Throughout the world, seed sovereignty activists are reclaiming the right to plant, in resistance to seed laws that threaten food security by criminalizing farmers for using diverse crops, Charli Shield reported for DW (Deutsche Welle) in April 2021.
Although establishment news outlets have covered how corporate producers of genetically modified seeds, such as Bayer and Corteva, benefit from patents that provide exclusive ownership rights, Shield’s report highlighted another, more obscure but nonetheless powerful, way that corporations and international agriculture agreements benefit Big Ag at the expense of ordinary farmers and biodiversity. Under the auspices of intellectual property statutes known as “plant variety protection,” other, non-GMO plant varieties can be “strictly controlled,” Shield reported.
According to guidance from the World Trade Organization, all of the world’s nations are expected to establish legislation to protect different plant varieties. Many countries now fulfill this expectation by joining the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), which limits the production, sale, and exchange of seeds—in principle, to encourage innovation by allowing breeders to profit from temporary monopolies, according to UPOV and its agribusiness backers such as Bayer.
The catch is that, to qualify for UPOV protections, commercial seeds must be genetically distinct, uniform, and stable; “Most ordinary seeds are none of these things,” Shield wrote. Instead, the varieties that ordinary farmers have developed and handed down for generations are “genetically diverse and continually evolving.” In fact, under some nations’ plant variety protections, traditional farmers’ varieties “can’t be certified as seeds at all.” To compound the threats to traditional agriculture and biodiversity, many countries now enforce seed marketing laws that restrict the sale—or even the sharing—of noncertified seeds, leaving farmers with only one legal option: buying seeds from Big Ag.
As a result, Shield reported, “[a] huge wealth of locally adapted crops is being replaced by standardized varieties.”
“We’re looking at this as neocolonialism destroying our livelihoods and our environment,” Mariam Mayet, director of the African Centre for Biodiversity in South Africa, told DW. Countries are not legally obligated to join UPOV, but the United States, Canada, members of the European Union, and other nations are encouraging “neocolonial agriculture” by pressuring countries such as Zimbabwe and India to join.
Mayet is one of numerous leaders throughout the world who seek to preserve the autonomy of indigenous agriculture—which she calls “the bedrock to ensure ecological integrity”—by developing what DW described as “seed networks that allow farmers and communities to bypass the corporate agribusiness giants and manage seeds on their own terms.” From the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture in India, and the Third World Network in Southeast Asia, to Let’s Liberate Diversity! in Europe, and the Open Source Seed Initiative based in the United States, a global seed sovereignty movement now challenges the “staggering monopolies” that otherwise “dominate the global food supply,” DW reported.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 75 percent of the world’s crop varieties disappeared between the years 1900 and 2000. By reclaiming the right to plant, the seed sovereignty movement helps protect food security in a time of climate change. “The more uniform our genetic pool is, the more vulnerable we are to all sorts of environmental stresses, and we know that with climate change there will be more of these stresses,” said Karine Peschard, a researcher at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. Encouraging a wide range of different crops ensures genetic diversity, which in turn provides resilience to climate change.
“Seeds are ultimately what feed us and the animals we eat,” Jack Kloppenburg, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a participant in the Open Source Seed Initiative, told DW. “Control over seeds is, in many ways, control over the food supply. The question of who produces new plant varieties is absolutely critical for the future of all of us.”
The global movement for seed sovereignty has been largely overlooked by corporate news media. The only mention of “seed sovereignty” found during review of this story was an article about home gardening and seed saving during the pandemic, published by the New York Times. Bayer’s global influence has been the subject of establishment news coverage, particularly after its 2018 acquisition of Monsanto. A 2019 Washington Post article noted that, as the 2020 presidential campaign developed, monopolies, including agribusiness mergers such as Bayer-Monsanto, were emerging “as major issues for Democrats” (see James Hohmann, “Monopolies, Mergers Emerge as Major Issues for Democrats,” Washington Post, April 2, 2019, A16). The Post’s coverage, however, focused on the domestic politics of the Democratic primaries, without any mention of global struggles over restrictive plant variety protections or threats to agricultural diversity.
The Open Source Seed Initiative was the subject of one recent, noteworthy feature: In June 2019 the New York Times published an article by Dan Barber, a professional chef and co-founder of a seed company. Noting that “seed oligarchies” are a “new thing,” Barber observed that Big Seed—Corteva, ChemChina, Bayer, and BASF—keeps “doubling down on a system of monocultures and mass distribution.” Barber’s important article advocated for seeds “not as software, but as living systems” and “the source of a new food revolution,” though his article focused on the United States and mentioned plant variety protection certificates only in passing. The Times featured his report as a (lavishly illustrated) opinion piece, rather than front-page news.
Charli Shield, “Seed Monopolies: Who Controls the World’s Food Supply?” DW (Deutsche Welle), April 8, 2021.
Student Researcher: Taylor Greene (San Francisco State University)
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Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen.