Guy Kastler: FAO should support seed selection by peasants and small scale farmers


La Via Campesina, Guy Kastler   

It was to be expected that, in order to discuss the subject of biotechnology, the FAO would call upon those who are using biotechnology in research and in industry. However, what was definitely not to be expected was for the FAO, in conducting its discussions on public policy and food policy, to turn almost exclusively to these same actors, while at the same time a very large number of peasant, small-scale farmer, and civil society organisations that are opposed to the uncontrolled development of biotechnology have not been invited to speak – or only in a very marginal way through the invitation that was sent to me. The organisations in question have released a public statement that I am asking you to take into consideration.

Genetically-modified plants have not fulfilled their promises. The majority of them have been modified so as to be tolerant to herbicides. They have led to the rapid appearance of herbicide-resistant adventitious weeds, to an exponential rise in the use of ever more toxic herbicides, and, in turn, to serious harm to public health and to the environment. Peasant farmers and rural area residents and their families are the first victims of these negative effects. The other large class of genetically-modified plants produces insecticidal substances that lead to insects’ becoming resistant – and thus to an already programmed agronomic failure. Here again, the first victims are the peasants and small-scale farmers who have lost their harvests, often despite additional use of toxic chemical insecticides. The genetic technologies used to produce these plants have caused numerous unintended and unforeseen effects that industry is desperately trying to hide. The most visible of these effects have been the loss of harvests and the decline in the quality of crops. Thus, the Burkina Faso cotton sector lost its place in the market, which it had won with much effort and which was based on the quality of its cotton fibre; with the switch to GMOs there was a drastic decline in quality. What good is it to increase yields if the harvest is unsaleable. Here, once more, peasants and small-scale farmers are the first to suffer, whereas the corporations that are responsible for such catastrophes simply say that they are unable to explain what happened.

Genetically-modified seeds will always be of no importance for food security. Their purchase cost and the cost of the inputs that are indispensable for their cultivation limits their use to the only markets in which they are affordable: the production of industrially-farmed crops for animal feed in the rich countries, for agro-fuels, and for the emerging biomass economy – which is taking over agricultural land for non-food uses. Industry is not interested in the food crops that provide three quarters of the world’s available food. The peasants and small-scale farmers who produce this food do not have enough money to buy GMOs and the inputs indispensable to their cultivation. GMOs are only a means of taking over their farmland so as to replace their food crops by the industrial monoculture of agro-exports.

Every time genetically-modified plants are approved, the immense biodiversity of cultivated plants resulting from many centuries of selection by peasants and small-scale farmers is replaced by a few patented varieties. When pollen and seeds are moved by wind, by insects, or by farm equipment, patented genes are carried from one field to another. They contaminate peasant seeds, which are then considered as infringements of industry’s patented varieties. That is how, in the United States, in less than 20 years, a point has been reached where patented GMOs represent 89% of the maize and 94% of the soya that is planted. The prohibition against farmers’ reusing their own harvested seeds, as well as constituting a violation of their rights, also prevents them from adapting their crops to climate change. Climate change is not linear. At the moment when the seeds are planted, nobody knows what that year’s weather is going to be like. Genes that are resistant to drought are useless in years when there are tornados or exceptional floods, and vice versa. The resilience of our crops in the face of the increasing violence of climate shocks, depends above all on their genetic diversity and on their adaptation to their local areas – and not on this or that new gene that has been patented in a laboratory. Only the selections made by peasants and small-scale farmers in their fields, from seeds that have been harvested locally, can foster such an adaptation; without them, there can be no real solution. The patents that accompany all GMOs are a false solution because they prohibit seed selection by peasants and small-scale farmers.

Confronted with the rejection of GMOs by a large number of consumers, industry has invented new genetic modification techniques which it wants to have exempted from GMO regulations. These genetic engineering techniques consist of modifying the genes of plant cells that are grown in vitro. There is no possible question that they produce modified living organisms as included in the definition in the Cartagena Protocol. But, on the pretext that some of these techniques do not leave visible traces, in the plants that are finally sold on the market, of the genetic material that was introduced into the plant cells in order to modify their genome, industry wants these plants not to be classified as GMOs – so as to avoid both the international rules of the Cartagena Protocol and the labelling, evaluation, and follow-up requirements that are part of many national regulatory systems. In order to bring this about, industry is trying to limit the definition of GMOs so that it only applies to the insertion of recombinant DNA that can be found in the final product. It is inadmissible that the FAO, in its own publications, has taken up, and given credibility to, this flagrant violation of the only recognised international definition of GMOs given by the Cartagena Protocol.

This new manoeuvre is all the more perverse because it allows industry to patent genes without distinguishing them from genes existing naturally in the seeds of peasants and small-scale farmers and in seed banks. In this way, the whole of available cultivated biodiversity comes under the control of the handful of multinationals holding the largest patent portfolios. Peasants and small-scale farmers and small seed selectors can no longer find out – in order to protect themselves – whether or not the seeds that they are using contain patented genes. This legal insecurity is leading to an acceleration of the extreme concentration of the seed industry that allows three multinationals to control more than half of today’s world seed trade. It is also leading to the disappearance of the immense diversity of peasant seeds that are saved and renewed year after year by peasants and small-scale farmers in their fields. In order to contribute to this new biopiracy, the Divseek programme is making freely available information on the genetic sequences of all of the plant resources in the ITPGRFA’s Multilateral System. In so doing, it is violating the obligations of prior consent and benefit sharing. ITPGRFA’s complicity in collaborating with this programme is an unacceptable betrayal of the trust of millions of peasants and small-scale farmers who have entrusted it with their seeds.

La Via Campesina and allied civil society organisations expect the FAO to put an immediate end to this new biopiracy and to any type of support for genetic modification technologies, the only purpose of which is to allow a handful of multinationals to take over and to patent the entirety of existing cultivated biodiversity. The FAO should support the peasants and small-scale farmers organisations and the researchers that are involved in collaborative peasant seed selection programmes which strengthen food sovereignty and peasant agroecology.