New Internationalist

Seed savers

Issue 435

The bad news is that giant ‘life science’ corporations have been gobbling up the world market in seeds. The good news, says David Ransom, is that peasant farmers who save their own seeds can, and do, still feed the world.

Wakehurst Place is a stately house set in majestic grounds; the rural offshoot of Kew Botanic Gardens, London. On a working day in summer, pensioners drift through the shade of exotic trees, sniff scented blooms, sip tea, gaze out over bucolic bliss.

RBG Kew
Michael Way collecting for the Millennium Seed Bank. RBG Kew

‘Minus 20 degrees,’ says Michael Way, Head of Collecting at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Project at Wakehurst. He’s indicating heavy doors off an airlocked dry-room sunk deep into the ground beneath a gigantic modernist shed. Here are preserved seed samples of some 26,000 plant species from around the world, many of them endangered.

The Project says of itself: ‘The need for an insurance policy is immediate and growing in urgency… The global number of plant species is projected to be reduced by 10 to 15 per cent as the result of habitat loss alone over the period 1970-2050.’1

Michael Way has spent years collecting seeds from the Americas and is not unduly alarmed. When I suggest to him that the bank resembles an Ark, he’s reluctant to agree. ‘There’s so much going on out there,’ he says, ‘so many more people with the right expertise around the world.’ But he adds in passing: ‘There are 20,000 edible plant species – just a few are cash crops. It’s… mad.’

A mighty private research effort goes into the shrinking number of plant species exploited as commercial crops, ‘monocultures’ rapidly displacing everything else – and the results remain a closely guarded secret. A relatively tiny public research effort goes into saving the enormous number of other plant species – though the results are for the benefit of all.

This can be a source of frustration, Michael Way admits. But it is also a reminder that there’s much more to seeds than their usefulness to people alone. All half-million or so of the world’s remaining plant species are integral to a process of evolution which we ignore or destroy at our peril. All life on land relies on the continued regeneration of plants, the bountiful reproduction of seeds.

Kew has its own history of entanglement with narrow commercial interests, not least with the ambitions of the British Empire – the legendary smuggling of rubber plants from their native Amazon to Malaysia, part of a lucrative trade that also took coffee from Ethiopia to Latin America, cocoa from Mexico to West Africa. The very traits that made seeds so plentiful, able to survive for long periods, travel great distances, adapt to new environments and hitch a lift with whatever came their way, also prompted a history of human greed, piracy, bad faith and mistrust that persists to this day. Michael Way must now pursue his work through a thicket of legal restrictions. History teaches lessons and makes a difference, though it is not always a positive one.

Sharp corner

Well, would you ever knowingly have consigned your food supply to the people who gave us lethal dioxins and Agent Orange – the defoliant sprayed on the Vietnamese people by the US military in the 1970s, followed soon afterwards by a spate of terrible birth defects? Would you have entrusted your daily bread to a business that started with gunpowder and went on to build the world’s first plutonium factory? Or to the heirs of the people who supplied Zyklon B gas to the Nazis for their extermination camps?

In just the past decade or so, three giant chemical corporations (Monsanto, DuPont and Bayer respectively) have taken control of close to half of the world’s commercial crop-seed market.2 Following the conventions of corporate globalization, they aim to corner the world’s food supply, which relies entirely on seeds. So people who know most about poison and death and next to nothing about the culture of agriculture now pretend to know best how to feed the world (see page 18).

Before 1993 Monsanto, for example, had shown little interest in seeds. It was making Roundup, a chemical herbicide (weedkiller). But it was also investing heavily in genetic modification (GM). It reckoned that if the genes of cash crops, like soybean, could be modified to resist Roundup, which would kill everything else, then farmers would need little inducement to buy ‘Roundup Ready’ seeds.3

One by one, the chemical giants rebranded themselves as ‘life-science’ corporations and bathed themselves in heroic, humanitarian eco-techno-babble

By 1993, after a long and alarmingly haphazard series of experiments, Monsanto had its first Roundup Ready GM soybean. It acquired other assets too. Genes could now be patented under US law. In 1995 the World Trade Organization came bearing agreements to enforce similar laws worldwide. Better still, genes could be traced. So Monsanto could claim ownership over any seeds in which its patented genes appeared, anywhere in the world. With the force of law, farmers could be stopped from saving Roundup Ready seeds and required to buy from Monsanto year on year. Seeds began to look like very good business indeed, and it was well worth spending $30 million annually on security to put the fear of Monsanto into farmers.

But it was not a seed company, and that hurt. So, between 1996 and 1998, the corporation all but bankrupted itself, spending some $8 billion on buying up seed companies around the world – as the area covered by Roundup Ready GM soybeans in the US exploded, from half a million to ten million hectares. By 2005 Monsanto was the largest conventional seed merchant in the world; and almost all GM crops worldwide contained Monsanto genetic traits.

Not to be entirely out-flanked, in 1999 the rival chemical giant DuPont paid $7.7 billion for what was then still the world’s biggest seed company – Pioneer Hi-Bred. One by one, the chemical giants rebranded themselves as ‘life-science’ corporations and bathed themselves in heroic, humanitarian eco-techno-babble. They had increased the yields of crops and – after a manner – fed the growing human population. They, and ‘their’ technology, were in not just the best but the only position to feed the world from now on.

Another story

They had not, however, genetically modified themselves, nor yet been able to rewrite a rather different history. A billion small farmers still save their own seeds – and produce most of the world’s food. The largest study of its kind, involving nearly 9 million farmers, covering 200 projects on 28 million hectares in 52 countries, indicates that crop yields increase on average by 73 per cent under small-scale, sustainable methods, and that ‘sustainable practices can lead to substantial increases in per-hectare food production’.4 There are better options than corporate monoculture, but they have simply been dismissed, if not ignored altogether.

Daniel Munoz / Reuters
Tribute to the earth – women of the Arhuacos people pick seeds during the annual summer solstice ceremonies in Nabusimake, Colombia. Daniel Munoz / Reuters

‘Sustainable’ can, of course, mean anything. But in this context it means something quite specific: not following industrial agriculture, which consumes a third of the world’s depleted reserves of fossil fuels, down a road that leads to extinction. And it means not relying on monocultures of a few staple crops, which increase genetic vulnerability – when only genetic and cultural diversity stand any chance whatever of adapting to runaway climate change.

In 2009 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization – often accused of undue closeness to corporate interests – published an authoritative report on genetic resources. It said: ‘Through the continuing shift to commercial agriculture, much of the diversity that still exists remains under threat… With the disappearance of lifestyles and languages across the globe, a large amount of knowledge about crops and varieties is probably being lost, and with it much of the value of the genetic resources themselves.’5 Cultural diversity matters too.

You would hardly imagine so, judging from the ruthless land-grabs currently afflicting Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Government of Ethiopia, for example, has surreptitiously signed away leases on a million hectares of land for foreign agro-enterprise investors – the kind of move being actively promoted by the World Bank. Some of it is in the province of Gambella, a fertile area that is home to the Anuak nation, who practise an intricate form of cultivation, pastoralism, hunting and gathering. They are simply being evicted. Thousands of Anuaks now live in exile in Sudan and elsewhere. In 2003, on the pretext of ‘anti-terrorism’, the Ethiopian army invaded Gambella and killed 400 Anuak men. More military contingents are being sent there now, and a curfew has been imposed.6

Nor has the promise of corporate monoculture, for small farmers in particular, been fulfilled. There may be a brief bonanza when ‘modern’ methods are introduced; but all too often it is followed by eroded soils, destroyed soil fertility, an insatiable demand for yet more chemicals, more fresh water from degraded supplies – only, in the end, to produce declining yields, if not bankruptcy. The true scale of the disaster of genetically modified cotton, for example, has been clear for far too long already.7 When, in 2007, food riots erupted around the world, those at the sharp end of agriculture can have been surprised only that they had not erupted before.

But perhaps most striking of all has been the rise of peasant resistance movements, such as the Landless Movement (MST) in Brazil, now brought together across continents, North and South, with remarkable agility by Vía Campesina (see page 12). As their name suggests, they demand respect for the peasant way of life.

Put things right

Those of us who know little about seeds must now think afresh. We must listen to stories about peasant cultures, like those from India (page 8) and Africa (page 14), with renewed respect and an appreciation of the subtle wisdom that grows only at the pace of nature itself. We must also do what we can to put things right – and soon.

First, land reform. Diversity cannot flourish (and seeds will never be saved from extinction) unless peasant farmers finally come to control the land they work. Landlessness, so wasteful of human skill and energy, so degrading of rural life, remains to be eradicated. The latifundistas (big landowners) of Latin America, for example, habitually devote far less effort to making their vast estates fully productive than to beating landless peasant farmers off them.

A billion small farmers still save their own seeds – and produce most of the world’s food

Second, vital knowledge about seeds, their cultivation and preservation, is held largely by women. This says less about the stereotypical nature of women than about the culture of agriculture, where women play a leading role almost everywhere. So Vía Campesina confounds the inheritance of rural patriarchy by working for the liberation of women too.

Third, if even half the resources (including government subsidies) currently lavished on corporate monoculture were used to promote sustainable food production instead, then human ingenuity might finally make rural life less laborious, more rewarding than it currently is. What, after all, could be more valuable? Why should those who produce food remain among the most oppressed on earth? Politics and policies must promote what Vía Campesina styles ‘food sovereignty’.

Finally, we can learn from the natural history of seeds themselves. Whatever it was that made them so generous and bountiful, so attentive and amenable to the needs of other life forms, it most certainly was not Monsanto. Wherever you may live, you can still study, collect, exchange, plant, nurture, harvest and celebrate them. You’ll be amply rewarded with nourishment, pleasure, wonder – and, along the way, you’ll be digging up the road to extinction as well.

  1. Millennium Seed Bank Project, A Global Network for Plant Preservation, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 2010.
  2. ETC Group, Who Owns Nature? Corporate power and the final frontier in the commodification of life, November 2008.
  3. Most of this account of Monsanto relies on Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto, Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 2010.
  4. Jules Pretty and Rachel Hine, ‘Empirical Findings of SAFE-World Project’, in Reducing Food Poverty with Sustainable Agriculture, Centre for Environment and Society, University of Essex, 2001.
  5. UN Food and Agriculture Organization, State of the World’s Genetic Resources, Rome, 2009.
  6. ‘Land Grabs Threaten Anuak,’ an interview with Nyikaw Ochalla in Seedling magazine, April 2010.
  7. See, for example, NI 399, April 2007.

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