The 1994 WTO (World Trade Organisation) agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) was the first global treaty to establish common norms of private property rights over seeds. The goal is to ensure that companies like Monsanto or Syngenta, which spend money on plant breeding and genetic modification to bring new seeds to market, can make a profit on those seeds by preventing farmers from re-using them – a bit like the way Hollywood or Microsoft try to stop people from copying and sharing films or software. The very notion of “patenting life” is hotly contested and so the WTO agreement is a kind of compromise between governments. It says that countries may exclude both plants and animals (other than micro-organisms) from their patent laws but they must provide some form of intellectual property protection over plant varieties, without specifying how to do that.
Free trade agreements negotiated outside the WTO, especially those initiated by powerful economies in the global North, tend to go much further. They often require countries to (a) patent plants or animals, (b) follow the rules of the Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV) to provide a patent-like system for seeds and/or (c) join the Budapest Treaty on the recognition of deposits of micro-organisms for the purpose of patent protection. These measures give strong monopoly powers to agribusiness companies at the expense of small and indigenous farming communities. For example, UPOV and patenting generally make it illegal for farmers to save, exchange or modify seeds from so-called protected varieties.