Laws for killing off independent agriculture

by GRAIN | 23 Nov 2011

From 23 to 27 February 2009, members of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety met in Mexico to discuss the issue of “responsibility and compensation for damages” for transgenics. In opposition, the Network in Defence of Maize organised the Forum for the Life of the People of the Maize over the same period. The document that follows is the speech made to this forum by Camila Montecinos. Although her analysis refers specifically to the situation in Mexico, it actually gives insight into the scope of a global strategy aimed at eradicating independent food production, and criminalising the possession, custody and free exchange of native, ancestral seeds – which have been fundamental to the strategy of the peasantry for more than 8,000 years.


Mexico's so-called Biosafety Law is part of a wider set of laws that the Mexican state, along with many other developing countries worldwide, is in the process of approving today.

It is part of an offensive that implies the introduction of new laws, or changes and reforms to existing laws. The changes involved are by no means small: they are changes that affect the life of all the peoples of the world, and in many different ways. Among those most affected are rural communities, peasant communities, indigenous communities. Indeed a substantial part of this offensive is focused on the rural population of the entire world.

The offensive is fairly efficiently coordinated, mainly by large multinational companies and major corporations, abetted by the governments of the world but also with active, strong and aggressive support from many international bodies, including some we are all familiar with already: The World Bank, the Interamerican Development Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization and much of the apparatus of the United Nations, as well as the World Trade Organization.

In order to understand them fully, these laws must be seen as a whole, because they all shore one another up. The Biosafety law will not act in isolation, but in conjunction with many others – such as laws on seed certification, genetic resources, intellectual property, organic certification, forestry, sustainable development, water and mining to name just a few on what could be a very long list.

The regulations arising from these laws are also important, as are related decrees and norms. Today, for example, regulations on “good agricultural practice”, and “traceability” are being applied.

Why all these laws? Why this legislative fever that is attacking us globally and simultaneously? It's a veritable epidemic – and if we look at how the norms and restrictions that are being imposed take effect, one central objective emerges very clearly: to kill off independent food production.

There is a very obvious reason for this. Today, despite globalisation and despite such an aggressive stance on the rural population, food production remains, for the most part, in the hands of peasants and indigenous peoples. If we were to begin to calculate the possible market value of all the food consumed by humanity, the resultant market would be much larger than any existing market: much bigger than oil, bigger than the auto industry – and bigger even than both of these combined. That potential market is not in the hands of capital, whose current objective is, first, to force us to buy food and second, of course, to control this food market once we are all forced to buy it.

The food market is also a captive market par excellence. We can stop buying cars, but not food. And if we cannot produce it ourselves, we will of necessity have to buy it. We may be extremely poor, but if we do not produce food, we will have to buy it. It is a market that will grow in tandem with the world population.

The fact that the peasant and indigenous populations of the world continue to be the main producers of food explains why one of the main objectives of this legislative offensive is to do away with the capacity for independence of peasants and indigenous people; a fundamental part of this process is to wipe out the independent production of food. It is also necessary to eliminate independent seeds – seeds that are not controlled by the large corporations.

Mexico approved a new law on seeds in 2007, replacing the law from 1991. The new seed law of 2007 did not come about by accident; it is extremely agressive towards those people who are still able and willing to continue producing food independently. The seed laws seem to be standarised from one country to the next: the content is practically the same although the order of the articles is changed slightly. These are laws dictated by the great federations of seed companies that today operate under the umbrella of a body called the International Seed Federation (ISF). In Mexico, the ISF is represented by the Asociación Mexicana de Semilleros ac (AMSAC) [Mexican Association of Seed Producers], a body that has, in fact, little to do with Mexico. It defines itself as: “an association that unites the entire Mexican seed sector, with power and influence over government decisions, an ability to manage and participate in laws and regulations, and that is recognised for the service and infrastructure it offers for resolving the problems of its members”. Confession renders proof irrelevant. They don't just define themselves in this way, this is how they want to be, it is their vision of themselves.

The Asociación Mexicana de Semilleros calls itself Mexican but in fact it brings together all the major seed multinationals. Its members are: Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Dupont or Pioneer, Vilmorin Inc. as well as other multinationals. To settle any remaining doubt about the importance of multinationals in the Asociación de Semilleros, we note that Dow and Syngenta are represented on its board of directors, while – worse still – Monsanto and Vilmorin Inc. are represented on its board of honour and justice.

The AMSAC in Mexico is clearly a very efficient lobby, and the Mexican seed law, called the Mexican Law for the Production, Certification and Trading of Seeds (Ley Mexicana de Producción, Certificación y Comercio de Semillas), faithfully fulfils the objectives set by the multinational federation. There are, as yet, no regulations (no secondary legislation) for this law. When we specifically investigated this law, we tried to obtain the related regulations and – despite the Mexican state's much-vaunted law of transparency, it has been impossible to find any information whatsoever. Regulations always worsen laws, and worsen them significantly.1


Through Article 34, as well as some others, the Seed Law requires all seeds to be self-produced or bought – there is no other alternative. This means that the exchange or giving of seeds becomes illegal, and there are no exceptions to this. The gift and exchange of seeds is illegal because in such cases, the seed is neither one's own nor has it been bought.

Some might say that people who have their own seeds could say that they are trading them and simply carry on exchanging them, but in fact the law contains a series of articles whose demands are impossible to meet, or which kill the best of the peasant and indigenous seeds. For example, if somebody decides to sell seed, they are obliged to keep a strict record of how they produced this seed and must also keep a sample of the seed in order to pass any inspection that the Ministry of Agriculture may decide to conduct through the National Service of Seed Inspection and Certification [Servicio Nacional de Inspección y Certificación de Semillas]. As even companies aren't always able to do this, how much less possible will it be for rural people to do so? In other words, peasants are not only prohibited from exchanging and giving seeds, but also from trading them.

The law also establishes the concept that good-quality seed must be uniform – in other words the same and invariable and also stable: in other words, it must not change over time. The qualification of good-quality seed, even for certification, does not factor in performance in the field at all. To put it another way, as long as it turns out identical, exactly the same, it is irrelevant whether it functions better or worse. We know that only seeds produced by the major seed companies are all identical. And the fact that they are all identical does not mean that they are better.

The law also says that the seeds must be stable, and in order to keep a name, they must not change. In a country like Mexico, this means that the obligation is somehow imposed on native seeds not to continue evolving. But the seeds of the Mexican peasants and indigenous peoples have survived precisely because they have evolved over time. The law demands that the seeds must be frozen (so to speak) and if this does not happen, they could face legal problems in circulating from one field to another.

You might say: this is what the law says, but native seed, our own seed, has always circulated – we haven't asked anybody's permission and we're going to let it circulate the same as ever. That is a fundamental strategy that must continue to be used: the seeds must circulate with or without permission. But the attacks will continue – and one of the attacks that is already under way is the Strategic Project for the Productive Chain of Maize and Bean Producers [Proyecto Estratégico para la Cadena Productiva de los Productores de Maíz y Frijol], all of whose technical and financing aid projects will stipulate the use of certified seed. Those in any doubt about which certified seed we are discussing may find it interesting to visit to the page of the Mexican National Seed Inspection and Certification Service to see what its strategic aims are – as stated by the organisation itself through its strategic plan.

The National Seed Inspection and Certification Service defines as its primary strategic aim: “coordinating the dissemination and strengthening of the national capacity in technological seed assets” - which is unintelligible but sounds nice. It says that an indicator of its achievement of this target will be that, by 2025, 60% of all seed used in Mexico must be certified seed. Note that we are talking about all the seed used in Mexico, not just maize. To clear up any remaining doubt, the second strategic aim is: “managing and administering the national system for the protection of breeders rights over plant varieties” - meaning that 60% of all seed in Mexico by 2025 must be seed that the organisation terms as ”protected”, in other words, covered by intellectual property rights. By 2020, if the multinationals have their way, intellectual property will be in the form of patents. To sum this all up, the strategic aim of the National Seed Inspection and Certification Service is that by 2025, 60% of all seed must be certified, and all these certified seeds must be protected by patent.

This is the focus, this is the bias with which the seed law will be applied. It will not be applied in a neutral fashion, but explicitly and strategically to defend the interests of the major multinationals which, in Mexico's case, are represented by the Asociación Mexicana de Semilleros A.C.

Laws also have a way of being applied, and the first part of the application of laws is always the nice part, the application on good terms – which basically involves drawing in as many people as possible, with a view, among others, to dividing organisations and communities. Always talking, of course, of the possible good side of the thing that is being imposed. Then, once organisations or communities have become divided, or once people have managed to become severely indebted – that's when the stick comes into play.

The AMSAC's web page defines “pirate seeds” as seed that is not purchased. It adds: “You will agree that we cannot allow pirate seed to damage our lands, our heritage and our prestige as agricultural workers. Together we can and must deal with this risk, by always ensuring that we buy only original seeds, distributed by reputable commercial bodies. This will help us buy and use only quality seeds”. That's the soft part – the first part of the script used to apply these laws.

It goes on to say: “It is important that when you buy original seeds, of recognised quality, you always ask the seed house or distributor to provide an invoice for your purchase.” Why do I say that this is where the stick begins? Because implicitly those who use seed – peasants and agricultural workers – are being told that if they don't have an invoice, they'll feel the weight of the law. It continues: “We recommend notifying your seed house and distributor if you know or hear about this kind of illegal trade in pirate seeds”. In other words, they are asking us all to become informers!

It would come as no surprise if the regulations of any of these seed laws ended up telling us that we were all obliged to denounce somebody if we knew or heard that they did not buy their seed from the companies. And this is no exaggeration – because current intellectual property laws oblige people to act as informers.

Later come the sanctions. As expressed in the law the punishment for infraction currently stands at 500,000 Mexican pesos (more or less 50,000 dollars), and the decommissioning of the seed and the harvest itself. That's in Article 39. Article 41 states that this does not rule out the possibility of penal sanctions – in other words, it is possible that non-compliance with this law may also lead to a jail sentence.2

If we combine this with other laws – for example on the certification of meat and milk, organic certification, the biosafety and intellectual property laws – the aim is to destroy independent agriculture, to destroy – above all – independent food production and arrive at a position where contract agriculture is the only option. And anyone who has lived in the countryside knows that contract agriculture is slavery in all but name. It is therefore no surprise that one of the key aims of the master-plan for maize publicised in Mexico is to make contract agriculture more widespread.

It is not easy for States to implement these laws, because they require the monitoring of many people: people who've been resisting, battling and producing food for centuries. Consequently, these laws – no matter how terrible they are – are still nothing more than paper and ink, and will continue to be just that as long as we continue to produce food independently. But as we loosen our hold on the production of food and leave production to be controlled by the multinationals, these laws will become very real. It will be a tough struggle but, on the other hand, we must remember that the attack is only this ferocious and implacable because the capacity that the peasant and indigenous peoples of the world currently have to continue producing food is extremely significant. If the food they produce were marginal, there would be no need for these laws – the rural and indigenous communities would be left to die away of heir own accord. The intensity of the attack arises from the importance of what the indigenous and peasant communities still hold in their hands. This is why, today more than ever, it is important to keep our own seed and maintain all the collective systems that allow this seed to remain alive and continue to evolve.



1 Regulations/Code of the Federal Law of Production, Certification and Trade of Seeds was only published in September 2011

2 The regulations, as Camila Montecinos accurately predicted, include a whole chapter on inspection, vigilance and sanctions, including the destruction or decommissioning of “instruments, seeds or products related directly to the commission of the infraction”, see Section XI, articles 105-120 of the relevant regulations.


Author: GRAIN
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