For thousands of years of human agriculture, farmers freely exchanged and shared seeds. Today, four corporations control the majority of the world’s seeds. These staggering monopolies dominate the global food supply. Two of these corporations, Bayer and Corteva, are major producers of genetically modified (GM) and bioengineered seeds, and they claim property rights for their seeds, including agreements with farmers that prohibit them from saving seeds from their crops to sow again the following year.
The seed varieties that ordinary farmers develop and those handed down through generations are genetically diverse and continually evolving. In addition to GM seeds, these diverse varieties are being strictly controlled by another type of intellectual property legislation called Plant Variety Protection.
According to the World Health Organization, all of the world’s nations are required to establish a form of legislation to protect different plant varieties. Many countries are fulfilling this requirement by joining the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), which encourages innovation through new plant varieties and provides freedom to commercialize their own diverse selection of plants. Although this sounds promising, the UPOV’s criteria are extremely prohibitive because commercial seeds must be genetically distinct, uniform, and stable. By contrast, most seeds self-produced by farmers are none of these and are therefore rejected by the UPOV.
Furthermore, Plant Variety Protection laws, “forbid the sale—and often, the sharing—of seeds that have not been certified to meet [these] standards,” Charli Shield reported. The only remaining option is to buy seeds from corporate agribusinesses. And that means more and more of the world’s food relies on less and less genetic diversity. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 75 percent of the world’s crop varieties disappeared between 1900 and 2000. The more uniform our genetic pool is, the more vulnerable we are to all sorts of environmental stresses, including climate change. Narrowing down biodiversity could result in grave consequences for future food security.
Countries are not legally obligated to join the UPOV but the United States, Canada, member states of the European Union, and other nations, are encouraging a wave of “neo-colonial agriculture” by pressuring countries such as Zimbabwe and India to join. This would compromise agricultural systems and biodiversity in these and other countries.
Industrialized agriculture—which maximizes yield at the expense of biodiversity and ecology—is often justified by the argument that we have to feed the world. Critics say imposing uniform rules on a global scale ultimately means forcing the industrial farming that dominates Europe and the US onto parts of the world where food is still largely produced by smaller-scale, more sustainable farms. Switching to standardized seeds changes whole agricultural systems.
Perhaps people should simply be allowed to feed themselves. Around the world, food sovereignty movements such as the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture in India, the Third World Network in Southeast Asia, Let’s Liberate Diversity! in Europe, and the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), are advocating for seed networks that allow farmers and communities to bypass the corporate agribusiness giants and manage seeds on their own terms.
Source: Charli Shield, “Seed Monopolies: Who controls the world’s food supply?,” Deutsche Welle (DW), April 8, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/agriculture-seeds-seed-laws-agribusinesses-climate-change-food-security-seed-sovereignty-bayer/a-57118595.
Student Researcher: Taylor Greene (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)