The introduction of corporate seed laws across the world has put pressure on small farmers and communities to fight for their right to ancestral seeds

What started as an organization aimed to provide food stability and security for our collective nations has turned into corporate-first initiatives that have left farmers chained under seed laws that have affected communities’ food stability and food sovereignty.

The monopolization of the seed industry is responsible for a decrease in a diverse food system and a decrease in biodiversity, which we’ve already seen the consequences of for our people and environment. The fight for ancestral seeds is not only a fight for self-sufficiency, but one for collective food security and planetary wellness. 

The introduction of UPOV ’91

UPOV (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants) is known for their work for protecting seed varieties. Established in 1961, this small group of European Union (EU) countries with big seed companies wanted to give themselves the right to place intellectual property rights on certain plant varieties in order to save and improve the seeds’ efficacy in feeding our growing populations.

These laws would grant seed companies monopoly over seed varieties, so that when a country adheres to the 1991 UPOV convention, it becomes a crime for farmers to save “discovered” privatized seeds, ones that those same farmers had otherwise been saving and breeding for generations. Once privatized, farmers would only be able to use seeds purchased from those seed companies, and saving, using and exchanging their ancestral seeds would be punishable by a fine or prison time.

Initially, very few countries adhered to the UPOVs property rights as they all agreed it was too extreme and would affect local economies. However, in 1994, the negotiations that led to the founding of the World Trade Organization made it mandatory for every member country to grant intellectual property rights over plant varieties, which expanded UPOV’s reach to more than 70 countries. These laws were included in Free Trade Agreements (FTA) between countries, and if they wanted to be a part of global trade and the larger economy, they didn’t have a choice but to comply.

Since the expansion of UPOV ’91, farmers have lost their ability to breed ancestral seed varieties, propelling 91 percent of our world’s seed cultivars into extinction. This has not only diminished countries’ local and independent food production, but also brought on the “Green Revolution”, which comes paired with its environmentally damaging GMO seeds and agrochemicals.

Why seed-saving benefits communities

Seed-saving has been a core part of how communities have remained self-sufficient for generations. Local farmers have maintained food systems by saving seeds and sharing this knowledge (and actual seeds) with each other through seed fairs, community seed banks, and hands-on training of the use of old-age practices of seed-saving and management.

Farmers continue to say that their local seeds produce the best yielding crops for their families for their desired nutritional values and taste (and also cultural and spiritual significance), and they prefer and trust these methods of seeds as they are more productive, reliable and adapted to their local ecosystem.

UPOV claiming intellectual property rights over these farmers’ seeds appropriates the seeds that have been developed through the age-old collective work of Indigenous communities, peasants and farmers. The seeds that corporations are claiming ownership over are the product of generations of work, where farmers would observe the weather and soil conditions, practice multiple crossings and carry out field tests before selecting the hardiest seeds from each plant each year. Saving a diverse set of seeds in this way allows the seeds to adapt to their local climate, which creates a more resilient food system during inclement weather events, new pests or major events due to climate change.

Large seed corporations have argued differently, saying that only GMO seeds can be the solution to climate change and to our growing populations' need for food. However, communities have noticed that with the introduction of privatized seeds there has been an increase in poverty, in food scarcity and in degraded soil. This is in large part due to the agrochemicals like pesticides and insecticides that are woven into the seed or forcibly sold for mandatory use with these seeds.

Saving seeds is about culture, tradition, spirituality, cooperation, diversity and survival. It’s about getting diverse and healthy food on the table each day by being centered around community values of selecting, exchanging and seed-sharing. Small farmers saving seeds is vital to food sovereignty, nutrition and enhancing biodiversity and agroecology while sustaining livelihoods in both rural and peri-urban areas.

But seed has now become about control: the control that corporations seek in their seed uniformity and turning seeds into a global commodity in service of industrial farming and huge corporations. What was supposed to be more efficient, productive and predictable for communities has proven to be less productive for farmers, disease-ridden and has continued the spread of monocultures across our world, threatening our planet’s biodiversity. Thankfully, communities and organizations are fighting back against the tyrannical systems, but it hasn’t come without its costs.asian farmerPhoto by Tony Pham on Unsplash

How communities are fighting back

This right to seeds has been restricted in countries all over the world, where they can only save certain crops or only keep their seeds at their farm without the use of trade; done any differently and farmers can, and have, suffered massive fines and imprisonment. The increase in membership of UPOV has been due to lobbying, pressure and threat from rich countries but thousands of organizations and communities are resisting and triumphing in preventing laws and regulations from going ahead.

Asia has been hit the hardest by the Green Resolution, which from the 1960s to the 1980s replaced farmers’ seeds with “high-yielding” varieties of a number of crops. The recent battle of farmers has been against “Golden Rice” in the Philippines and its fake promises that they would be more nutritious than peasant seeds. After seeing their soils highly contaminated after the genetically modified eggplant, farmers have been rebelling against Golden Rice, arguing that they had other seeds that would allow them more nutritious foods without the risks presented by GMOs. They said they would instead prefer to see greater support for their diverse traditional farming systems, rather than crops that present risk for their ecosystems and their health. Filipino farmers continue to mobilize and protest, uprooting experimental fields of Golden Rice where trials were taking place, saying they wouldn’t tolerate GMOs and vowing they will go on opposing the advance of GMOs.

This is just one example of farmers rising up. In Korea, women peasant farmers are fighting for laws that demand governments support for native seeds; in northern Thailand, farmers are saving seeds and selling to community members even when warned not to; South Indian farmers are breeding and defending raagi, a type of Indian millet known for its high nutritional value and medicinal qualities; and the EU and the Americas are working vigorously to prevent further seed privatization by building support for local community-based food systems where farmers’ seeds can flourish.

Activism is becoming widespread to defend the small farmers that continue to nourish 70% of our people currently with only less than one-third of agricultural resources. Biodiverse agroecological food systems are only made possible by the many for the many; it has always taken many small communities to provide for themselves, rather than external large corporations monopolizing the entire system inefficiently.

Large corporations will never know how to feed communities better than they know how to feed themselves, and it’s continuously seen in how small farmers plant and replant specific seeds based on their adaptation to local conditions. By fighting with and for small farmers, we can continue to see overall resilience and productivity to our local (and global) food systems.

You can learn more about how you can promote, discuss and educate others on seed and food sovereignty here. Learn about seed laws in your community or country, put pressure on governments to change laws and take action on your own farm or in your own gardens to prioritize a renewed localized food system.