May 6, 2009
An Alarming erosion of biodiversity
In one half-century, three quarters of crop biodiversity disappeared from the fields. The seeds have been locked in the vaults of gene banks where they are threatened with extinction in vast numerical information programmes. The seeding industry is the cause of and driving force behind this erosion of biodiversity, it cannot be the solution. The breeds which populate farmers’ fields are the solution: they alone allow plants to adapt to diverse and variable harvest conditions without relying on chemical fixes. We need to protect them by developing a legal framework respecting the rights of farmers (See article “Farmers rights to biodiversity”).
Seed houses: A local policy with universal benefits
Farm seeds are a common good. We inherit them from past generations and lend them to our children, to whom we owe them in their fullest diversity. No farmer could retain, breed, and produce all of their seeds, nor could they replant their fields if the preceding year was too poor. No breed is sustainable if it does not allow the seed to renew its diversity by changing soils, or through small exogenous interactions: there are no farm seeds without group effort. Seed houses, which are beginning to flourish everywhere, are the tool of this cooperative effort between farmers and horticulturalists. They are a common place where seeds are stored for one or several years; where we can share and support the work of maintaining lively collections of resources; where informal exchanges between farmers and horticulturalists are organised; and where the seed stock is managed collectively at the local level.
Collaborative Breeding: A win-win situation adapted to our earth
The acceleration of the erosion of crop biodiversity and the dislocations generated by globalisation and climate change necessitate an acceleration of collaborative breeding. More and more researchers are leaving their labs to work in the fields alongside farmers. Some pioneers have already taken this step without any support, often against the wishes of repressive institutions. Their confrontations with traditional knowledge, not scientific knowledge but very much pertinent and complimentary to the insights of science, sometimes compelled them to renounce academic certainties. Their own knowledge, their access to the resources of gene banks, and the links they create between farmers all amplify the efficiency of farm breeds. The first results are vindicating: in the absence of chemical substances, all varieties coming from collaborative breeding programs were more productive – especially under difficult conditions -, more nutritious and better suited to the needs and techniques of local farmers. The associated crops and agricultural techniques generate gross yields per hectare far greater than those of industrial monocultures.
Sharing the benefits: a ruse!
The only rights granted to farmers today are their individual rights: to become breeders to sell seeds, to register patents in order to exploit Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) or to share in the benefits with those who claim patents on their seeds. However, the rights of farmers are collective rights, not individual ones. They depend on the use of a seed and not on its ownership. International law stipulates that farm seeds do not have an owner. On the other hand, it authorises the submission of individual property titles different varieties and it allows for the appropriation of genetic resources by states. (See article “A Europe Without Intellectual Property Rights on Seeds). This expropriation of farmers allows the seed industry to amass billions of euros and dollars of profits. In 2008, in the midst of a farm crisis, the biotechnology multinationals announced record profits thanks to an exponential increase in seed and pesticide prices.
In order to make this theft acceptable, along with the juridical tools which make it possible (the patent; the new variety certificate, the catalogue), the seed industry promised to share the benefits with farmers. But “sharing the benefits” is but an illusion since an inalienable right to collective usage that remains unwritten does not stand up against individual and inalienable property rights. The rural communities which manage these usage rights have, for the most part, no juridical status that allows them to properly enjoy their right to collective usage. They also have no means of following all the patents submitted in all countries on the planet. Worse still, the absence of an obligation to disclose information detailing the resources used (to create a certain patented variety), negates all hope that farmers will be vindicated by sharing in the benefits of a new variety certificate. In the end, the seed industry uses resources that have been collected since before the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity and for which they have claimed to conserve the “common heritage of mankind.” They still have yet to share in the profits.
The Seed Industry’s Double Debt
The sharing of advantages is therefore balanced by a huge debt owed by the seed industry to millions of farmers that they borrowed all of these resources from without compensation. But the industry also owes a debt to future generations: like Total after the sinking of the Erika, it urgently needs to repair the damage it has done to crop biodiversity. The collective debt of the industry needs to compensate and repay these damages buy financing seed houses and developing collaborative breeding programs.
Levy a tax on the sale of seeds which cannot be freely reproduced, and earmark the money for the financing of seed houses and collaborative breeding programmes.
Challenge for Europe