EU fines guardians of biodiversity as corporate capital brings complaint

"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

Last week, in France, the independent seed-saving and selling Association Kokopelli were 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'. As the European Commission met this week to prepare new legislation for seed control, due in 2009, which will further restrict the geographic movement and range of crop varieties, this ruling will set a dangerous precedent.

Kokopelli, the non-profit French group set up in 1999 to safeguard endangered seed strains, may be driven out of existence by the 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 sorts of vegetable, flower and cereals. Other non-government seedbanks are held by large agro-industrial companies like Limagrain, Syngenta and Pioneer - and guess what their main interest is - money rather than starving subsistence farmers.

You may think that in an era of mass extinction it would be a no-brainer that we need to protect biodiversity and the heritage of the crop varieties which have been build up over centuries... but no. Since the 1970s, laws in the UK and Europe mean that to sell seeds, the strain needs to be registered - and everything else becomes 'outlaw' seeds, illegal to sell. In the UK it costs £300 per year to maintain the registration and £2000 to register a 'new' one - which all disadvantages smaller organisations.

While mass extinctions are taking place in natural ecosystems, the same has taken place in domesticated seeds. 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 whole human population is supported by just 30 main crop varieties - a recipe for disaster.

When you register a seed type, potentially anyone growing it is liableto pay you royalties - making 'intellectual property' out of plants which have evolved over thousands of years. These companies take an interest in the myriad of varieties with a view to splicing genetic traits into other types, and take out patents on the genetic content. Monsanto have a European patent on a type of wheat which is derived from a traditional Indian one, the sort used to make chapatis.

These same companies are narrowing the market down to the few mono-culture crops they are flogging, reducing diversity. Once farmers limit theirs to these few types - often hybrids which produce defective seeds - they are forced to return to 'the man' to buy next year's seed rather than being able to save and use last year's. This is the next thing down from the prospect of 'terminator' seeds - genetically modified to be sterile, and deliberately unable to supply future yields. The farmers were in a far stronger position with their traditional varieties which were open-pollinated, carrying a wider genepool, and better able to adapt to new conditions and diseases.

Seeds - and ultimately the control over production of food – becomes another front in which communities and individual farmers across the world have to fight against the forces of neoliberalism and corporatisation.
Thanks to Schnewsfor this report. See a longer version on the Schnews website.