. The “Free Seeds” approach allows everyone to own seeds and to circulate them freely, however, at the same time, it deprives peasants any possibilities of control over seeds, weather in the business sector weather in the society, leaving the control to the bargaining power of seeds companies and industrial research.

At international level the “International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture” approved in FAO in 2001:

  1. Recognizes the enormous contribution of Farmers to the crops diversity that feeds the world.
  2. Establishes a global system to provide farmers, plant breeders and scientists with access to plant genetic materials.
  3. Ensures that recipients share benefits they derive from the use of these genetic materials.

The Treaty entered into force after three years and at the moment there are 140 contracting parties which undersigned the document.

Three articles regard the Farmers’ Rights to save, exchange and sell seeds: art. 5 – Conservation, Exploration, Collection, Characterization, Evaluation and Documentation of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture –, art. 6 – Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources –  and art. 9 – Farmers’ Rights.

  • The Italian case study

This paper, will analyse the Italian case study. In 2007 the Italian Government included the Treaty in the Italian legal framework. The ITPGRFA Italian implementation law promotes the sustainable in situ conservation of the genetic resources and provides the institution of a national ad hoc register for conservation varieties – under the requests of regions or autonomous provinces or other public institutions. The Italian legislation defines “conservation varieties” as species that are:

  1. Local and not local, never registered before in national catalogues, under the condition of being integrated in the local agroecosystems for at least 50 years.
  2. Still not registered in any catalogue and threatened by genetic erosion.
  3. Species that are not cultivated anymore on the national territory and conserved in botanic gardens, on which there is an economic, scientific, cultural or landscape interest that can promote the reintroduction.

This legislation gave peasants a good level of freedom and control over their seeds, valuing the local more adapted seeds to the territory. In this sense the European Directive 98/95 introduces explicitly the need of protection of the species threatened by genetic erosion, through the in situ conservation. This Directive has been received in Italy with the legislative decree n°212/2001, which provided the institution of a section of the National Register, including conservation varieties. The varieties classified under this section of the register are the result of a selection that take into account unofficial evaluation and knowledge acquired thanks to practical experience in cultivation or in the reproduction of the seeds. It has been an important decision because thanks to the implementation of the Decree, the traditional knowledge and practices of peasants have been safeguarded. Beyond the protection of the agrarian patrimony – constituted by the genetic resources – the Decree supports the local communities, that work on the conservation, offering them the benefits that derive from the reproduction of the seeds: the article 6 limits the commercialization of foreigner seeds in favour of those peasants that cultivate conservation varieties registered by the region. These peasants have, indeed, the possibility to sell directly, in the local community, all the seeds they want or also propagate materials.

  • The Peasants’ Independence Revolution

In 2008 the Minister of Agricultural Policies and Forestry (MIPAF), tried to regulate the commerce of the seeds of conservation varieties. The MIPAF ensured that the benefits coming from the reproduction, dissemination and use of conservation varieties belong in an “inalienable and indefeasible” way to the local communities that cared about the conservation of that variety.

The main problem of this framework came to the light in 2010, when conservation varieties were introduced in more formalised register, as consequence of an application of the European directive 2009/145/CE. Indeed it created many doubts among the small-scale farmers that base their production on the exchange, rehabilitation and use of their own seeds:

  1. There was a lacking of a unique definition of “conservation variety” or “traditional variety”.
  2. There was a scarce clarity in the classification of the collected genetic material, which instead should be simple and practical, even if respecting the minimum criteria.
  3. It was not clear the necessity to translate the rural habits – such as the informal exchange of seeds – into legal aspects: this is a crucial point, due to the fact that rural habit do not only characterize the agricultural world, but they also allow the existence of a great agricultural genetic variability, highlighting the risk that the legal framework on this issue could limit in a certain way the exchange of genetic material and the exchange of information, starting in this way mechanisms of genetic erosion.
  4. The necessity of an open debate on the specific protection of the farmers’ rights: which are the legal elements? To who the collective rights should be addressed? And which are exactly the tools that facilitate the promotion of these rights?
  • Now, Farmers’ Rights

As the Italian case illustrates, it’s important to understand what do farmers’ rights exactly mean. Farmers’ access to a diverse range of peasant seeds and their right to keep, use, exchange and sell farm seeds is the first condition necessary for changing the current agricultural model to one of agroecological farms that prioritise supplying the territorial markets. The change of production model is the only sustainable answer to food, health, social, environmental and climatic crises, which are becoming increasingly serious. In order to achieve that, a change of public policies  is required, mainly of those concerning farmers’ rights to seeds. The Farmers’ Rights include also the right to protect traditional and modern peasant knowhow with regard to agricultural biodiversity, which is indispensable when faced with their destruction by industrial property rights. From an economic perspective, the right to equitably shared profits has become an illusion aimed at facilitating biopiracy. TNCs seed companies must begin by unconditionally reimbursing the huge debt they have amassed by pillaging  peasant seeds in all countries. Finally, also the Farmers Organization participation in decision’s making is included in Farmers’ Rights : it must not be reduced to few minor concessions granted to those who bow to pressure from the industry.

For this reason the social movements are called to prioritize the Farmers’ Rights against the interests of industrial companies. A clear example comes from Europe, where the European Coordination of Via Campesina in last May called for a united front to prohibit patents on living organisms and to promote peasants resilient seed systems. They underlined four main issues that are urgent at the moment:

  1. Value the proficient practices on seeds carried on by peasants around Europe, which represent the only seed system – resilient to climate change and hunger.
  2. Include the products resulting from New Breeding Techniques – resulted from new genetic modification – into the already existing European GMO legislation.
  3. Promote new European directives and national legislation on seed trade and exchange between farmers. Improve European and national trade regulation could affect peasants’ seeds and obtain positive laws protecting farmers’ rights to use, save, exchange and sell their seeds.
  4. Through a united front, curb the industry offensive, which is seeking to convert the International treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture into a biopiracy tool. It is fundamental to prevent the industry actions on the Treaty because it has not a robust system for disciplining states that ignore it, and it opens the space for the private sector to introduce the patent system on the material coming from the treaty and, by DivSeek, push for a strong dematerialization of “seeds”, giving free access to companies at the evolving agriculture biodiversity in the farmers’ fields.

In conclusion, the social movements and the Civil Society Organizations are the only groups that are denouncing and resisting these threats and putting forward alternatives. So, they need to continue their pressure also on the legislative aspects in order to prevent the monopole control of agricultural biodiversity and to protect the farmers’ rights, which represent the right to food and the right to life for billion of people around the world.


[1] Scientific American Journal, Diet Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become LessNutritious?, website:

[2] UNEP (January, 2011), Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication – A Synthesis for Policy Makers, France.

[3] See footnote 2.

[4] FAO (2005), What’s Agrobiodiversity? in “FAO. Building on Gender, Agrobiodiversity and Local Knowledge, Rome.


  • FAO, International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Rome, 2009.
  • Guendel S., What is Agrobiodiversity?, in “FAO. Building on Gender, Agrobiodiversity and Local Knowledge”, FAO, Rome, 2005.
  • Onorati A., Rahmanian M., Monsalve S., Seeds and Agricultural Biodiversity: the Neglected Backbone of the Right to Food and Nutrition, in “Right to Food Watch. Keeping Seeds in People’s Hand”, Rome, October 2016.
  • Porfiri O., Conservazione delle Varietà Locali, Leggi Regionali e Repertori, Agriregionieuropa anno 4 n°12, March 2008.
  • UNDESA, World Population Projected to Reach 9.7 billion by 2050, New York, July 2015.