Why do we defend Peasant Seeds?
This year we dedicate the 17th of April, international day of peasant struggles, to the defense of seeds. Seeds are an essential basis for achieving food sovereignty because almost everything in agriculture depends on them: What we can plant and how it is grown; the quality and nutrition of our food, our ability to account for different tastes and cultural preferences; and also the wellbeing of our communities, our ecosystems and the planet. In this article we explain why this implies not so much the defense of seeds as such but especially the defense of peasant seeds—that is, seeds that remain in the hands of the peasant and family farmers of the world. We also give some examples of how we are carrying out this defense among the organizations in the 73 countries that make up La Vía Campesina.
The seeds used in agriculture are different from those that exist in non-cultivated nature. Until several thousand years ago the enormous diversity of peasant varieties of rice, potatoes, cabbages or barley did not exist as such. The richness of our nutrition today is based on the knowledge, practices, visions and needs of the peasant communities around the world that created them in the first place.
Despite this, agricultural seeds are not a permanent creation. At each life cycle, their qualities depend on their interaction with those that reproduce them. For example, the diversity of maize varieties are reflected in needs of the various peoples of the Americas—the different climates in the valleys, coasts or mountains; varying tastes and cultural preferences; and the changing qualities of the soils in different regions, whether rich or poor, rocky or humid. This was also the case in the Middle East where wheat and barley varieties were developed as well as in other parts of the world with all other crops.
This way of reproducing seeds according to local needs was kept in place for thousands of years. Although it was deformed by European colonialism that imposed monoculture plantations and many parts of the world in order to produce commodities such as cocoa, coffee, or sugar, this system did not change radically until the early 20th century. At that point, a vision of industrialized agriculture transformed food systems throughout the world.
The Seeds of Industrial Agriculture
We all associate industrial agriculture with chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers), with machinery, with the production of food transported thousands of kilometers in containers without being apparently damaged, with highly homogenous fruits and vegetables, with large extensions of monocultures and more recently with GMOs (genetically modified organisms). But do we realize that all of this would have been impossible if the industry had not first transformed seeds?
Already in the first half of the 20th century seeds began to be modified in the laboratories and experimental fields of companies interested in changing them. Transformations were necessary given that peasant farmers’ varieties presented many problems from the point of view of industrialization: In their outward traits and in the time needed to ripen they were not uniform and therefore could not be harvested with machinery. They also did not tolerate large amounts of artificial fertilizers. The variation in tastes, sizes, and substances contained in the multiple varieties of foods cultivated by men and women peasant farmers presented an obstacle to those who wanted to produce homogenous products.
As a result, for the food industry to develop it was necessary to transform peasant seeds and their diversity that impeded achieving uniformity and standardization. From the 1930s onward in the United States and in postwar Europe, this was achieved through scientific transformations such as ‘hybrid’ seeds or by mutations achieved through irradiation or the use of chemicals. Many governments supported this work of breeding so-called ‘improved’ varieties as part of an ideal of ‘modernizing’ their countries. At the same time, industry began to lobby in favor of laws that restricted, discouraged and in some European countries outright prohibited the use of peasant seeds. All of this was accompanied by a cultural paradigm in which the growing urban populations were made to believe that only industrial food could achieve the necessary yields in order to ‘feed the world’ through a ‘green revolution’ in which ‘improved’ seeds were central.
None of this was true. Today we observe the ruins of these supposed improvements: Soil erosion through the use of agrochemicals and machinery; pollution through transporting and packaging industrial food; the loss of taste and nutrition with was exchanged for ease in storing, transporting and preparing fast food; the loss of crop diversity through disuse; and the loss of a source of labor for millions of impoverished peasants and family farmers who were made dependent on markets and their whims, among many others. But behind this way of producing are the industrial seeds that make it possible. If we want to transform this broken system we must struggle to regain the use of our own peasant seeds.
The Current Situation Faced by Peasant and Family Farmers
We face many challenges today in order to reclaim the use of our seeds. The communities that try to reclaim what they themselves created throughout thousands of years face new laws and regulations that prohibit their use and that favor industrial seeds. Moreover, we face the threat of GMOs, another recent type of industrial seed with the potential of ruining our health and that of our ecosystems irreversibly.
Once industrial seeds have been created, the companies that invested copious resources and decades of research in transforming them seek to create monopolies in order to own and commercialize them exclusively. The privatization of seeds, already prevalent in the countries of the global North, is now becoming ever more aggressive in the countries of the South. There are two systems in the world that guarantee private property over seeds: On the one hand, patents that consider new varieties of seeds to be ‘inventions’ and therefore prohibit their use or sale to others during 20 years unless royalties are paid. On the other hand there is what is known as Plant Variety Protection system, especially as promoted by UPOV, an international institution that grants property rights to breeders that develop new varieties. Today, UPOV regulates not only seed commercialization but also other aspects such as what can be exported by whom and sets up a framework in which companies can destroy farmers’ varieties that they consider to be illicit. A crop variety may also be privatized through a combination of both systems.
These private property rights on seeds have an important impact on the lives and livelihoods of many men and women peasant and family farmers. For example, in Europe new regulations have led to the criminalization of farmers who reuse their seeds. In Germany, it is prohibited to re-sow the seeds some crops such as potatoes and cereals and seed companies have gone to great lengths in order to try to force farmers to declare what varieties they are using, intimidating them by threatening to proceed legally if they do not disclose this information. In France, there exist similar laws and wheat farmers of certain varieties must pay royalties when they sell their harvests.
In many cases these laws that have already been applied in Europe reach the countries of the South through the framework of free trade agreements. For example, in Colombia, free trade agreements signed between with the European Union have created monopolies for seed companies. This means that if farmers reuse the seeds that they once bought, or even if they do not register their own native varieties, they are criminalized. In 2011 the Colombian government confiscated and destroyed 70 tons of rice seeds. Only after a massive mobilization in 2013 in which peasant farmers’ organizations, supported by workers in mining and transportation as well as students, blocked the capital, the Colombian government was forced to suspend the laws that incriminated farmers. Although suspending the law was a welcome measure, this two-year measure has not been accompanied by a legal process that could stop peasant seeds from being considered illegal.
The quick expansion of such laws in the countries of the South is worrisome, especially in areas in which industry has relatively small margin and profit given the fact that peasant seeds continue to be used widely. This is especially true in Africa. Given that in Africa there still exist a great number of peasant farmers (two thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa) and that the ‘green revolution’ of the 20th century has had little impact in this continent, this part of the world is seen by industry as a new frontier for pushing the market for industrial seeds.
As new laws reach the African continent to impose industrial seeds, the latter are presented as beneficial, with governments hailing them as a way to resolve the problems of agriculture. Companies and Governments do not act alone but are supported by ‘development’ groups such as the New Alliance of Food Security and Nutrition promoted by G8 states, or by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The latter has promoted a new ‘Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa’ whose first goal is “improving Africa’s seed systems” according to its webpage. As usual, they try to promote the idea that farmers must be rescued by new technologies. What they do not say is that the problems of men and women farmers in Africa and in many other parts of the world are more related to imports of cheap of subsidized foodstuffs from Europe and United States that destroy local and national livelihoods and markets.
Recently, African farmers also face the threat of the advance of genetically modified seeds, especially since GMOs have been refused in areas in which the seed companies do good business, such as Europe. Genetically modified organisms are crops that have been manipulated by industry differently than the transformations carried out in the 20th century. They are the result of manipulating seeds using techniques that break with patterns in plant evolution through hundreds of millions of years. GMO seeds are not produced through fertilization but by modifying plant cells through complex techniques in laboratories. Today there exist numerous investigations that show the dangers to the health of plants, animals and ecosystems through GMOs. Despite this, in Africa programs exist that supposedly seek to help farmers, such as ‘Water-Use Efficient Maize for Africa’ are pushing for the advance of genetically modified maize and cotton. GMOs are in an experimental phase in Kenya, Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique and they have been permitted for planting in Sudan, Egypt, Burkina Faso and South Africa.
Contrary to what companies propagate in the media, GMOs do not result in higher yields and they have even become infamous for aggravating the problems they were supposedly developed solve, including weeds and pests. The companies in favor of GMOs that want to demonstrate that these crops can be relevant to farming communities frequently point to ‘golden rice’ (a variety not yet commercialized). This is a rice variety engineered to contain higher levels of beta-carotene, a substance used by the human body in order to produce vitamin A. But why should we look for these types of false solutions to the problems of poverty and malnutrition in rural areas? We men and women peasant and family farmers are capable of providing our own food and those of the people that we feed as long as we continue to have access to land, water, and to our own seeds, which we reproduce according to local needs.
Defending our own Seeds—Towards the Future
La Vía Campesina is made up of 164 organizations in 73 countries. The defense of peasant seeds is key to our work and is carried out differently from place to place. We defend our seeds in our fields when we sow, select and exchange them from one year to the next. We struggle for them in protests in the streets and in our schools. We also participate in national and international institutions where we claim that our demands be heard and respected.
We care for our seeds in ways that reflect the diversity of our cultures and needs. In many cases, seeds are selected directly by families. In others this is done at the level of the community, where they pass through many hands. Various organizations within La Vía Campesina have even formed cooperatives that produce large quantities of seeds, such as OESTEBIO, a cooperative of the movement of small-scale Farmers (MPA) in Brazil. The world over, women play an important role in reproducing seeds, from the women of the Latin American Confederation of Rural Organizations, CLOC, as well as the Korean Women Peasant Association, KWPA. The movements that make up La Vía Campesina also cooperate among each other. For example MPA in Brazil organized a solidarity project with peasant farmers of UNAC, the National Union of Peasant Farmers in Mozambique, sharing with them their experiences in preserving peasant seeds. These and many other experiences within La Vía Campesina have been compiled in a publication called Our Seeds, Our Future.
In La Vía Campesina we also participate in institutional spaces to demand that what are known as Farmers’ Rights to sow, reuse, exchange and sell our own seeds are respected. These rights have been defined by the UN Seed Treaty. However, they remains subject to national laws. For this reason we have denounced that treaties such as this one use the flowery language of respecting peasant and family farmers’ rights at the same time that these rights are not applied. We have criticized that until now these treaties have only served the industry for having better access to public seed collections housing the seeds of our grandparents. Although we recognize that it may be useful to store seeds in public collections, we also underline that the most important place for seeds are in the fields of men and women peasant farmers. It is here that seeds can adapt, year after year, to the new needs of our communities as well as to new climate conditions.
The struggle for peasant seeds is an important one. As we have described here, almost everything in agriculture depends on them. The industrialization of agriculture depended on industry’s transformation of production and consumption according to a vision based on international markets in which today a few transnational companies now control what we sow and eat. They are leading the aggression against farming communities whose livelihoods are denied, arguing that only industrial seeds can provide enough food and that they are the only answer to hunger, droughts or plagues.
However, along with millions of allies all over the world, we know that this is not the case. More and more people in the countryside and in the cities refuse the privatization of something as essential to the life of people and of the entire planet as seeds. We know that with peasant seeds we can feed everyone according to the real needs of our communities, rather than of corporations. We know that we can rely on peasant seeds to stop wasting energy by depending on fossil fuels and to produce without agrochemicals. We know that with peasant seeds’ capacity to adapt to new conditions in the fields we have the best chance of confronting climate change.
We will continue to defend our own seeds in our fields, on the streets, by raising our voices in institutional spaces, and within our own organizations. We will not recognize laws that privatize and destroy them. We will continue to struggle against ‘Monsanto laws’ and also against GMOs. In order to attain food sovereignty, seeds must remain in the hands of men and women peasant farmers all over the world.
Globalize struggle! Globalize hope!