by GRAIN | 25 Feb 1993


Over the past ten years of Seedling's history, what was once known as "the seeds issue" has passed from being a concern of very few individuals on this planet to the highlight of controversy among the 30,000 attendees of the UN Conference on Environment and Development -- the "Earth" Summit -- in Rio last June. To a large extent, the only progress traceable through Seedling's trajectory over the past decade is the enormous growth of public awareness about the importance and causes of genetic erosion in world agriculture. The real work to effectively reverse this threat to global food security, to implement equitable and integrated strategies for genetic resources management, and to put farmers at the wheel of agricultural development, and their own destinies, still lies ahead of us.


Seedling is ten years old, but "the seeds issue" -- as an NGO campaign focus -- was really born as such in 1977, when North American activists Pat Mooney and Cary Fowler organised the first international meeting on "the politics of seeds" in Saskatchewan, Canada. What was the fuss? Their realisation that with the spread of the Green Revolution's "high yielding varieties" we were losing the basis for the future of agriculture in the very centres of diversity of our crops; that multinational seed companies were trying to get intellectual property rights over "the first link in the food chain"; that this link largely originated in the fields of poor farmers in the Third World; and that the global genebank system, meant to safeguard these resources in giant refrigerators for everyone, was under the control of no one.

That meeting galvanised people into action and put the "Seeds Campaign" formally on the agenda of the International Coalition for Development Action (ICDA), an umbrella organisation of development NGOs in the industrialised countries. ICDA was born out of UNCTAD VI, when northern NGOs working on trade and development issues realised that they needed a common front to exchange information and cooperate better on a permanent basis. ICDA was thus established as a clearinghouse and set up an office in London. From its inception, a special programme on the seeds issue was launched into action by ICDA's co-founder Pat Mooney.

The first major output of Pat's research into the extent and causes of genetic erosion, the changing directions of the seed and chemical industries and the impact of intellectual property on access to genetic resources took the form of a popular book called, Seeds of the Earth: A Public or Private Resource?. Published by ICDA in 1979, Seeds of the Earth caused nothing short of a fury throughout the world. NGOs, governments and farmers ' organisations were simply unaware that there was anything to suspect of the likes accounted for in the book. For the first time, many people learned how dependent we are on so few crops for our survival and that most of them originated in the Third World. (Who, aside from a few scientists, had seen Vavilov's map of the centres of crop diversity before?) Few people had known that despite millennia of crop breeding by farmers and gardeners throughout the world, that precious resource base of food security was shrinking dramatically under the blanket of high-yielding varieties and being monopolised by a few. Seeds of the Earth put the blame on the northern-funded Green Revolution, the biases in corporate breeding strategies and the spread of plant breeders ' rights in the industrialised countries, which controlled most of the world's genebanks.

Citizen's groups, journalists and Third World diplomats took the issue up with fervour. Agriculture -- the focus of so many people's development attention -- had never been seen through the geopolitics of seeds before. But the industry reacted most violently. Shell Oil company -- pointed at by Mooney as the world's biggest seed company breeding crops that deliberately feed on chemical fertilisers and biocides -- circulated a virulent 50-page disclaimer of every point, comma and footnote in Seeds of the Earth in 1980. Shortly after, ASSINSEL -- the global seed industry association -- issued a more sober but equally biased response in a colourful booklet entitled "Feeding the 500 Million". ASSINSEL even went so far as to redraw Vavilov's map of the world's centres of crop diversity and put North America, most curiously, as number one!

Despite industry's disgust, Third World governments and citizen's groups got moving and the issue was put on the table at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) at the turn of the 1980s. Since then, the momentum of action, the depth of NGO analysis of the problem and the scope of participation in what became a worldwide campaign has grown tremendously. To trace this history for Seedling's anniversary -- the evolution of the issues and of the people and institutions involved -- we decided to take Pat Mooney's second major publication, "The Law of the Seed", as a benchmark reference. "The Law of the Seed" was published as the 1983 issue of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation's journal Development Dialogue, for the FAO Conference that year. Since it was printed exactly ten years ago, we can take the main issues point by point and see how things have changed over the decade behind us -- and what is left to be done.

* The erosion

Back in 1983, NGOs -- as well as the scientific community -- did not have all that much hard data on the pace and extent of genetic erosion in world agriculture. Right now, we still don 't. Obviously, clearing forests, building dams and constructing roads or airports has and continues to have devastating effects on biological diversity. In the farmers ' fields, though, the evidence back then was hard to come by, but appeared serious enough. "Over the last half century, India has probably grown over 30,000 different landraces of rice. The situation has altered drastically over the past 15 years, however, and Dr. H.K. Jain of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi predicts that in another 15 years this enormous rice diversity will be reduced to no more than 50 varieties, with the top ten accounting for over three-quarters of the subcontinent's rice acreage." Jain's pessimism in the early 1980s is turning into reality. In 1983, high-yielding varieties covered 54% of India's ricelands. In 1987, 69% of India's harvest rice area was grown to the uniform HYVs. Were the displaced varieties collected and conserved? Again, it's hard to say. The National Genebank in Delhi has the capacity to hold 600,000 accessions, but currently less than 7,000 rices are in long term storage there. Over in Sri Lanka, farmers were growing 2,000 traditional varieties of rice in 1959. Today they grow essentially five.

There is no reason to believe that genetic erosion is not equally advancing in other cereals, fruits, vegetables and root crops throughout the world. Most of South Africa's sorghum landraces have been replaced by Texas hybrids, while the enormous diversity of traditional tall wheats in countries like Portugal, Greece and Pakistan has disappeared from farmers ' fields, where mainly uniform semi-dwarfs are now grown. Turkey's heritage of beet varieties has been sold off to the Detroit Globe, introduced from the German industry. In Latin America, home of maize, nearly half of the region's crop is sown to modern or hybrid varieties. Czechoslovakia, gearing up for the market economy, has ripped up its apple orchards of hundreds of traditional stocks and now three modern varieties cover two-thirds of the apple area.

Clearly, the process of genetic erosion has not declined over the past decade(s). But frankly, the only information we have is anecdotal and unsystematic. No serious surveys -- be it by crop, by country, by region or other -- have been carried out, despite the growing evidence that genetic uniformity is a direct threat to food and farmer security.

* The politics

The politics of conservation was the issue that spurred the Third World diplomats at FAO into action at the beginning of the 1980s. Of major importance there were the NGO analyses and figures on what was happening with the seeds collected from their countries: how they were being transferred to the North and stored there in genebanks, how they were being privatised by legislation there, and how all this was done under the banner of "free exchange" and the coordination of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR). Exact figures on the size of this "gene drain" were -- and still are -- impossible to get hold of, as nobody really bothered to count. However, if we compare estimates from the beginning of the 1980s with more recent ones, the bulk of the world's collected genetic resources continue to be stored under the control of the North, either directly through their national genebanks, or indirectly through the seed stores of the International Agricultural Research Centres, which are largely funded and managed by the industrialised countries.

But then, raising the question of who controls or owns which seed collection -- and the discussions and mechanisms on how to redress the current bias towards the interests of the North -- is only part of the headway made over the last decade. Perhaps more importantly, a fundamental question was put on the table in the process: what form of conservation do we want? Apart from alarming reports on seeds dying in genebanks, no one really questioned the genebank system as such back in the early 1980s. Ten years later, everybody seems to agree that the exclusive focus on genebanks as a way to conserve genetic diversity in not only politically wrong, but also technically risky. In one decade, NGOs managed to obtain international recognition that a parallel, on-farm, seed saving system is desperately needed. A lot of that recognition is still merely in the form of documents of UN bodies and papers of enlightened scientists, and little of it has trickled down to the local realities. But still, the foundation is there to build a more reliable, more equitable and better controlled conservation system.

* The industry

Ten years ago, NGOs were alarmed that the once family-operated seed industry was falling prey to large multinationals -- and those that had a vested interest in increasing their market for chemical and food trade sales. In 1983, the count was 500 companies bought out and another 300 under contractual relations with large transnationals since the early 1970s. According to "The Law of the Seed", the top 17 seed companies controlled 20% of the world's $13 billion market in 1983. Ten years later, the market has risen to $15-17 billion, with the top 15 firms accounting for nearly a third of it. The concentration has numerically increased.

More significant than the dollar figures, though, is a look at the configuration of the industry. Back in the early 1980s, food traders and petroleum companies were among the main players on the market. Even a car manufacturer joined in at some point. Many of these companies pulled out, though, in the course of the 1980s to diversify and strike better profits elsewhere. Who took their place? The chemical, drug and big seed companies which were starting to invest in biotechnology. Companies like ICI were foreign to the seed industry ten years ago. Today, ICI and its top competitors from Sandoz, Ciba-Geigy and Upjohn are putting huge resources to work not only in conventional plant breeding but also in developing molecular innovations to insert into crops: individual genes that code for herbicide tolerance or insect resistance, change the composition of seed oils or proteins, or slow down the ripening process of fruits and vegetables so they last longer on the shelves.

If the 1980s witnessed the boom in biotechnology investments, it also witnessed the increased privatisation of agricultural research. Until the 1970s, a lot of plant breeding work in the North was carried out in the public sector. By the early 1980s, multinationals were not only buying up small seed houses as a conduit for increased control over agriculture, they also started buying up university research teams and public breeding programmes. Much of it was to get a fast entry into biotechnology and have the university researchers do the work for the multinationals. This trend introduced a whole new culture of corporate secrecy and privacy at public institutes created for the very purpose of sharing information. In some cases in Europe, whole public breeding sectors were sold off, as governments figured the private sector would be more efficient. In 1987, the British government sold its prestigious Plant Breeding Institute to the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever. In 1990, the French almost sold off the National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA), their equivalent of PBI, to the chemical giant Rhône-Poulenc.

Numerically, participation in the plant breeding effort to supply farmers with decent seed has grown more concentrated and is increasingly driven by the private, rather than the public, sector. Most important though is questioning whether the new seedsmen are offering farmers more or less diversity in their crops. With the concentration of breeding programmes, the little use breeders make of genebank collections, and the current focus on single super-genes rather than broad genetic complexes, the answer to that question seems obvious.

* The technology

When writing about genetic resources and agriculture ten years ago, NGOs tended to mention biotechnology with trepidation. Now they are writing entire books about it. One important reason for the restructuring of the seed industry was the emergence of new technologies that allow for a much more deterministic approach to modifying crops and animals and ultimately the food we eat. Rather than messing around with complicated crossing and back-crossing breeding programmes, hopes within the industry were set high to develop a technology that isolates and inserts specific genes into crops and microbes to do about anything you want. Before anything of such a nature was even technically (let alone commercially) possible, company officials went around promising a chemical-free agriculture and a world without hungry people. Still, apart from the initial hype about its possibilities and promises, the new biotechnologies are profoundly restructuring not only the industry, but also the way agricultural science is being done. It basically allows scientists to look for solutions at the molecular/cellular level, rather than at the level of plants in their environments.

There might be no other issue taken up so quickly by NGOs than the prospects of the biorevolution. Initial concerns were limited to the environmental implications of the release of genetically engineered organisms, but quickly the concern broadened to the socio-economic impact of the new biotechnologies on food, farming and health. In the past few years, NGO reports were put together on the corporate quest for engineering crops that provide for tolerance against herbicides, or crops that rely for their resistance against pests and diseases on one or very few genes. Campaigns were organised against the use of biotech-manufactured growth hormones in cattle. NGOs were quick in drawing attention to the control of the new biotechnologies in the hands of the same few companies that took control of the seeds sector a decade ago. And discussions were forced into international fora and national policy institutions on the implications of all of this for the developing countries.

To a large extent the new biotechnologies still have to find their way to the farmers ' fields, but the decisions on what they will bring and whom they will benefit are being taken right now. The struggle which we have commenced to ensure that people benefit from biotechnology rather than see it used as another tool to concentrate political and economic control is a vital one.

* The rights

The push to patent life goes back several decades when plant breeders began calling out for a means to get a return on their investment in crop improvement. The European lobby started among fruit tree breeders in the 1920s, and the US breeders got a limited "Plant Patent Act" in 1930. After decades of debate, it became clear that the patent system was not adequate to cover biological "inventions". Plants were not like typewriters. They reproduce themselves, they are part of nature, they are the basis of the food supply. For these reasons and others, a specialised system of protection for new plant varieties was set up in 1961 at the signing of the UPOV Convention ( Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants). "Plant Breeders ' Rights" (PBR) were intended to be a soft form of intellectual property right. The monopoly was limited to the commercial use of the variety without covering the germplasm of the plant itself. Thus, plant breeders could freely use protected varieties as sources of initial variation for new varieties, and farmers were free to re-use seed from their harvest grown from PBR-covered varieties.

In the early days of the ICDA Seeds Campaign, putting a halt to the spread of Plant Breeders ' Rights legislation -- both in the North and the South -- was a major focus of energy. In the early 1980s, countries like Canada, Austria, Australia were heavily debating whether to adopt PBR legislation. NGOs played an important role in these debates, and managed to have parliamentary decisions postponed over and over again. Around the same time, UPOV officials were very actively pushing Third World governments to go for the PBR system. Without too much success, though. For those countries were at that moment fighting at FAO about control over genetic resources and denouncing the privatisation of them through PBR.

A decade later, much of the debate on PBR has been overshadowed by public concern over a much stronger form of intellectual property rights: the industrial patent system. Again, NGOs played -- and continue to play -- a strong role in the fight against its extension to plants and animals. For many of us in the early 1980s, the patenting of life forms sounded like nightmarish science-fiction. Today, we now find ourselves in the middle of heated policy discussions, aggressive lobby activities and unprecedented legal battles to prevent this from becoming reality. The push for patents on life initially focused entirely on the OECD countries, with the US patent office granting its first plant patent in 1985 and its first animal patent in 1988, and the EC Commission proposing a biotech patent "directive" in 1988. However, soon the patent question showed its North-South dimensions when Third World countries pushed the debate into FAO and onto the negotiations for the Biodiversity Convention. At the same time, the North managed to introduce the issue into the GATT negotiations, and if the agreement is signed it would oblige the South to accept some form of intellectual property rights on life forms.

A lot can change in a decade. While ten years ago the fight over the privatisation of genetic resources focused on a limited system and involved few actors (a few NGOs, the UPOV crew and some ministries of agriculture), now we are facing an issue with tremendous implications for the future of agriculture, a growing number of negotiators around the table in a growing number of fora, and a whole lot more NGOs who have taken up the issue and are campaigning on it. The huge interests involved and the industrial lobby behind it, make intellectual property rights an issue on which NGOs are fighting with their backs against the wall. But, compared to ten years ago, the fact that so many more people's organisations are realising the profound implications and are joining the fight against it is truly encouraging.

What should not go unnoticed in reviewing a decade of action against the privatisation of life forms is that NGOs managed to introduce a new element in the discussions: the push for the rights of those who until now have gone completely unrecognised, that is the rights of farmers and indigenous peoples who conserve and keep available genetic resources worldwide. We have moved the concept of "Farmers Rights" through discussions and endorsement by the international community at FAO. We have an "Agenda 21" and a Biodiversity Convention stressing the contributions of indigenous peoples to the conservation of biodiversity, and ruling on "the equitable sharing of the benefits" arising from the use of their knowledge. It remains to be seen whether these new concepts and recognitions will make a difference and stand up against the demolishing effect of the ongoing privatisation of biological resources and technologies through the industrial patent system. But the point is that ten years ago we were mostly fighting against, while now we 're also fighting for.

* The people

Surprisingly enough, it took quite some time before "the people" found their place in the NGO agenda on genetic resources. As Pat Mooney admits in the interview further on in this Seedling, in the beginning, the seeds campaign was hardly cognizant of the role and contribution of millions of farmers, and thousands of NGOs, in safeguarding the planet's genetic resource base. Over recent years, however, there has been a "rediscovery" of the role of small‑scale agriculture as a cornerstone of development and the importance of local people in managing their genetic heritage and the local knowledge linked to it. It is now increasingly recognised that indigenous farming systems based on mixed cropping, soil and water conservation, and biological pest management not only conserve and utilise a tremendous mosaic of genetic diversity, but can produce more output and a wider range of harvested products, particularly in marginal environments. The recognition that farmers can and do play a crucial role in the conservation and management of genetic and other natural resources has largely coincided with a call for environmentally sustainable development which conventional, western‑based, models of capital-intensive agriculture are increasingly being seen as unable to provide. After decades of neglect by official circles, the knowledge of farmers, herbalists, herdspeople and fisherfolk and their unique innovative capacity is beginning to be seen by policy makers as the key to sustainable agriculture, not only in the South but also in the North.

While these are positive trends, major obstacles obviously remain. International policies on trade, aid and finance tend to ignore their impacts on genetic diversity and on the role of small‑scale farmers in conservation and development. And most of the responses of the formal plant breeding and agricultural research system are still limited to mere policy statements while the overall tendency in most countries is to continue to promote systems based on monoculture. Also, there are many new and dangerous trends. In particular, the new challenges from biotechnology, which coupled with the continuing privatisation of genetic resources through patenting, threatens to scupper the meagre advances achieved to date. Still, the increasing convergence of and cooperation between peoples organisations working at the local level and NGOs working on these issues at national and international levels, is probably one of the most encouraging developments that took place over the past decade.

* The future

"A lot more is going on. A lot more has been stimulated. I mean there has been a major explosion of knowledge about the issue -- that is certainly true. And it's certainly also true that if it hadn 't been for NGOs, there would not have been that explosion of knowledge. There would still be Trevor Williams directing IBPGR, nothing happening at FAO, very little activity by Third World governments, no knowledge about NGOs and probably many more genebanks in deterioration. So it's not a bad record, after ten years. It really isn 't."

This is Pat Mooney's assessment of a decade of seed campaigning. Indeed, in looking back over ten years of NGO work on genetic resources, we 've come a long way in transforming the issue from a concern of a few into the worry of many. Which, obviously, does not mean that we can sit back and relax. In many ways the problems related to genetic resources are worse now than they were ten years ago. Many, if not all, the issues NGOs warned about in the past have happened or are happening right now: genetic erosion continues at an alarming rate, seed companies have not only been bought up by larger transnational conglomerates but the whole seed sector is being submerged into much wider industrial interests including those related to biotechnology. As predicted with alarm, we now have companies breeding for tolerance to agrochemicals, we now see others working to replace export commodities from the South with substitutes from the North, and we have lots of institutions churning out yet more genetic uniformity. On top of it, we have an enormously powerful legislation invading all of this and giving the pseudo-public and private sectors monopoly rights over the very basis of life.

The challenges ahead are tremendous. First of all, we need to continue to explain the problem. We need to document what is going on -- be it with genetic erosion, political power plays, industry control or North-South inequities. And we need to continue to popularise our information, to reach an ever wider audience and empower people through an understanding of these complex issues.

Secondly, we need to increase our efforts to promote popular control over genetic resources. The current diplomatic talk and international agreements have to be urgently and creatively translated into concrete action. We cannot leave discussions on this to diplomats and bureaucrats alone. Farmers ' Rights must not only be recognised but also aggressively implemented. Indigenous knowledge must not only be seen as important, but be taken as the basis for people's development strategies.

Thirdly, we need to upgrade our fight for an agricultural research system meaningful to all of us -- be it public or private -- and geared towards sustaining the resource base rather than destroying it. We need to continue critically assessing the technology that is being developed "for us" and fight for a technology that is developed "with us". And we need to prevent the worst: that genetic resources and the technologies based on them became the exclusive monopoly of a few.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, we need to continue creating and fostering the alternatives. At the local level, we need to increase our expertise, our technical competence, to really move ahead in popular management of genetic resources for the benefit of farmers and local development. At the international level we need to better understand what are the real problems and needs of the peasant sector, and update our activities and campaigns accordingly. All of us working at different levels -- be it local, national or international -- need to continue to talk to each other and build stronger alliances, more than ever.

Author: GRAIN