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Seeds, sustainability, and food sovereignty: Why ‘seed privatisation’ should matter to food brands

Article-Seeds, sustainability, and food sovereignty: Why ‘seed privatisation’ should matter to food brands

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Food and ingredient manufacturers may be unwittingly supporting “a system of global seed privatisation” with just four companies controlling half of the global seed market, says the NGO, A Growing Culture. The result is endangered communities and reduced agricultural genetic diversity, it says.

With legislation like the EU's Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive on the horizon, supply chain transparency is a huge focus for the food industry right now. But best practices only go as far as mitigating the human rights and environmental risks at a farmer level - they don’t extend to looking at whether seed producers are subject to corporate exploitation.

“Right now, there is so little value placed on seeds, and little recognition of the fact they are the foundation of agriculture. Companies will talk about how their crops are grown - they’ll say they don’t use tillage or chemical fertilisers, for example - but they don’t talk about seeds. I think that is where we need to be a lot more interested,” Justin Sardo, creative coordinator at A Growing Culture, told this publication.

What is seed privatisation?

The reason Sardo believes the industry should be taking more of an interest in seed provenance is because it is unwittingly supporting a system of “seed privatisation” that he claims is undermining the fundamental right of farmers to use and sell farm-saved seeds, and in doing so, is endangering communities and agricultural genetic diversity.

He said that the entity responsible for this situation is the Union of Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV), a treaty body headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. UPOV administers an international system of intellectual property (IP) rights that are designed to protect plant breeders’ rights and encourage innovation in agriculture through the development of new varieties of plants. Seventy-eight countries around the world have adopted the convention.

On its website, UPOV states that its mission is to “provide and promote an effective system of plant variety protection, with the aim of encouraging the development of new varieties of plants, for the benefit of society”.

Sardo sees its activities differently, however. He argues that UPOV serves the interests of four seed companies, who, together, control half of the global seed market, and restrict farmers’ rights by outlawing seed-saving practices.

There didnt used to be a private seed industry; this is a relatively recent phenomenon,” he said. “For thousands of years, farmers saved seeds to be able to have the most nutritious, high yielding seeds for their local environments. Seeds have always been most fertile and genetically diverse when in the hands of communities with the freedom to reproduce them.”

Corporate consolidation means a loss of genetic diversity

Sardo said that the more corporate consolidation has come into play, the less genetic diversity there is.

“In the past century we have lost more than 75% of agricultural genetic diversity for crops; it has reached the point where today we are relying on just a small number of varieties,” he said. “Corporations claim that they are improving fertility and biodiversity, yet throughout history we have seen that when communities can reproduce their own seeds freely and at virtually no cost, there is a way more extensive genetic pool.”

And Sardo maintains that it is no coincidence that the “productive” seeds developed by these large corporations are dependent on the heavy use of agrochemicals, produced by those same companies.

“Farmers are not only locked into using the seeds but also the chemicals that are needed to grow them,” he said.

He added that one of the aspects of UPOV that is “most worrisome” is that it criminalises seed-saving practices with hefty fines and even imprisonment for farmers.

A Growing Culture isn’t alone in his views either. At the end of last year, over 260+ civil society organisations denounced UPOV in a global statement.

There have been some uprisings against UPOV. Sardo cited civil society resistance to the adoption of UPOV in Indonesia and public protests to the so called ‘Monsanto Law’ by farmers and indigenous people in Guatemala as two examples.

Fighting for food sovereignty

A Growing Culture’s focus is on mobilising and connecting communities to fight for food sovereignty through its Seed is Power fund.

“For us the push is for food sovereignty, which is about recognising the rights of communities to design and influence their own food systems in ways that enable them to grow whilst enhancing the wellbeing of their people, livelihoods and lands,” said Sardo.

Other organisations are working to maintain seed sovereignty through targeted projects too. In the US, some examples of these are: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Row 7 Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, Ujamaa Seeds and Johnny's Selected Seeds.

Asked whether food and ingredient manufacturers could have an impact by boycotting certain seeds or working directly with farmers and communities on seed sourcing, Sardo replied: “Sadly, I would say that no change is going to come from big food companies. Ultimately, they are so deeply bound up in this system that they have to generate profit for their shareholders.”

No scope for substantive change

He added that to make any substantive change, a company would need to decide to be part of a different economic system.

“I think as long as our food system is so interwoven with an infinite growth model that prioritises profit maximisation over anything else, we will only ever see marginal accountability. True accountability would involve redistributing power and ownership back to communities so that they would once again have control over how they grow food for themselves. As long as we have these giant corporate monoliths deciding how we get fed, we’re not going to be able to have a say in whether that is exploitative or not.”

According to Sardo, there were some immediate fixes that could have some impact, such as “trust busting” of corporations and government action to break up industry oligopolies.

However, he was not optimistic that the latter was likely.

“The trouble is that the power these corporations wield is incredible. They have superseded governments in lots of ways. I think there is a need to reclaim the role of governments to not be coerced by corporations and to represent the interests of the people,” he said.

He said that if food and ingredient companies are concerned about the UPOV convention, the most important thing they can do is to be cognisant of the realities of the system they are part of.

“I think UPOV has flown under the radar because it is so full of legalese, but it has these very big implications. Ultimately, the seed is everything in agriculture.”