Media release, 2 December 2022

UPOV: When seed-swapping could mean prison

Berne, 2 December 2022 - Representatives of seven Swiss organisations today staged a protest on the Bundesplatz (Federal Square) in Berne against the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). The UPOV system criminalises farmers around the world for reusing their seeds. Switzerland requires its trading partners to implement UPOV rules under their trade agreements. This untenable practice is to be ended by an initiative in Parliament.

Dressed as prisoners, activists from several Swiss organisations today demonstrated on the Federal Square. Their intent was to symbolise all farmers being criminalised under UPOV rules and the patent-like intellectual property rights regarding seeds. The demonstration is part of a worldwide protest against UPOV and the monopolisation of seeds. 

Protestierende vor dem Bundeshaus
Eliane Beerhalter, SWISSAID

The activists handed in a demand to Parliament that Switzerland not include a UPOV clause in its future trade agreements. National Councillor Nicolas Walder accepted the petition and will be bringing forward a Parliamentary initiative next week, jointly with National Councillor Christine Badertscher. The unacceptable UPOV requirement should be removed from free trade agreements. Trading partners should remain free to legislate on seeds in a manner that reflects their national circumstances and requirements, respects farmers' rights, and bolsters food sovereignty. 

The centuries-old practice of farmers to store, multiply, reuse, exchange or sell seeds produced in their own fields is a cornerstone of food sovereignty. It is indispensable to the food security of countries in the South. This rural seed system ensures the supply of seeds and is crucial to preserving and further developing the diversity of our crops. This is why the right to their free use is also enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP) and in the FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

It is this particular right that is being criminalised under UPOV regulations. They prohibit the exchange and resale of protected seeds produced by farmers in their own fields. Reuse is also often prohibited or made subject to payment. As UPOV's newest member, Ghana even goes as far as instituting a minimum prison sentence of 10 years. A basic right becomes a criminal act.
In concert with EFTA**, Switzerland requires partner countries to implement the UPOV rules in their trade agreements. This is nothing short of cynicism on the part of EFTA countries, considering that Liechtenstein does not even implement the UPOV rules. Norway applies them in a watered-down fashion, which allows its farmers more freedom. Even Switzerland interprets the rules such that they fall short of the UPOV standard. The upshot is that EFTA is demanding stricter laws from its trading partners than it is itself prepared to enact. The next agreement where UPOV is again on the list is the forthcoming free trade agreement with Thailand, where civil society and farmers' organizations are vehemently opposed to the UPOV rules. What is at stake is safeguarding their right to seeds and hence their right to food.

*The event was supported by Alliance Sud, Fastenaktion, FIAN, HEKS/EPER, Public Eye, Swissaid und Uniterre.

** The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) has four members, namely Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.


Simon Degelo, Policy Adviser, Right to seeds and biodiversity, SWISSAID
Tel: 076 824 00 46,
Nicolas Walder, National Councillor Greens, 
Tel: 079 550 05 13,