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Seed varieties at risk

Keith Parkins | 18.03.2008 16:21 | Bio-technology | Ecology | Globalisation | World

A €35,000 fine on Association Kokopelli for selling traditional seed varieties sets a dangerous precedent and could force this important seed-saving organisation out of existence.

many varieties of beans
many varieties of beans

"Seeds are the very beginning of the food chain. He, who controls the seeds, controls the food supply and thus controls the people." - Dominique Guillet, Kokopelli

Few people outside of the seed saving community have probably heard of Association Kokopelli.

Based in France, Association Kokopelli do sterling work in the protection of seed varieties. They also have an outpost in India.

Last month, in France, the independent seed-saving and selling Association Kokopelli was fined €35,000 after being taken to court by corporate seed merchant Baumaux. Their 'crime' was selling traditional and rare seed varieties which weren't on the official EU-approved list – and, therefore, illegal to sell – thus giving them an ‘unfair trading advantage’.

Last month the European Commission met to prepare yet more Draconian legislation for seed control, due in 2009, which will further restrict the geographic movement and range of crop varieties. This ruling thus sets a very dangerous precedent.

Kokopelli, a non-profit French group, set up in 1999 to safeguard endangered seed strains, may well be forced out of existence, let alone business, by this fine. Their focus is biodiversity, food security, and the development of sustainable organic agriculture and seed networks in the ‘global south’. They have created one of the largest independent collections in Europe – with over 2500 varieties of vegetables, flowers and cereals.

We are facing mass extinction, accelerated by global warming. Though one would not think so with Gordon Brown gung-ho for further airport expansion and set to approve a new generation of coal-fired power stations.

One would think we would do everything possible to safeguard diversity in our food crops, but apparently not.

Garden Organic, or HDRA as they are better known, run the Heritage Seed Library, and they get around the law by not selling 'outlaw' seeds, but getting individual gardeners to become ‘seed guardians’ who pass around seeds for free to other members of the Library. You also receive seeds when you join the seed library. Unlike traditional seed banks, seeds are not kept in cold storage, but are living species which are continually grown and allowed to adapt to new environmental factors.

This is different to a seed bank, where seeds are kept in cold storage.

Seed banks are highly vulnerable: power failures, terrorist attacks, war etc.

The latest seed bank is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic circle, which officially opened today. The vault is over 500 feet inside a mountain, and 130 metres above sea-level – in case the polar ice caps melt. Seeds are stored at below -20 degrees, in moisture free packs, and believed to survive below freezing for several weeks should the power fail.

Another way around the restrictive seed legislation, is seed swaps – which in recent years have sprouted up and down the country. People freely share seeds for another year's growing – a co-operative way of maintaining genetic diversity.

The most famous of these is Seedy Sunday Brighton, held in February each year.

At the other end of the scale, a small seed swap to be held in The Deli in North Camp, Farnborough, afternoon Saturday 29 March 2008.

The importance of seed swaps, where else can you stick two fingers up at Big Business and have some tasty vegetables to show at the end rather than Plod fingering your collar, can be seen if we look at the loss of traditional varieties.

Today there are only half a dozen apple types grown in the UK, down from 2,000 a century ago. Over 90% of crop types listed in the US have been lost in 80 years, and China now grows fifty types of rice, down from 8,000 just twenty years ago. The entire human population is supported by just 30 main crop varieties – a recipe for disaster.

Held in London a week or so before Seedy Sunday Brighton is a Potato Fair.

There are many, many varieties of potato.

My friend, with a farm high up in the mountains in the Canary Islands, grows small black potatoes, traditional Canary Island potatoes. This year he has planted seed potatoes from the Andes. I had hoped maybe I could try some too, but when I spoke with him, he had already planted them out and had none to spare.

Does it matter if we lose all our varieties of potatoes? Try asking that of the Irish. It was not only potatoes that were wiped out by potato blight by relying on one variety of potato, so were most of the Irish population.

What is the alternative, genetically modified crops? Well so the scientists wheeled out by the so-impartial BBC have us believe. Pity they do not also issue a health warning that these scientists are the paid mouthpieces of Big Business.

Big Business likes to control the seed business, be it through F1 hybrids that do not breed true, or genetic seeds, where the farmer does not buy seeds, but a package which includes all inputs, ie fertilisers, herbicides etc.

Do we really want companies like Monsatan to control the seeds of life?

The legislation to control seeds was originally brought in during the 1920s. It then had a useful purpose, to regulate quality and to make sure that what you got was what you paid for, ie the claimed variety, and not bastard seeds, disease ridden, full of stray weed seeds or stones. Similar legislation was brought in to regulate the sale of food goods, sugar not contaminated with glass or sand, flour not bulked out with chalk, accurate weights and measures.

But since then, these laws which were originally introduced to protect growers and consumers, have been twisted and misused to protect crony capitalism. After all we do not want growers saving seeds, swapping seeds with their neighbours, as where is the profit in that?

To register and maintain a seed variety is prohibitively expensive, meaning only Big Business can afford to do so, and even then, only for a handful of varieties which will provide the uniformity and long shelf life demanded by supermarkets.

Farmers, by selecting each year from their best performing crops, were selecting seeds best able to adapt to vagaries of climate and disease.

Via Campesino – the international peasants movement – held a gathering last month in Austria, bringing together small farmers from sixteen countries on ‘food and power’. They are increasing networking and solidarity amongst farmers across the world both to protect biodiversity and increase the sharing of crop choices and farming techniques. And it’s not just the corporations and large-scale agro-industry they are up against – due to climate change they are being forced to adapt quickly to new environmental factors and more than ever need to pool knowledge and resources.

Note: Article adapted from an excellent article in SchNEWS.


Dominique Guille, The Seeds of Kokopelli, Association Kokopelli

Andrew Kimbrell (ed), Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, Island Press, 2002

No Strain No Gain, SchNEWS, 29 February 2008

Keith Parkins, Sowing Seeds of Dissent, Indymedia UK, 6 September 2004

Keith Parkins, Seeds of Dissent, September 2004

Keith Parkins, Do we need industrial agriculture?, Indymedia UK, 19 February 2007

Keith Parkins, Seedy Sunday Brighton 2008, Indymedia UK, 4 February 2008

Keith Parkins, Bad Food Britain, to be published

Pauline Pears (ed), HDRA Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, Dorling Kindersley, 2001

Michael Pollock (ed), RHS Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, Dorling Kindersley, 2002

John Seymour, The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, Dorling Kindersley, 2003

Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest, South End Press, 1999

Jeffrey M Smith, Seeds of Deception, Yes! Books, 2003

Keith Parkins
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