GEORGE TOWN, August 15 – A recent proposal to adopt the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants Act of 1991 (UPOV 1991) in Malaysia has sparked controversy and concern among farmers and environmental advocates. The UPOV Convention is being heavily lobbied by certain parties, but critics argue that it is not suitable for Malaysia, as it denies farmers’ rights, encourages biopiracy, and poses a threat to agrobiodiversity.
Currently, Malaysia operates under the Protection of New Plant Varieties Act 2004 (PNPV Act 2004), which aims to balance various interests while protecting farmers’ contributions to plant development. The act recognizes the importance of local farmers and indigenous peoples in developing new plant varieties and implements measures to prevent biopiracy and ensure fair and equitable sharing of benefits.
In contrast, the UPOV 1991 provides extensive protection to plant breeders for a minimum of 20 years, limiting farmers’ rights to freely save, use, exchange, and sell farm-saved seeds. Critics argue that this approach disregards centuries of traditional knowledge and local innovation used by farmers to preserve and store seeds, which is essential for maintaining crop biodiversity. Under UPOV, new plant varieties must meet strict criteria, excluding many farmers’ varieties or land races that respond to diverse genetic resources. This poses a risk to crop biodiversity in Malaysia.
Concerns about biopiracy arise from UPOV’s rejection of any disclosure of the country of origin or legal provenance of genetic resources as a condition for granting plant variety protection. This goes against Malaysia’s obligations in the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Nagoya Protocol. A report titled “The Potential Impact of UPOV 1991 on the Malaysian Seed Sector, Farmers and Their Practices,” published by the Third World Network and APBREBES, reveals that paddy farmers in Peninsular Malaysia already face challenges due to the dominance of protected varieties.
The report shows that farmers save seeds from their own farms and share them with nearby farmers, expressing strong opposition to restrictions on seed exchange and sale. In light of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which requires Malaysia to join UPOV 1991 within four years, concerns have risen about potential negative effects on national agriculture systems and public opposition. Environmental advocates, farmers, and the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) strongly object to any move by the Ministry of Agriculture to amend the 2004 PNVP Act to join the UPOV Convention.
They argue that UPOV is not suitable for Malaysia’s unique agricultural system and may hinder sustainable practices, biodiversity conservation, and farmers’ rights. The debate over UPOV 1991 continues, with many calling for careful consideration of its implications on Malaysia’s agriculture and biodiversity, and the need to safeguard farmers’ traditional knowledge and rights in the process.