Beware the Corporate Takeover of Seed under Many Guises
The UK hosted a festival across the country to celebrate and honor the humble seed. In London, the Lambeth Garden Museum hosted farmers, growers, food sovereignty campaigners, artists and chefs for 2 days of workshops, talks, storytelling sessions...
October 22, 2014 | Source: Institute of Science in Society | by Dr Eva Sirinathsinghji
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The UK hosted a festival across the country to celebrate and honor the humble seed. In London, the Lambeth Garden Museum hosted farmers, growers, food sovereignty campaigners, artists and chefs for 2 days of workshops, talks, storytelling sessions, artists, games and film screenings. The festival acknowledged the importance of seeds and our responsibility to protect all their biodiversity from corporate theft if we are to protect the health of our children and the planet. The event rightfully acknowledged the growing community of small farmers and gardeners who are safeguarding thousands of years of knowledge in food production and seed saving still vital in feeding the world today. As stated in the recent UN Commission of Trade and Development report, small holder farming is what is needed to feed the growing global population, not industrial systems .
October is Food Sovereignty month, and October 16 was World Food Day, both coming at a time when recognizing the importance of the seed is more critical than ever.
Monopoly of seeds by a handful of corporations
In UK and much of the rest of Europe, the industrialized farming system means that farmers are no longer saving seed as they had done for millennia, maintaining local varieties and cultivating regional biodiversity. High yielding and hybrid varieties now dominate the market, designed for large-scale high input industrial farms. A 2005 study found that on the European seed market, 74 % of cauliflower varieties were hybrids, as were 80 % of carrots, 85 % of calabrese, 87 % of spinach, and 89 % of tomatoes . Hybrid seeds are not worth saving as the yield goes down after the first year of planting due to the loss of ‘hybrid vigor’, the increased yield of hybrid seeds from crossing two inbred varieties. These hybrids have replaced open-pollinated varieties. Seminis, a European seed company bought by Monsanto in 2004, had previously deleted 2000 open pollinated varieties from their stocks, but these varieties still remain available to Monsanto for their breeding programs.
Monopolisation of seed is not just a European issue but a global one, with international agritech giants buying out independent companies and leaving farmers with little choice but to purchase hybrid or genetically modified seeds in countries like the US. Monsanto bought 200 US independent seed companies over 10 years, with the corporation now estimated to own 23 % of the proprietary seed market (see  GM Crops Destroyed by Drought in US while non-GM varieties Flourish, SiS 56). A similar drive for seed monopoly is taking place in the African continent, with SeedCo, one of Africa’s largest home-grown seed companies being bought out by transnational corporations Limagrain, the biggest seed and plant breeding company in the EU. Limagrain is investing US$60 million for a 28 % stake in SeedCo . SeedCo has sold 49 % of its shares in Africa’s only cottonseed company Quton to the Indian company Mayco, a Monsanto subsidiary. Syngenta in 2013 took over Zambia’s MRI seed, which is said to have the most biodiverse collection of maize seed varieties in Africa. South Africa’s largest seed company Pannar Seed was recently taken over by Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont. These acquisitions of seed companies by a handful of corporate giants poses great threats not only to seed biodiversity, but also food sovereignty and people’s access to fresh foods, giving GM companies the chance to spread their patented seeds across the world.
Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont already own 53% of the global commercial seed market and the following legislative proposals and treaties are set to increase their monopoly .
Proposed changes to EU seed laws favor transnational seed corporations
Proposed changes to the EU seed laws (EU Plant and Reproductive Material Law) will further restrict the varieties of vegetables that can be saved and sold, threatening small and independent seed companies as well as small-medium scale commercial farmers. The proposed changes have been considered a gift to industry, allowing unrestricted marketing of patented seeds, favoring large companies with an expensive process of seed registration. A draft of the proposals was rejected earlier this year, and it is as yet uncertain what new drafts will be put on the table.
Patrick Mulvany, a policy adviser involved in the negotiations of the treaty said at the October 15 meeting in UK’s Houses of Parliament, “it’s not that we don’t want laws, but we want the right ones” for protecting biodiversity. Previous drafts of the proposals make clear that the legislation is designed for big industry which is being called the “consumer”, not small-medium commercial seed companies and farmers which would likely go out of business if the price for registering each seed variety is set at £2 000. New proposals also favor distinct, uniform and stable varieties such as hybrid seeds which due to their uniformity, are also the most vulnerable to unpredictable climate change and pest attacks. As Patrick later emphasized, “we need to re-imagine new rules that realize farmer’s rights and regulate industry”.
Biodiversity is also threatened by offsetting schemes that are supposed to charge companies for the biodiversity they destroy. This type of scheme not only encourages the destruction of land and biodiversity, but gives contentious green credentials to development strategies and companies that commodify nature and send out the message that nature is replaceable. As stated in an open letter to the EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik protesting the latest EU proposals for biodiversity in the region, signed by 67 organizations and over 9 000 people, it provides a ‘license to trash’ and the UK government has been quite open that it will speed up planning permissions . The UK government has already carried out small pilot schemes that have failed miserably, with not a single company involved making a single offset in the six counties that participated.