Building an International Seed Savers Exchange

Colorful Heirloom Potatoes - 'Carola', 'All Red', 'All Blue', and 'Purple Viking' - collection  from Seed Savers. Photo: Susy Morris via Flickr.
Colorful Heirloom Potatoes - 'Carola', 'All Red', 'All Blue', and 'Purple Viking' - collection from Seed Savers. Photo: Susy Morris via Flickr.
Recent decades have seen a hardening global clampdown on the rights of farmers to use, save, develop, share, swap and distribute the seeds that produce the food we all eat, writes Andrew Kimbrell - and which constitute an essential common heritage of mankind. Here's his plan to fight back against the seed monopolists ...
The exchange would not be a commercial enterprise of any sort. It is not a store or a bidding site. It is simply a means to facilitate bilateral seed exchanges between seed savers ...

Julian Rose's commentary regarding a proposed International Seed Saver's Exchange initiated by the Center for Food Safety, CFS, (Ecologist website July 16, 2014) warrants a clarification of the nature of the proposed project.

Rose did not have a full description of the Seed Saver's Exchange and relied on language contained in an online fundraiser for the project by Avaaz.

That limited information contained certain words and phrases that appeared to have led Rose and others to misunderstand the true nature and scope of the effort.

The global attack on seed savers

So what is the International Seed Savers Exchange, and why is it needed? Over the last decades, governments aligned with large agribusiness corporate interests have put up numerous barriers to farmers, home gardeners and seed savers that prevent them from freely exchanging their seeds.

Seed savers are now required to submit complex phytosanitary forms, taxonomic labeling and myriad other regulations. These requirements are not uniform among nations or even jurisdictions within nations and are constantly changing.

As a result, seed savers who are currently exchanging seeds internationally are overwhelmed in their attempt to comport their exchanges with these regulations. Their seeds are routinely confiscated, returned and may be subject to legal sanctions.

Such barriers to small seed savers benefit the Monsantos of the world. These companies own large percentages of commercial seeds, many of which they have patented, so it is in their interest to limit farmers' and other food producers' access to seeds.

Fighting the seed monopolists

The facilitation of a non-profit, diverse seed exchange around the globe bypasses their monopolistic control and helps individuals navigate the complex regulations that mega-corporations have helped to create.

As the barriers to small seed savers become ever more onerous, expanding non-profit open access to seeds is critical, particularly as farmers and farm communities face rapid climactic changes in growing conditions and novel plant pests and pathogens due to climate destabilization.

The aim of the effort to create an International Seed Savers Exchange is to provide the very considerable legal and agronomic assistance that farmers, seed savers and breeders from around to the world need to exchange their seeds legally, and with minimal effort.

The exchange would not be a commercial enterprise of any sort. It is not a store or a bidding site. It is simply a means to facilitate bilateral seed exchanges between seed savers who wish to participate, and will only connect them to others to whom they wish to connect.

The exchange would not be a commercial enterprise of any sort. It is not a store or a bidding site. It is simply a means to facilitate bilateral seed exchanges between seed savers ...

It's no small task - but it has to be done!

To accomplish this is of course no easy task. The Center for Food Safety's world-recognized legal team spent two years conducting in-depth legal research on the laws and rules of countries and regions around the globe to ensure that users can navigate all the requirements and forms for the particular exchange they desire.

This will require a full-time legal and agronomic staff along with a major web platform where the exchanges are facilitated.

With the help of partner organizations, the site will include a number of other features, including seed identification technology, maps of similar agronomic areas around the world, best seed saving practices, taxonomic translation, language translation, model seed saving curriculum and more.

CFS realizes that some of these features may be being provided elsewhere and will direct users to those organizations as well.

The web platform will also empower individuals and groups to contribute to a shared knowledge base on seed saving, cultivation, breeding technologies, seed identification and best practices, and training methods. 

Interactive and 'open source'

The seed saving website will be an interactive, 'open source' system and allow seed savers, farmers, and breeders to post educational manuals, questions, recommendations and videos. 

It will be particularly useful in distributing 'rapid response' information on emerging issues or incidents of state or corporate interference that threaten seed sovereignty.

It will include a comprehensive annotated list of other sites and the opportunities they provide for seed savers and for seed exchanges.

To refine, improve and further develop the International Seed Savers Exchange initiative, CFS intends to convene stakeholder meetings beginning in the Fall of 2014 in several international locations to explore how this effort can unite with other efforts for seed liberation, and help break the corporate monopoly on our precious seed diversity.

CFS also understands that seeds have deep spiritual and cultural meanings related to but also beyond their agricultural function, and through consultation, seeks to ensure that this is respected in the Exchange work.

Supporting a global movement

CFS and others working on this project clearly do not assume that it alone will achieve the seed liberation we collectively seek.

Many groups around the world are working toward this goal, educating the public on the dire threat to the world's seeds and food security, preserving germ plasm diversity at the local level, organizing against monocultures and GMOs, leading seed freedom marches, and pursuing legislative and legal changes in seed law.

CFS itself has been a key player in bringing three life patenting cases before the US Supreme Court. While two of the cases attempting to halt seed patenting failed, a third case, which held that DNA is not patentable, was a major victory. CFS intends to continue its legal, legislative, and public education work on seeds.

As we continue to implement this ambitious effort to provide this service to the global seed community, questions remain for CFS and the seed community to be addressed.

  • How do we reach many who do not have Internet access so they will also benefit from the facilitation of seed exchanges?
  • How can we establish and fund a legal defense team for well-intentioned users who may be harassed by governments or corporations?
  • How can we best disseminate information about the Exchange so as to ensure that its potential is fully utilized?

Together we are stronger!

These and other questions will arise in the consulting and planning process. As our many decades of legal, policy and education work in coalition with movements around the world demonstrate, CFS is committed to resolving such questions with participation from seed networks.

One issue can be addressed: Will corporations use this site for biopiracy?

In our view, it is highly unlikely. Monsanto, Dupont, Dow, Syngenta and the other biopirates unfortunately have access to tens of thousands of seed varieties and seed germplasm from their massive buyouts of local seed companies and even from some seed banks around the world, a few that they have funded.

They needn't take the time to expand their current biopiracy by masquerading as an individual user on the Exchange to obtain a bilateral exchange of a few pounds (or kilos) of one or two seed varieties from a farmer.

CFS welcomes any further questions or requests for clarifications of this promising project.



Find our more about the International Seed Savers Exchange.

See the Avaaz fundraiser page.

Andrew Kimbrell is Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety, serving as an internationally recognized voice and leading public interest attorney in the fight to protect the environment and the public from the threats of global industrial agriculture and faulty governmental policies. 

An author and activist promoting sustainable forms of agriculture and organic policies, Kimbrell has challenged the logic and lawfulness of industrial agriculture in numerous published articles and public forums, including featured speaking engagements at Google Author Talks, Slow Food Nation and keynoting at top universities and global food conferences.

His most recent book, Your Right to Know: Genetic Engineering and the Secret Changes in Your Food (2006) tackles the current controversial issues of GE foods and the vital need for a more just and healthy food system. 

As a noted expert in environmental and food issues, Kimbrell has been called to testify before the U.S. Congress and is a frequent contributor to documentaries, including the recent film, The Future of Food.



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