Seeds are a farmer’s most essential input. For thousands of years farm communities have been observing, selecting, nurturing, breeding and saving seeds. et, in the last century there has been a dramatic decrease in global seed diversity, of which the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported in 2010 that 75 percent of the world’s crop diversity had already been lost.
The erosion of agricultural biodiversity can be largely attributed to the agro-industry business and the policies that support them. Farmers now purchase many of the essential inputs of farming, whereas in yesteryears the inputs were produced and recycled within the farm. The corporate control over seeds is very worrying because it threatens to hold farming hostage to big business interests.
According to La Via Campesina, the International Peasants Movement, and GRAIN, an NGO working on seed issues, just 10 companies account for 55 percent of the global seed market. Among them are Monsanto, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta.
In the past, the regular exchange of seeds among communities and farmers had allowed crops to adapt to different conditions, climates and topographies. This had provided us a diversified diet and much needed nutrition. Farmers had also creatively bred and cultivated crop varieties to deal with different challenges of soils, pests and diseases. Women had played, and in some areas still play, a critical role in their communities as the custodians of seeds.
However the advent of industrial agriculture and its push for commercial seeds has not only eroded seed diversity but also farmers’ seed systems. Seed laws and plant variety rights are constantly revised to adapt to the demands of seed and biotechnology industries. Via means of unfavourable regulations, farmers are pressured to purchase seeds and many find themselves in debt to pay for the seeds and agro-chemical inputs.
Without their traditional seed diversity and the erosion of the world’s agricultural biodiversity, farmers are losing the tools and resilience to deal with challenges such as climate change, pests and diseases. Additionally, commercial ‘high yielding’ varieties are proving less effective with climate change, resulting in greater farmer vulnerability. Farmers are also further exploited through sales of seed packages that are bundled with agro-chemicals.
Malaysian farmers may also be affected with free trade agreements that seek to commercialise seeds. The ultimate aim of business interests is to make it impossible for farmers to save seeds and thus make them dependent on purchased seeds.
For example the draft intellectual property chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) that was leaked on Oct 16, 2014 contains language that requires countries to ratify treaties that increase the exclusionary rights available to plant breeders, at the expense of farmers’ rights to save, use, sell and exchange farm-saved seed.
In the case of Malaysia, it had enacted the Protection of New Plant Varieties Act in 2004 which provides for rights to be given to commercial breeders for any new plant variety they create, but then the law also protects seed varieties created through breeding by traditional farmers, local communities or indigenous people.
Further rights to small farmers
The Malaysian law gives further rights to small farmers (those with less than 0.2ha) to propagate harvested material of the protected plant variety on their own farms, exchange reasonable amounts of propagating material among themselves, and sell farm-saved seeds which they could not use because of factors beyond their control.
However the International Convention on the Protection of Plant Varieties (known as the UPOV Convention) wants countries to adopt the UPOV 1991 law. This law virtually prohibits farmers from freely saving, exchanging and selling their farm-saved seeds; especially as farmers use and co-mingle seeds including those of protected varieties. This regulation will undeniably increase corporate and multinational control of farming. Hence Malaysia must not be induced or allowed to join UPOV 1991.
Urgent action is needed to ensure that farmers are in control and able to grow diverse nutritious food, as well as to be resilient in the face of climate change and other challenges such as pests and diseases. The Consumers Association of Penang’s (CAP) contribution to this cause is starting a seed corner to collect seeds of different varieties of vegetables. These seeds are shared with farmers and households venturing in home gardens.
In view of reviving our seed diversity, scaling up agro-biodiversity and ensuring food security, we urge the Malaysian government to:
SEED... my freedom
the urgent need
for native seed
is not for greed
but to graciously feed...
about UPOV you read
do not for it heed
thwart this weed
realise a good deed...
come let’s all join to lead
“to protect biodiversity from genetic slavery...”
- Poem by Professor Sultan Ahmed Ismail - Oct 1, 2015
SM MOHAMED IDRIS is president, Consumers Association of Penang (CAP).