Skip to content or view screen version

Sowing Seeds of Dissent

Keith Parkins | 06.09.2004 13:54 | Analysis | Ecology | Globalisation

Seeds are the very beginning of the food chain, we are losing genetic diversity in our domesticated seeds and handing control to global corporations. He who controls the seeds controls life itself.

'[Food sovereignty] ... goes beyond the concept of food security. It is also the capacity to have control and sovereign decision-making throughout the food chain, from production to consumption. The farmer must maintain control of three basic elements of production: the soil, water and seed. Who controls these elements is in control of food.' -- Committee on Food Security, UN FAO

Traditionally farmers have sown seed, grown crops, collected the best seeds, and have done so for generations. This has led to natural selection, seeds suited to the farmer's particular growing circumstances. This has led to many tens of thousands of domesticated seed varieties. At least that was the situation up to a century ago. Since then we have had mass extinction of domesticated seed varieties.

Several factors have led to this mass extinction, but in the main the green revolution and seed registration.

Across the Third World the Green Revolution has eliminated regional and genetic diversity. Everyone grows high yielding varieties. High yielding is something of a misnomer, as the yields are lower than traditional varieties unless the farmer applies generous applications of water, fertiliser and pesticides. The latter usually being from the same suppliers as the seeds. Very often the seeds are F1 hybrids, which means the farmer has to buy fresh seed for each and every growing season.

Seeds have to be registered to be recognised. While this has some merit, as we need to have trust in the reliability of a variety, the high registration costs have eliminated all but a handful of commercial varieties. Within the EU, it is illegal to grow non-registered seeds.

The prohibitively high costs have eliminated all but the big seed companies. A commodity as valuable as our seeds has fallen into the hands of Big Business.

We are narrowing the gene pool.

Potato blight, which led to the Irish Famine, was a direct result of a narrow genetic base. We are still reaping the political repercussions today.

The situation can only get worse. We are facing two major threats: genetic engineering, and the power of global supermarket chains.

Genetic engineering is rapidly reducing the genetic base. It is recognised the limitations of varieties to disease, especially if we limit ourselves to only a few commercial varieties, but instead of increasing the number of varieties, a high tech solution is being used which not only introduces alien genes into the gene pool with unknown consequences is also at the same time simultaneously reducing the genetic diversity.

Supermarkets claim to offer choice, but they don't. They only want a handful of varieties on their shelves, and these varieties are then sourced worldwide.

Over the last century we have witnessed a dramatic erosion in genetic diversity in our domesticated seeds.

In Canada oil seed rape (canola) and Percy Schmeiser shows what the future has in store for us.

Percy Schmeiser found his oil seed rape was contaminated with mutant strains from Monsatan, or rather Monsatan found it was so. Monsatan then took poor old Percy to court for theft of their intellectual property. Percy lost.

All brassicas are sourced from cliff top brassicas in Europe and Mediterranean. GM contamination could eliminate the wild strains we may need one day to draw upon. GM contamination is already doing this to wild and primitive strains of maize in Mexico.

Nafta is devastating maize strains in Mexico and putting farmers out of business.

The US, under Nafta 'free trade' rules, is flooding Mexico with cheap maize. The price of maize has halved. Nafta came into being in 1994, by 2003 1.3 million Mexican farmers had gone bust. The farmers then form a cheap pool of migrant labour in the US. Their land is bought on the cheap by big farmers who grow food for export. They can only compete with US farmers by moving into industrialised agriculture. Mexican farmers who remain are forced onto ever more marginal land leading to soil erosion. The elimination of small farmers is eliminating the many varieties of maize they once grew. GM maize is polluting wild maize from which all domesticated maize is derived.

In 1970, a fungal disease devastated the US maize crop. They were able to draw upon Mexican varieties to breed a resistant variety. We may not have that luxury in the future.

Seeds banks store seeds but they are of limited functionality. What if there is a power failure or terrorist attack or civil unrest or war?

There is though some good news. 90% of biotech startups have crashed. As have most of their GM mutants. We do not have to follow the corporate agenda, we can grow our own varieties, swap the seeds with our friends.

Seed swaps are one of our most powerful weapons. Think of it as guerrilla gardening. Direct action down on the allotment.

Set up a stall at the village fate or at your local green day or follow the example of Seedy Sunday at the Ambient Picnic in Guildford.

If several people are involved in growing and saving seeds it becomes a whole lot easier. If you are growing one variety of tomatoes, your mates can grow a different variety and so on. Five people, and you have five varieties. It also helps that many seeds keep for several years, as different varieties can be grown in the intervening years, adding yet more varieties.

And remember, seed swaps are still legal.

As Association Kokopelli say, the best way to fight the multinationals is to bypass them!

'The development of the family garden, and seed autonomy, is one of the fundamental prerequisites of the revolution to come: the best way to fight the multinationals is to bypass them!'

Happy guerrilla gardening!

Extracted from a more detailed article

Keith Parkins, Seeds of Dissent, September 2004

The definitive guide to seeds and seed saving

The Seeds of Kokopelli by Dominique Guillet

Keith Parkins
- Homepage: