Switzerland jeopardises the right to food

Action in front of UPOV headquarters, Geneva, December 8, 2021.
Political article
In its free trade agreements with developing countries, Switzerland insists that they accede to UPOV 91, a convention that privatises seeds. This is at odds with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasant families, accepted by Switzerland.

In the debate around the free trade agreement with Indonesia, public attention focused on the subject of palm oil – there was even a referendum, which failed by a narrow margin. Effective since 1 November 2021, the agreement nonetheless includes other problematic development policy provisions that have passed largely unnoticed: one of them is the request made to Indonesia to adopt – albeit with some adjustments – the standards of UPOV 91, the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. This Convention, which is largely unknown to the general public, requires member countries to enact stringent laws to protect seeds and plant varieties, which is tantamount to de facto privatisation. In this way, agricultural multinationals secure monopoly rights for themselves, while peasants lose free access to seeds: no longer can they freely obtain, propagate, exchange and sell them as they have always done.

Switzerland has not aligned its own legislation with UPOV 91

Currently, 78 countries have joined the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). Switzerland ties its free trade agreements, which it negotiates in the framework of EFTA (European Free Trade Association), to accession to the UPOV Convention. Next on the list of countries is Malaysia, with which negotiations have been in progress for the past 10 years. The fact that Switzerland has not adapted its own domestic legislation to UPOV 91, despite being a member of the Union, is downright hypocritical.

On 8 December, the 60th anniversary of UPOV, the Swiss Right to Seeds Coalition – of which Alliance Sud is a member – staged a demonstration in front of the UPOV headquarters in Geneva calling for its abolition. In so doing, the Coalition was building on a week of mobilisation that had brought together almost 300 organisations and networks around the world.

While the privatisation of seeds obviously serves the interests of a few multinationals that control seeds – Switzerland's Syngenta among them –, it is at odds with the right to food and to food sovereignty, which Switzerland has undertaken to preserve and promote. Three years ago Switzerland signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasant Families and other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP). Its aim is to respond to the various forms of discrimination affecting these people, who are the first to be impacted by poverty and hunger.

Switzerland finally commits to undertaking human rights impact assessments

"Bearing in mind that Ecuador's leading exports come from agribusiness, which is involved in producing bananas, shrimp, flowers, cocoa and in industrial fishing, it is clear that these activities will expand, as will the contamination and degradation of natural spaces. The consequences for farming communities and traditional fisherfolk are disastrous, especially the destruction of their income sources", said Cecilia Cerrez from the Ecuadorian NGO Acción Ecológica, as the free trade agreement with Ecuador took effect in November 2020; she further noted that Switzerland purchases 90 per cent of Ecuador's exports to the EFTA.

Despite calls from numerous international bodies and a postulate tabled by the Control Commission of the National Council, Switzerland has so far still failed to conduct any human rights impact assessments, citing a lack of methodology and data. To prove that they do exist, Alliance Sud commissioned the preparation of a blueprint for an impact assessment of the free trade agreement with Mercosur, focusing specifically on the impacts of that agreement on the rights of indigenous peoples. It shows that the deforestation caused by expanding agribusiness is frequently at the expense of indigenous territories, and that the people living in them are not even so much as consulted.

But there are other potential problems. Liberalising public procurement could open the way for trade agreements to limit the scope of developing countries to purchase supplies from peasant farmers at fixed prices, thereby weakening their support for local farming communities.

Under the new Foreign Economic Policy Strategy, the Federal Council finally commits to conducting ex-ante and ex-post impact assessments of free trade agreements so as to gauge their principal economic, environmental and social consequences. Alliance Sud welcomes this decision and will be examining these studies with interest and the required critical eye.

This Strategy affirms the intent to contribute to environmental and social sustainability. This is a good thing, but complying with norms and standards does not excuse Switzerland from addressing the contradictions inherent in its own trade policy. Moreover, these standards and obligations must be implemented in a concrete, effective and measurable manner and provide for sanctions in the event of violations. Switzerland's free trade agreements do not envisage this possibility. Indeed, the Joint Committees that oversee the chapter on sustainable development are only empowered to make recommendations.