Marcello Cappellazzi

Revolve Media Researcher

5 February 2015

nature Feature

This featured in our quarterly magazine. Support independent journalism.

Subscribe today!
Seeds – The Battle For Sustainable Agriculture
5 February 2015
Marcello Cappellazzi | Revolve Media Researcher

nature Feature by RevolveTeam

One of the key challenges we are now facing in the quest for a more sustainable future is the way we produce food. Even though food production is inherently complex and diversified across the globe, its sources have narrowed over time. The exponential diffusion of modern and highly uniform commercial varieties of seeds has reduced our food supply’s source to a mere 120 species of cultivated plants. This has not been a natural process of agricultural specialisation, but rather the result of an economic and political agenda pushed forward since the ’60s. Also referred to as the Green Revolution, this political agenda comprises the promotion of an evolving set of agricultural practices and technologies applied to increase yields and boost production, especially through the combination of improved hybrid or GMO seeds, agro-chemicals and infrastructural investments.

While its goals and methods evolved over time, few private companies have been the constant supplier of the inputs necessary to trigger the Green Revolution. As the global uptake of Green Revolution practices spread, significant losses in sustainability followed. Despite the negative impacts, the practices continue to garner support from governments and agencies worldwide, largely due to the growing political and economic power of the multi-national corporations that supply the inputs. This has become especially evident in the international seed sector. The same corporations manufacturing the chemical inputs now own internationally recognized patents on thousands of plant varieties themselves, limiting farmers access to seed worldwide. Our global resources for biodiversity are severely threatened as more power becomes concentrated in the hands of fewer corporations because they literally own the seeds of our food system.

Seed industry: more profits, less biodiversity

For thousands of years, the stewards of the agricultural system have been the world’s farmers. As Michael Sligh of the Rural Advancement Foundation International USA (RAFI-USA) explains, breeding of seed and livestock varieties has been done by farmers for 12,000 years, and it is only in recent history that institutions such as companies or publicly funded universities began to take over that role. When a seed is grown out in a field, it experiences climate changes, soil quality and other localized challenges. As the farmer selects the best performing plants and saves their seeds for the next year, the variety is adapted over time to the unique circumstances of that location. Farmers may also cross varieties with others to combine good characteristics and improve the performance. In general, this system of breeding is referred to today as the informal system of breeding. Most of the world’s seed is still grown, saved, and bred on 1.2 billion  small farms today, especially in the global south, which is where most of the world’s plant diversity comes from.

Breeding of seed and livestock varieties has been done by farmers for 12,000 years, and it is only in recent history that institutions such as companies or publicly funded Universities began to take over that role.

However, recent history has revealed major changes in the global seed sector. Most significantly, there has also been a progressive concentration of the companies providing the seeds. According to a recent study from ETC Action Group, ten companies have a worldwide market share of 62% in the seed industry, five of them also produce agro-chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides. “The obstacle to public ownership of plant and animal breeds is corporate concentration, it’s the private sector,” says Pat Mooney, Director of the ETC Group. “The biggest success of the private sector has been to move the public sector out of breeding.”

Source: Shutterstock

Fewer and fewer seed companies are supplying the international market, while the demand of agricultural inputs from farmers is constantly increasing. The combination approach of selling “improved” hybrid or GMO seeds with the necessary chemical inputs from the same company is a profitable scheme for the companies and Michael Sligh of the Rural Advancement Foundation International USA (RAFI-USA) describes it as an attempt “to extend the window of the petrochemical era through the use of both patents and genetic engineering”. In fact, biotechnology has recently become a driver of market concentration, especially in the USA both thanks to the advanced technological infrastructure required for the breeding and the high level of protection granted by patents on genetically engineered seeds. The promise of higher yields to fight hunger has pushed indigenous communities away from locally available seeds that performed well, towards improved seeds that can only perform with high input level and an adequate infrastructure, thus requiring important capital investments.

The result is that increasingly farmers in the global South face dependency on the technical inputs provided by few multinational companies. This constitutes a significant problem in terms of equity and social justice. Furthermore the process of substituting locally diverse plant varieties with uniform commercial ones has eroded the biodiversity, cultural knowledge and the resilience of agriculture in these critical global South centers for biodiversity.

Turkey, especially its southern regions, has traditionally been wealthy in diversity of plant varieties, home to many unique in the world. However, “the traditional seeds have been switched for company seeds rapidly in the last 25 years,” says Mehmet Gurmen of Bugday Association in Istanbul. “Today the use of local varieties have reduced down to 3% in wheat species, and around 2% in general covering all types of production in Turkey.” The seeds used in most of Turkish production have come from International companies, an approach generally supported by the Turkish government and seen as a boost for the export economy. In addition to the loss of farmers’ rights and choice in the marketplace, this transition has a drastic effect on available diversity. As Michael Sligh explains, “if it’s not in the field, it’s not being used, and if it’s not being used eventually it will not be viable.” In other words, as farmers in the global south transition away from local varieties, many lose their useful characteristics because they are not continually selected, or they are simply lost forever.

In 1992 this risk was recognised at the international level and 168 nations, except for the USA, signed on to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The objectives of this agreement are to promote the conservation of biological diversity and the “fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources”.  The seed companies, mostly based in Europe and the USA, have in fact benefited from improving plant varieties mostly originating from the global South. Then in 2001, the International Treaty on Plant and Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) recognised the interdependence between countries and regions that can benefit from sharing their germplasm, but in doing so it set some rules for protecting the farmers’ right to save and re-use seeds, as well as measures to allow the sharing of the benefits arising from the use of a plant variety. However, the lack of enforcement resulted in a limited impact of the Convention and the International Treaty (ITPGRFA) on the international seed market, while other international agreements are constantly being developed to endure the ownership that private companies have on genetic material and on the technologies used to manipulate it. These are either granted by the recognition of intellectual property based on he Plant Variety Protection Act’ s statute approved in the US in 1970, or by the use of utility patents on biological material as allowed by the US Supreme court.

International Trade Agreements: beyond the acronyms

The principle of regulating the seed sector is part of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement on property right, stating that members are required to put in place a patent-like system to protect privately owned seeds. While in the US the ownership of biological material or processes can be protected by patents, most of the other countries do not allow biological patents. In those cases, plant breeders’ rights are being recognised through the registration of a plant variety with reference to the model implemented by the Plant Variety Protection Act approved by the US government in 1970. The registration implies that the variety is connected to one breeder, and gives that breeder the ability to establish a patent or other form of licensing to obtain royalties for the use of that seed.

Sowing a participatory research plot or “biodiversity garden” in Cusco highlands. Source: Iñigo Maneiro/AGROECO Project

In order for a seed variety to be registered, international agreement had to be reached on what constituted a “variety.” Criteria were developed establishing that a variety must be new and distinguishable from other registered varieties, uniform and stable across generations (DUS). The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) developed these principles in form of Seed Schemes for the certification of seed. These certifications are the basic requirement for issuing import and export certificates which facilitate seed trade. Yet another agency, the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA) has set the standard procedures for seed sampling and testing in order to comply with the OECD Seed Schemes. Ultimately the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) provides intellectual proprietary protection to those breeders that are interested in benefiting from this liberalised international market of an estimated US$ 42 billion.

Given the high level of regulation and the interests at stake in the seed sector, the ineffectiveness of the ITPGRFA is not surprising. The UPOV system plays an important role in protecting breeders’ rights, but in doing so fails to recognise the importance of farmers’ rights to save, select and exchange seeds, especially considering the latest version of UPOV signed in 1991. The previous version, signed in 1978, had a more limited scope in protecting plant varieties and allowed more freedom for both farmers and breeders to use privately owned genetic material. In the current legislation, which is now the only possibility for countries interested in joining UPOV today, national governments must decide whether farmers are allowed to collect, save and re-use registered seeds and whether breeders are allowed or not to improve privately owned varieties. This is the reason why several countries in South America as well as Canada, Italy, South Africa, China and many others decided not to upgrade their seed laws to meet the UPOV-91 standards. The end result is a patchwork of legislation that allows different degrees of freedom to farmers and breeders for accessing germplasm and developing new varieties.

Identifying seeds in a Farmer Field School on organic potato farming (Huancco Pillpinto, Calca, Cusco, Peru). Source: Iñigo Maneiro/AGROECO Project

UPOV also sets the conditions for marketing, both at the domestic and international level, which seed breeders are able to register. In order to be granted breeders’ rights, the plant must be proven to be distinguishable (unique) and its genotype uniform (homogeneous) and stable over time. The direct result of this requirement is that mostly commercial varieties and hybrids are registered, because these can more easily be made to perform consistently in conventional agricultural conditions in combination with the use of fertilisers and pesticides. This not only keeps the vast majority of plant varieties out of UPOV’s scope, but also downplays the potential that the informal sector of breeding and seed development can have.  Furthermore, farmers have a hard time accessing the bureaucratic processes of registration, thus UPOV is predominantly accessed by the formal breeding system. UPOV is thus a mechanism that excludes farmers and informal or traditional breeders from the seed market, and reinforces the power and profit of companies.

Alternative plant breeding: organic, public and participatory

The current system for breeding improved seed varieties just does not work for everyone, and especially not for organic farmers. An organic farmer planting commercially available seeds has a comparative disadvantage with farmers producing under conventional conditions. because the seeds on the market have been tested in combination with the use of chemicals. For example, an organic grower not only has an higher tolerance for genetic diversity in his or her crop population, but might also be interested in exploiting the dynamism of plant breeding rather than producing in a static system, traits which are not supported in the formal system of plant breeding. For this reason the current dominant model of plant breeding not only limits the viability of organic farming, but it denies its critical role for agricultural biodiversity conservation. As noted by Roberto Ugas, Professor at the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, the gastronomic sector has preserved and re-discovered the potential of traditional seeds. The recovery of traditional varieties and their improvement can benefit this sector, but  “restaurants themselves can’t manage a large diversity in their kitchens.” Therefore, by finding other ways to promote a more diversified agricultural system, organic farming could lead this process and benefit from it.

There are several examples of pioneers in the organic sector that have created alternative channels for accessing seeds adapted to their needs. This has been the case of MASIPAG, a farmers’ network in the Philippines that collected and preserves more than a thousand varieties of rice. By training farmers to do their own rice breeding and work together in a network, they have developed new organic rice varieties tolerant to flood, draught, saltwater and pests. These achievements also demonstrate the key role that organic farming and participatory breeding can have to fight and adapt to climate change. In order for more communities to have the success of MASIPAG, having full access to the germoplasm is of key importance.

The predominant approach to preserving genetic resources has been to collect samples in national or international gene banks and preserve them ex-situ under cold storage conditions. The limited amount of genetic material collected and the difficulty to grow it out due to the changing environmental conditions reduces the potential of biodiversity conservation to a purely seed saving initiative. The conservation of traditional varieties can only be achieved through a continuous adaptation of the seeds to their environment and with full access to the germoplasm stored in the seed banks. In India, organizations such as the GREEN Foundation are leading the way with the development of community level seed banks that are participatory and farmer-controlled. Part of the success of this initiative is because India has decided not to sign on the UPOV, thus seed laws are more flexible and allow more rights to farmers. In fact, farmers can register a seed in their own name or in the name of their community, making it more difficult for others to profit from it without the consent of the farmers. Examples like this are reminders of the key importance for farmers not only to have access, but also to play a role in the restoration of the community ownership of seeds.

The EU:  a seed law laboratory

The European Union is leading the world in the direction of the recognition of breeders’ rights in its territories and abroad. In compliance with UPOV standards the commercial seeds to be marketed in the EU must be registered in the EU Common Catalogue of seeds and must be certified to OECD standards by the official authorities in the Member States. For arable crops (e.g., cereals, potato, maize, canola) there is an additional requirement needed before commercialisation, which is the testing of the value of cultivation and use (VCU) of these agricultural species. This test takes into account the productivity of a variety under conventional high input farming conditions and allows the commercialisation of only those that perform above the average. The result is a yield-based focus, and a process that generally accommodates the needs of seed companies and conventional farmers, but curbs the potential of organic breeders.

The legislation has allowed exception for traditional varieties to account for the conservation of genetic diversity, but has allowed their cultivation and use only in their territory of origin, so called “conservation varieties”. This means heirloom and traditional varieties have been restricted to use only in their local regions, and that farmers cannot legally exchange these seeds with other interested farmers outside the territory. In 2013 a new legislation was proposed to reform and harmonise the seed market in the EU. In its proposal the Commission envisioned a system for facilitating the registration of plant varieties that were previously considered exceptions.

Several elements of the proposal recognised the needs for a more flexible certification system that could have benefited organic producers, for example by allowing different standards for testing or exempting niche markets from the registration requirement. However, the proposed system implicitly denied farmers’ rights to participate in plant breeding since it was geared towards ensuring the recognition of breeders’ rights on all the material entering the seed market. The seed companies, already in a dominant position compared to the other operators, would have been granted a strict control over the whole European agricultural sector, without having to share the benefit of using the genetic material preserved and improved by farmers over time. The European Parliament eventually rejected the proposal under the pressure from civil society organisations and seed savers associations, but the process revealed the strong trends in the EU toward breeders’ rights and a profit-oriented registration system, and away from farmers’ rights.

The agriculture of the future

There is a discord between the multiple different voices in the debate around seeds. As Michael Sligh explained, “The seed savers don’t want the plant breeders to improve the heirloom varieties, the farmers want to save the seeds, and the breeders need some way to recoup the costs of doing the breeding work.” In the EU, the public debate following the Commission proposal for a seed law has strengthened the  seed savers’ agenda for biodiversity conservation. This, according to Monika Messmer from FiBL, Research Institute for Organic Agriculture in Switzerland, has lead to the false belief that no new varieties are needed since traditional ones are already available to organic farmers. This is an oversimplified argument, as instead old varieties often low yielding and need to be improved through breeding in order to adapt to changed environmental conditions and new pests. Organic breeders are very much aware of the needs of organic farmers and develop new cultivars especially suited for low input conditions as an alternative to varieties bred for high input systems. The main goal of the European Consortium of Organic Plant Breeding (ECO-PB) is to provide organic farmers with a more diversified supply of seeds.

However, the regulatory system does not allow for the fair and participatory process of breeding that is needed to promote sustainable agriculture today. The UPOV regulatory framework is being pressured to allow the use of registered plant material for breeding operations, thus making germplasm available for private companies to benefit from it. This scenario is different from that envisioned by ITPGRFA since farmers and indigenous communities would be further marginalised and their rights to participate in the breeding of new plant varieties would be further neglected.

Minnesota farmer Martin Diffley in a field of ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ organic sweet corn. Source: Organic Seed Alliance

What is necessary instead is to reconnect farmers and breeders to reduce the tension that the seed sector’s predatory structure has created between them. There is now evidence that participatory breeding can be the solution since there is now an increasing number of voluntary initiatives that has proven the viability of this model. Michael Sligh identifies the key of its success in the merging of the informal knowledge of farmers, aware of their needs in the field, and the technical one of breeders, depositary of the technologies and scientific know-how.

To achieve this goal, even more important than the creation of a new legislative framework, is better allocation of resources. In the current model, farmers are rewarded for choosing expensive technologies over a low-input farming system and organic producers are left with no alternative other than conventional agriculture. Driving public to understand the importance of seeds for farmers, breeders and seed-savers all across the world could lead to a stronger attention to issues of diversity and resilience of crops, rather than just to their productivity. Funding and cultivating an alliance between farmers and breeders could be our only solution to prepare and adapt our food production system to the changing climate. Relying on just a few private companies to work towards this goal might be a risky bet on our future.