Reclaiming the seed

| 20th August 2012
Vandana Shiva explains why Seed Satyagraha – a non-cooperation movement in the footsteps of Gandhi – will be crucial in blocking the introduction of the proposed Seed Law
This is not innovation but piracy

Seed is the first link in the food chain. Seed sovereignty is the foundation of food sovereignty. If farmers do not have their own seed or access to open pollinated varieties that they can save, improve or exchange, then they have no seed sovereignty and consequently no food sovereignty.

The deepening food crisis has its roots in changes in the seed supply system, and the erosion of seed diversity and seed sovereignty.

Seed sovereignty includes the farmer’s rights to save, breed and exchange seed, to have access to diverse open source seeds which can be saved and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned and controlled by giant seed corporations. It is based on reclaiming the seed and biodiversity as commons and public good.

The last twenty years have seen a very rapid erosion of seed diversity and seed sovereignty, and an intense concentration of the control over seed by a very small number of giant corporations. In 1995, when the United Nations (UN) organised the Plant Genetic Resources Conference in Leipzig, it was reported that 75% of all agricultural biodiversity had disappeared because of the introduction of “modern” seed varieties, which are always cultivated as monocultures. Since then, the erosion has accelerated. 

The introduction of the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPs) of World Trade Organisation (WTO) has further accelerated the spread of genetically engineered seed which can be patented, and for which royalties can be collected. Navdanya movement in India was started in response to the introduction of patents on seed in the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement about which a Monsanto representative later stated “In drafting these agreements we were the patient, diagnostician and physician all in one”. Corporations defined a problem – and for them the problem was farmers saving seed. They offered a solution, and the solution was to make it illegal for farmers to save seed by introducing patents and intellectual property rights on seed. As a result acreage under GM corn, soya, canola, cotton has increased dramatically.

Besides displacing and destroying diversity, patented GMO seeds are also undermining seed sovereignty. Across the world, new seed laws are being introduced which enforce compulsory registration of seed, thus making it impossible for small farmers to grow their own diversity, and forcing them into dependency on giant seed corporations. Corporations are also patenting climate resilient seeds evolved by farmers, thus robbing farmers of using their own seeds and knowledge for climate adaptation.

Another threat to seed and seed sovereignty is genetic contamination of seed. India has lost its cotton seeds because of contamination from Bt. Cotton. Canada has lost its canola seed because of contamination from Roundup Ready canola. Mexico has lost its corn because of contamination from GMO Corn.

After contamination, Biotech Seed Corporation sue farmers with patent infringement cases, as happened in the case of the Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser. That is why more than 80 groups came together and filed a case to prevent Monsanto from suing farmers whose seed had been contaminated.

As farmer’s seed supply is eroded, and farmers become dependent on patented GMO seed, the result is debt. India, the home of cotton, has lost its cotton seed diversity and cotton seed sovereignty; 95% cotton seed is now Monsanto’s Bt. Cotton, and the debt trap created by being forced to buy seed every year - with crippling royalty payments - has pushed hundreds of thousands of farmers to suicide, (of the 250,000 farmer suicides, the majority are in the cotton belt.) 

Even as the disappearance of biodiversity and seed sovereignty creates a major crisis for agriculture and food security, corporations are pushing governments to use public money to destroy the public seed supply and replace it with unreliable non-renewable, patented seed which must be bought every year. 

In Europe, the 1994 regulation for protection of plant varieties, forces farmers to make a “compulsory voluntary contribution” to seed companies. The terms themselves are contradictory.  What is compulsory cannot be voluntary!

In France, a law was passed in November 2011, which makes royalty payments compulsory. As Agriculture Minister Bruna Le Marie stated, “seeds can no longer be royalty free, as is currently the case”. Of the 5,000 or so cultivated plant varieties, only 600 are protected by certificate in France, and these account for 99% of the varieties grown by farmers.

The “compulsory voluntary contribution”, in other words a royalty, is justified on grounds that “a fee is paid to certificate holders [seed companies] to sustain funding of research and efforts to improve genetic resources”.

Monsanto pirates biodiversity and genetic resources from farming communities, as it did in the case of wheat. As Monsanto states, “it draws from a collection of germ-plasm that is unparalleled in history” and “mines the diversity in this genetic library to develop elite seeds faster than ever before”.

In effect what is taking place is the enclosure of the genetic commons of our biodiversity and the intellectual commons of public breeding by farming communities and public institutions. And the GMO seeds Monsanto is offering are not “improvement” of genetic resources, but degradation. This is not innovation but piracy.

The 2009 Global Food Security Act, of the US is “A bill to authorize appropriations for fiscal years 2010 through 2014 to provide assistance to foreign countries to promote food security, to stimulate rural economies, and to improve emergency response to food crisis, to amend the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and for other purposes”.

The Amendment to the foreign Assistance Act would “include research on bio technological advances… including genetically modified technology”. The US $7.7 billion that goes with the bill would go to benefit Monsanto to push GM seeds.

Under the US Global Food Security Act, Nepal signed an agreement with USAID and Monsanto. This led to massive protest across the country.  India was forced to allow patents on seed through the first dispute brought by the US against India under the WTO. Since 2004, India has also been trying to introduce a Seed Act which would require farmers to register their own seed and take licenses. This in effect would prevent farmers from using their indigenous seed varieties. But by creating a Seed Satyagraha – a non cooperation movement in Gandhi’s footsteps, handing over hundreds of thousands of signatures to the Prime Minister, and working with the Parliament, we have so far stopped the Seed Law from being introduced.    

India has signed a US/India knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, with Monsanto on the Board. The Indian States are now being pressurised to sign agreements with Monsanto under which Monsanto would get Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) on all genetic resources, and research on seed carried out under the Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU). It took a campaign by Navdanya to force the government of Rajasthan to cancel the MOU.

This asymmetric pressure of Monsanto on the US government, and the joint pressure of both on the governments across the world, is a major threat to the future of seed, the future of food and the future of democracy.

This is not innovation but piracy

For more information on the 'Declaration of Seed Freedom' click here

Vandana Shiva is an environmental activist and the author of Earth Democracy.


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