For millennia, the practice of saving and exchanging seeds has been fundamental to crop production in farming communities across the globe. Now, faced with a growing push on the part of governments and corporate agribusiness to limit this practice and thus threaten the food sovereignty of millions, farmers worldwide are fighting back.
International peasant farmer and food justice groups La Via Campesina and Grain on Wednesday released a new publication detailing how corporate interests are threatening these age-old techniques through privatization, so-called free trade agreements, and aggressive 'seed laws,' and what small farmers and indigenous groups are doing to resist these efforts.
According to the publication, entitled Seed Laws That Criminalize Farmers: Resistance and Fightback (pdf), since the rise of 'seed laws,' which grew from the large-scale production and commercialization of seeds, the traditional practice of seed saving and sharing has been under threat.
While 'seed laws' often refer to intellectual property rules such as patent laws, the report notes that the criminalization of peasant seed practices comes in a number of forms, including "those that regulate trade and investments; regulations related to the health of plants; certification and so-called 'good agricultural practices' related to marketing; or so-called biosafety regulations."
These laws are often passed at the behest of biotechnology companies such as Monsanto, Dow, and Syngenta, which boast a "very strong" lobbying machine. Further, they are usually crafted with vague, misleading language and ushered through under a veil of "misinformation" and "secrecy," the report adds.
"As a whole," it continues, "these laws often result in peasant seeds being decreed illegal, branded as inadequate, and treated as a source of risk to be eliminated."
So what can be done?
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Grain and La Via Campesina hope their document will serve as a resource to "strengthen the resistance by ensuring that as many people as possible—especially in the rural communities that are most affected—understand these industry-backed laws, their impacts and objectives, as well as the capacity of social movements to replace them with laws that protect peasants' rights."
Already, grassroots groups empowered with information are resisting these efforts.
In Ghana, a coalition of students, trade unions, and small scale farmer organizations have mobilized against a pending Plant Breeders' Rights Bill, that would place aggressive legal restrictions against a farmer's use of seeds—giving preference to cash crops and paving the way for transnational corporations to operate in that country.
In 2014, Chilean farmers won an important victory against an attempt to privatize peasant seeds, which industry lobbyists and government pushed for years.
Mexican farmers are currently embroiled in a massive fight against an effort to introduce genetically modified (GM) maize in that country. As the groups describe:
When it was announced that corporations would seek to plant GMOs on a large commercial scale (on an area of over 4 million hectares—as large as the country of El Salvador), a broad mobilisation began. Alliances were formed among peasant communities, indigenous peoples, trade unions, academics, urban groups and others to alert the public about the threat of contaminating maize in its world centre of origin. As a part of this mobilisation, farmers organised a hunger strike in the spring of 2012. Finally, since 2013, a coalition of farmers organisations and their allies have been pursuing a legal action. Their efforts have resulted in a court ruling that has, at least for now, stopped the commercial planting of GM maize.
In a statement, Guy Kastler with La Via Campesina declared, "Control over seeds must remain in peasants' hands."
"This is the principle, based in the production process, that guarantees the food sovereignty of rural communities and urban populations against multinationals and their enormous profits," Kastler continues. "Over centuries, peasant farmers have created the thousands of varieties of crops that are the basis of the world's food supply and diversified diets."