Stop seed saving restrictions in UK trade deals

Ninety per cent of Malawians live in rural areas; agriculture makes up 80 per cent of the labour force and 80 per cent of its exports
Trade deals struck by the UK contain a little-known clause that benefit multinational companies - at the expense of farmers in developing countries.

Too little attention has been paid to the role that trade agreements play in perpetuating this unfair, corporate-led agenda which undermines farmers’ autonomy over their seeds.

The UK is signing trade deals requiring countries to comply with an obscure international agreement under which they must introduce domestic regulation to stop farmers swapping or selling seeds privately. 

The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants 1991 – or UPOV91 – contains a provision that grants exclusive rights of new plant varieties to the plant breeder. 

Once a country is a signatory of UPOV91 or has committed to comply with it under a trade deal, it must regulate to prevent farmers legally accessing privatised varieties of seed only if they buy from a place that has permission to sell them; cannot exchange them, even as a gift; or save them for the following season. 


Such laws risk fines or imprisonment for smallholder farmers if they save, swap or sell some seeds on their own land, according to campaign organisation Transform Trade, which has published a report to highlight the issues with UPOV91. 

Restrictions on seed swapping and saving is a particular issue for farmers in the global south, many of whom are heavily reliant on these methods to procure seeds. 

In the Middle East, Africa and Asia around 60 per cent of seeds used by farmers are obtained in this way, compared with around 10 per cent in North America, according to a 2018 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Despite only cultivating 12 per cent of all agricultural land, smallholder farmers produce at least 35 per cent of the world’s food, with some estimating that this figure is closer to 70 per cent. In Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, smallholder farmers operating on land of less than two hectares provide an estimated 80% of food grown in those regions.

Swapping or saving seeds allows farmers to keep their costs down. Crops of indigenous plants or native varieties tend to be more resilient to climatic shocks, because they have evolved over centuries to survive within the local ecosystem, Transform Trade said.

Unfair trade 

In addition, a diversity of seed varieties gives farmers more choice over which seeds they decide are most appropriate to grow locally. A diversity of crops can also mitigate against crop failure due to extreme weather, pests and diseases, it argues. 

The UK is one of several countries pushing the uptake of UPOV91 in trade deals. It has 19 trade deals covering 68 countries which require or encourage signatory countries to comply with or ratify UPOV91. Many of these are with countries that the UN has classified as ‘least developed’ or ‘developing’.

Many trade deals containing these provisions were inherited by the UK from the EU after Brexit, the UK Government chose not to renegotiate them.

There is no publicised UK trade strategy that sets out the government’s intentions, but Transform Trade argues that the fact it did not renegotiate these deals when it formally left the EU in 2020 indicates that it supports the proliferation of UPOV91 and the tightening of seed laws through trade deals. 

Too little attention has been paid to the role that trade agreements play in perpetuating this unfair, corporate-led agenda which undermines farmers’ autonomy over their seeds.


It believes that there is a strong likelihood that the UK will continue to put pressure on other countries to comply with, or ratify, UPOV91 in any new agreements it negotiates.

Transform Trade’s campaign is targeting trade minister Greg Hands and the UK government in general. Labour West MP Gareth Thomas raised concerns about UPOV91 in a recent parliamentary debate about the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an Asia-Pacific trade bloc made up of 11 countries CPTPP that the UK agreed to join in July 2023.

More than 4,000 people have signed a petition in support of the campaign in its first week. The campaign is aligned with an ongoing global campaign to #StopUPOV, run by a broad alliance of farmer organisations, indigenous organisations and civil society calling for an end to UPOV91 and greater support for and recognition of farmer-managed seed systems. 

CAFOD is also running a campaign ‘Fix the Food System’ calling on the World Bank to protect the rights of farmers to save, re-use and exchange seeds. 


Hannah Conway, the report author, said: “Too little attention has been paid to the role that trade agreements play in perpetuating this unfair, corporate-led agenda which undermines farmers’ autonomy over their seeds. 

“The UK must urgently remove UPOV91 from its trade agreements. In the longer term, it must work with other governments to ensure that farmer-managed seed systems are given the support they need to flourish,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business and Trade said that UPOV supported the development of new varieties of plants, benefitting the agricultural sector, consumers and the environment.

“Encouraging innovation and the development of new plant varieties is vital to tackle the challenges of climate change and population growth,” the spokesperson added.  

This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for The Ecologist. She tweets at @Cat_Early76.

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