Monday, February 19, 2007

Corporate threat to farm-saved seeds

The handful of corporations that dominate the world seed industry are gearing up to remove remaining loopholes in the plant variety protection system, which was the alternative to patenting that they set up in the 1960s. European-based firms want to get rid of farmers’ limited entitlement to save seed. The Americans want to restrict the exemption by which breeders have the free use of each other’s commercial varieties for research purposes. In both cases, the point is to reduce competition and boost profits, according to GRAIN, which campaigns for biodiversity based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge. Despite pressure from the transnational corporations, at least two-thirds of the global crop area is currently planted with farm-saved seed every year. In many developing countries, it represents 80-90% of all seed used. GRAIN warns that If farmers were legally forced to plant all of this area with commercial seed, it could easily mean a doubling of seed industry turnover, that is, an "extra $20 billion annually - all taken out of farmers' pockets and delivered to giants such as DuPont, Bayer, Syngenta, and Monsanto".

In many countries, seed laws already require farmers to use only certified seed of government-approved varieties. That seed is often available only from commercial seed companies. A rapidly increasing number of governments also grant legal monopoly rights for commercial seed, by means of industrial patents and so-called plant variety protection (PVP). Some developing countries have been persuaded to join the international PVP system. But this gives seed companies a monopoly on only the commercial multiplication and the marketing of seeds. Farmers have remained free to save seed from their own harvest to plant in the following year. Now the seed manufacturers want the monopoly that biotech firms like Monsanto have enjoyed through industrial patents on plants bred with genetic engineering (GE) and related techniques. These prevent farmers from saving seeds.

Another key industry demand will be to restrict or eliminate the freedom to use PVP-protected varieties for breeding. Says Grain: "The purpose is simply to block competition. If nobody else is allowed to improve on a variety until after the term of protection - 20 years or so - a seed company will be able to sell the unimproved variety for a much longer period, and postpone the cost of new research. The net effect: increased profits for the PVP owner, higher seed prices and fewer new varieties for farmers." GRAIN points out that monopolisation leads to fewer and fewer products of value to farmers. Major advance in yield and resistance improvement were made early in the 20th century, before any monopoly rights were available on seeds, it points out. Those improvements came mainly from selecting and crossing thousands of farmer varieties developed over centuries, not from any industry-sponsored research. The emergence of capitalism in the 18th century was marked by the enclosure of common land and clearances, by which people were driven out of the countryside into the towns. The growing corporate stranglehold over food systems that is revealed by organisations like GRAIN amounts to the enclosure of the global commons.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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