NAIROBI: Researchers say farmers in developing countries are losing one of their best hopes to limit the impacts of climate change because of growing corporate control of the seeds they plant.
The warning issued on Monday comes ahead of the World Seed Conference which opens on Tuesday at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.
The researchers - from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and partners organizations in China, India, Kenya, Panama and Peru - say the diversity of traditional seed varieties is falling fast and this means valuable traits such as drought and pest resistance could be lost forever.
"Where farming communities have been able to maintain their traditional varieties, they are already using them to cope with the impacts of climate change," says project leader Krystyna Swiderska of IIED.
"But more commonly, these varieties are being replaced by a smaller range of 'modern' seeds that are heavily promoted by corporations and subsidized by governments. These seeds have less genetic diversity yet need more inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers and more natural resources such as land and water."
The researchers say that one reason for this is that while the international treaty on the protection of new varieties of plants - - known as UPOV -- protects the profits of powerful private corporations it fails to recognize and protect the rights and knowledge of poor farmers.
"Western governments and the seed industry want to upgrade the UPOV Convention to provide stricter exclusive rights to commercial plant breeders," says Swiderska.
"This will further undermine the rights of farmers and promote the loss of seed diversity that poor communities depend on for their resilience to changing climatic conditions."
The researchers also point out that in order to continue conserving and adapting their varieties, farmers also need to be allowed to freely save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds.
Technologies which restrict these customary rights -- namely Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTS) -- pose a very serious threat to genetic diversity, seed quality and the livelihoods of poor farmers.
"The farming communities that have developed and sustained a rich diversity of seeds over millennia urgently need incentives to continue sustaining them," says Ruchi Pant of Ecoserve in India.
"They need the same rights over their traditional seed varieties and associated knowledge as corporations have over modern varieties they develop and patent. The new seed laws being introduced in developing agrarian countries are posing a threat to the rights of small farmers to save, sow and exchange their traditional varieties."
Small-scale farmers rarely benefit when outsiders such as corporate plant breeders make use of their traditional seeds to develop new varieties, because of the plant breeders acquire the intellectual property rights when they test and register the new varieties.
One solution proving successful in Southwest China is the development of Participatory Plant Breeding research partnerships between farmers and breeders, through which plant breeders share benefits equitably with farmers in return for their contribution of seeds and knowledge.
"Traditional seed varieties are critical to help Chinese farmers adapt to climate change," says Jingsong Li of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy in China.
"At the same time, this biological diversity is under threat from problems such as drought, floods, pests and diseases, which climate change may promote. For these reasons, farmers are keen to improve their varieties through Participatory Plant Breeding."
The World Seed Conference is intended to raise awareness of the importance of new plant varieties and high quality seed in this context and considers how governments can develop an enabling environment to encourage plant breeding and the production and distribution of high quality seed.