Andreas Späth

Seeds belong to everyone

2014-05-05 08:29

Andreas Wilson-Späth

For the most part, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not my favourite invention of all time. In the case of, for example, genetically engineered agricultural seeds, I worry about the environmental impacts - the increased use of pesticides, the spread of herbicide-resistant "superweeds" and insecticide-resistant "superbugs", etc.

What I find even more disturbing is how large biotech corporations like Monsanto have been using the technology to control ever larger chunks of our food system.

Claiming the need to protect the huge sums they invest in the development of new GMO seeds, these companies don't allow farmers who buy their products to save seeds from one season to the next, a practice as old as agriculture itself. The seeds are patented – ie, they and their biological "blueprint" belong to the company even though nature did almost all of the work in creating them - and farmers are legally required to buy new seeds for every planting season.

The global seed market has seen massive "consolidation" in recent decades, with fewer and fewer companies controlling larger and larger proportions of commercial seed supplies. This doesn't just include GMO seeds, but also proprietary non-GMO varieties of hybrid seeds.

Foundation of our civilisation

In addition, the companies that sell farmers their patented seeds are increasingly the same companies that supply them with the agrochemicals necessary to grow them. They are also the companies that fund and hence control much of the biotech research that happens in supposedly public university labs.

Take a step back and consider the enormity of the problem. The process of growing food crops from seed is at the very foundation of our civilisation. We literally can’t survive without it.

Nowadays, a small number of powerful and hugely profitable global companies are in control of large portions of not only the seed business, but our entire food production system. What used to be a common good - the right to freely use, re-use, breed, improve and sell seeds that you grew yourself - is being turned into a privately owned enterprise protected and restricted by licences, intellectual property rights and patents.

But not everyone is taking this assault on our food and seed sovereignty lying down. Knowing that biodiversity in seed crops is vital (it's what breeders go back to when they need to develop novel varieties that can stand up to new pests etc.) agricultural communities have been sharing and exchanging seeds for millennia and they continue to do so at seed swap meets to the present day. There are also organisations, like Seed Savers Exchange in the USA, that specialise in preserving and distributing a great variety of so-called heirloom vegetable seeds.

Then there are seed banks which make it their business to conserve as many different seeds for future generations as possible. The most well-know are the Millennium Seed Bank Project located outside London which has already amassed more than a billion seeds from over 30 000 plant species and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen.

But your average gardener or farmer can't exactly walk into a global seed bank and make a withdrawal. Access to a variety of seeds is becoming more and more difficult. Which is why a project recently launched at University of Wisconsin is quite an interesting development.

Preserving seed diversity

The Open Source Seed Initiative just released its first batch of seeds under its Open Source Seed Pledge, which allows anyone to use, breed, improve, share and sell the seeds without restrictions, as long as they make all subsequent seeds produced available to everyone on the same basis.

Modelled on the open source software movement, which was started to allow universal access to the source code of computer programmes and has since expanded to a variety of things from open source cellphones to open source beer and cola recipes, the initiative aims to preserve seed diversity, promote co-operation and sharing in a more just and sustainable food system, and keep seeds in the public domain.

It’s a modest proposal to counter a disturbing global trend, but it’s one worth supporting. Let’s hope that it’ll grow into a real alternative to the sterile monopoly of a handful of multinational seed giants.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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