Seeds of revolution

Seeds: they are amazing. That these tiny things hold within themselves the complete potential for an enormous tree, beautiful flower or delicious vegetable is a wonder of nature and evolution.

That anyone can harvest a seed, plant it, and grow plants to feed themselves is an extraordinarily beautiful thing. Seeds are part of our heritage, our culture, our civilisation. Without the ability to cultivate plants from seed we’d never have formed agricultural societies, and without agricultural society you would not be reading this.

Seeds are integral to what it means to be a modern human; to how we feed ourselves, how we structure our societies, how we manage our land and other natural resources. Such tiny things are so critical to who we are and how we live.
Seeds are important, and they are under threat.

BeanSeeds

Loopy legislation

I’ve written before about how important crop diversity is. Why it matters to grow rare and heirloom vegetables, and to save seed to cultivate plants best suited to local conditions. The maintenance and continual evolution of plant genetic diversity is critical to food security, to making sure we can feed ourselves and future generations.
The science behind this is incontrovertible.

That’s why I was horrified to find out about the proposed EU regulation “On the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material” (aka the Plant Reproductive Material Law). Under the legislation[1], any seeds sold commercially must:

  • belong to an acceptable variety or clone that has been registered with the UN;
  • comply with the specific requirements adopted for the marketing category of that plant; and
  • comply with legislated labelling, handling, certification and identification requirements.

i.e. for an annual fee and a pile of paperwork, you can be permitted to sell your seeds. Maybe. If the government decides your plants meet the registered “definition” for that variety.

What does a plant definition mean anyway? That means the seeds can’t show much genetic deviation from the registered type specimen for that variety, retarding development of strains and varieties that suit local conditions. That means restricting genetic diversity and increasing susceptibility to disease and climatic changes.
Although these laws don’t apply to backyard gardeners like me, they do apply to anyone in the EU who grows plants or distributes seeds for commercial sale. That includes your market stall holder, local nursery, native plant suppliers and market gardeners[2].

Why does this bother me? Because we’re letting politicians decide what constitutes a valid variety of food plant; because we’re stifling innovation and local adaptation, and at the same time reducing plant diversity; because the law gives advantage to large corporations who can manage the administrative imposts and pay the registrations, not to mention lobby governments over the very definitions of “acceptable varieties”.

Copyrighting life

What sorts of corporations are involved in the business of seeds? Large multinationals like Monsanto, Dupont, Bayer and Syngenta: not exactly model corporate citizens (seriously, read the links).

Companies with have a track record of patenting plant genomes (making a food crop somehow “copyright”) and taking farmers to court who accidentally sow their seeds[3, 5,6]. Companies that deliberately push genetically modified (GM) crops that cannot be bred by farmers[4], forcing them to continue buying seed from Monsanto every year and preventing the development of new varieties and the adaption to local conditions.

Monsanto alone is alleged to have lodged 144 seed patent infringement lawsuits in the US thus far.[6]

These companies aren’t in the business of protecting biodiversity. They don’t believe fair and free access to seeds is a fundamental principle of human rights. For these corporations, the narrower the range of crops and the less adaptable the plant genetics, the more opportunities they have to make profits by developing and selling copy-righted seeds. If we lose our ability to develop and distribute locally-adapted and unusual varieties, we lose control of our food sources, we lose our ability to develop crops that suit our soils, climate and cultural traditions and grow dependent on the corporations to sell us patented seeds to feed ourselves. Patented seeds the farmer cannot harvest and re-sow, sold for maximum profit, from the narrow range of crops that these companies invest in.
That’s a pretty scary road to be travelling down.

SOS

Seedy science

The science of genetically modifying, or engineering, plant materials forms part and parcel of the debate about seeds. GM science gets all caught up in the politics and corporate sociopathy, but it’s vital to examine the science in its own right. The science of GM is neither good nor evil; it’s how it’s applied that determines that.

GM: genetically modified. What does that mean? It means humans have messed around with a plants genome, the DNA that codes how that plant grows, what nutrients it has, how sensitive it is to chemicals, how tolerant of certain conditions. The genome that is copied into a plant’s reproductive materials: its seeds. The agri-corporations are using GM science to develop plants that are resistant to specific herbicides, usually owned by the same company, like Monsanto’s Round-up and their GM “Roundup Ready” seeds.

GM science can also be used to develop crop strains that can be grown in new areas, places too dry, too wet, or with soil too poor to grow traditionally-bred varieties. It can be used to reduce reliance on fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, to increase crop yields, to improve nutrition and to develop plant resistance to famine-causing diseases.[4,7] The scientists working on GM foods are doing so because they see the science as a powerful tool for helping to feed a growing global population in an uncertain future, and maybe there’s a place for GM in the world-feeding toolbox. There’s just not when it’s in the hands of vested interests.

GM’s still a relatively new science too, and we’re not sure what the long term effects of GM foods might be. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on the science though: it means we should be cautious and make sure the long-term studies and trials are done before we leap into GM cropping. That’s not what’s happening though, with the agri-corps pressuring government to permit GM seeds on the market before these (costly, long-term) studies are done. GM might not be evil, but right now there are a lot of good arguments for caution and maintaining large agricultural areas that are completely areas GM-free.

So what does all this mean?

To me, all of this shows how important it is that the community is informed, aware and involved in the business and politics of seeds. It’s too big an issue to leave to the lobby groups and politicians: all of our futures are caught up in the incredible potential of seeds.

Concerned? Take the time to get informed and make sure your voice gets heard.

I’m keeping an eye on the EU legislation and have signed the international petitions against the proposed EU legislation here (AVAAZ) and here (Noah’s Ark Foundation).
I’m also paying attention to the discussions happening here in Australia around GM crops, agribusiness and associated legislation. Here in Tasmania our temporary ban on GM crops is due to expire next year[8], and there’s good reason to get involved in local action campaigning for a renewal.

Seeds belong to all of us. It is critical to the future of humanity that this remains the case: that we can breed, grow and freely trade the food plants that best suit our climates, cultures and local conditions to ensure a future where we’re all well fed.

Tatseedling

[1] The European Commission (2013) Proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council – On the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material (plant reproductive material law); European Commission, Brussels.
[2] Rabesandratana T (2003) Overhaul of E.U. Seed Regulations Triggers Protests; Science magazine; American Association for the Advancement of Science.
[3] Cornell University Law School (2013) Vernon Hugh Bowman v. Monsanto Company in first sale doctrine patent exhaustion infringement; Legal Information Institute, Cornell University.
[4] Kruft D (2001) Impacts of Genetically-Modified Crops and Seeds on Farmers; The Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center, Pennsylvania State University.
[5] Wikipedia: Monsanto Canada Inc. vs Schmeiser.
[6] Tepper R (2013) Seed Giants Sue U.S. Farmers Over Genetically Modified Seed Patents In Shocking Numbers: Report, Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com Inc.
[7] Walsh B (2013) Modifying the Endless Debate Over Genetically Modified Crops; Time Science & Space, Time Inc.
[8] DPIPWE (2009) Policy Statement: Gene technology and Tasmanian Primary Industries 2009-2014; Policy Division, Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Tasmanian Government.

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