Turning Plant Varieties into Intellectual
Property: The UPOV Convention
The first international treaty bringing intellectual property (IP) into agriculture was drawn up
in Europe to harmonize and support existing national systems that give commercial plant
breeders' rights over the plant varieties they breed, and to promote the system in other countries.
This system of plant breeders' rights was a newly created alternative to the US approach of
allowing plant patents, itself a special regime designed to protect vegetatively reproduced
ornamental and fruit varieties. Since the TRIPS Agreement, all WTO Members must provide
some form of IP protection for plant varieties, but it is up to them how to do it. This chapter
examines the development of plant breeders' rights and some issues that arise from them today.
For almost all of human history, farming and crop improvement were carried out by the same people and in the same places, by farmers and indigenous peoples on their own land. The separation of the two activities is very recent, starting in the 19th century. In this chapter I explain what scientific breeders do (see also Chapter 6) and then briefly trace the history of this separation between farming and breeding, which began in Europe and North America, where the first professional breeders emerged, and farmers abandoned or were forced out of breeding as an activity. This separation is an ongoing process in many developing countries and in some areas has hardly even begun.
Since Neolithic times, farmers have set aside some of their harvested seeds for replanting. They selected such seeds, whether consciously or unintentionally, on the basis that the plants producing them possessed desirable traits such as high yields, disease resistance, or drought or frost tolerance. Over the generations, this practice resulted in ever increasing quantities of locally adapted varieties known as 'landraces', 'folk varieties' or 'farmers' varieties'.
This situation changed in North America and Europe from the late 19th century as the profession of farming became a separate one from seed production. The emerging seed producers started to select from the existing