For thousands of years farmers, especially women, have evolved and bred seed freely with the help of nature to increase the diversity of what nature gave us and adopt it to the needs of different cultures. Biodiversity and cultural diversity have mutually shaped one another.
Every seed is an embodiment of millennia of nature’s evolution and centuries of farmers’ breeding. It is the distilled expression of the intelligence of the earth and intelligence of farming communities. Farmers have bred seeds for diversity, resilience, taste, nutrition, health and to adapt it for local agro-ecosystems.
In times of climate change we need the biodiversity of farmers’ varieties to adapt and evolve. Climate extremes are being experienced through more frequent and intense cyclones that bring salt water to the land. To develop resilience against cyclones, we need salt tolerant varieties of seeds, and we need them in the commons. Along coastal areas, farmers have evolved flood tolerant and salt tolerant varieties of rice such as Bhundi, Kalambank, Lunabakada, Sankarchin, Nalidhulia, Ravana, Seulapuni, Dhosarakhuda.
"By adding one new gene to the cell of a plant, corporations claimed they had invented and created the seed, the plant, and all future seeds that were now their property. In other words GMO meant 'God Move Over.'"
These seeds have been evolved by farmers and need to stay in the commons to gain resilience against climate change.
After the Orissa Supercyclone, Navdanya could distribute salt tolerant rice to farmers because we had conserved them as a commons in our community seed bank run by Kusum Mishra and Dr Ashok Panigrahi in Balasore, Orissa. Hence we were about to donate two truckloads of salt tolerant seeds to the farmers, who could not grow rice because of the sea salt deposited on their farms. As I have written in my book—Soil, Not Oil—40 per cent of the greenhouse gases come from an industrialised and globalised model of agriculture. Having created the crisis, corporations, who made profits from industrial agriculture, now want to turn the climate crisis they have contributed to into an opportunity to control climate resilient seeds and climate data. Corporations like Monsanto have taken 1,500 patents on climate resilient crops. With these very broad patents, Monsanto and other corporations can prevent access to climate resilient seeds after climate disasters since a patent is an exclusive right to produce, distribute and sell the patented product. This implies that the farmers’ right to save and share seed is now defined as “theft,” an “intellectual property crime”.
While nature and farmers have evolved the traits of climate resilience in seeds, corporations claim their role of creator; they declare that seeds are their “invention,” hence their patented property.
In times of climate change, such monopolies aggravate the disaster by blocking farmers’ rights to seeds they have evolved.
Hence, seed as a common good became a commodity of private seed companies, traded on the open market.
For example, on July 5, 2013, Justice Prabha Sridevi, chair of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board of India and D.P.S. Parmar, technical member, dismissed Monsanto’s appeal against the rejection of their patent application to the patent office for “Methods of enhancing stress tolerance in plants and methods thereof." The title of the patent was later amended to “A method of producing a transgenic plant, with increasing heat tolerance, salt tolerance or drought tolerance”.
Industrial breeding and intellectual property rights including patents on seed fail to recognise nature’s contributions and farmers’ contribution in giving us climate resilient crops. Just as the jurisprudence of Terre Nullius defined the land as empty, and allowed the takeover of territories by the European colonies, the jurisprudence of intellectual property rights related to life forms is, in fact, a jurisprudence of “Bio Nullius” — life empty of intelligence. The Earth is defined as dead matter, so it cannot create. And the farmers have empty heads so they cannot breed seeds.
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The door to patents on seed and patents on life was opened by genetic engineering. By adding one new gene to the cell of a plant, corporations claimed they had invented and created the seed, the plant, and all future seeds that were now their property. In other words GMO meant “God Move Over.”
Section 3(j) of the Patents Act, 1970, recognises that life forms are not an invention and hence biological processes cannot be treated as inventions.
Today, this freedom of nature and culture to evolve is under violent and direct threat. The threat to seed freedom impacts the very fabric of human life and the life of the planet. Not only are corporations like Monsanto claiming patent monopolies on climate resilient seeds, they are also claiming monopoly on climate and weather data. Monsanto has bought the Climate Corporation, which controls vast data on climate for $1 billion.
"The threat to seed freedom impacts the very fabric of human life and the life of the planet."
Not only will Monsanto sell the chemicals and seeds adapted to their chemicals to farmers, they will also sell climate data. This is a strategy for total control of agriculture in times of climate change.
The National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005 was a legislative proposal forwarded in April 2005 by United States Senator Rick Santorum to bar the national weather service from issuing forecasts so that climate and weather services can be privatised. In effect, the knowledge of a cyclone or flood would only be provided to those who could pay.
The vision of the corporations and sadly the US government is to privatise every aspect of life — our seeds and biodiversity, the atmospheric commons, and the knowledge of the climate and weather as a public good.
At a time when the world needs to recognise that life forms, including seeds, are not an invention and the US should correct its laws to be more in alignment with the Rights of the Earth and with human rights, the US government is threatening India with trade retaliation to force us to change our patent laws yet again and introduce the unethical, unscientific and anti-human laws of patent monopolies on seed and medicine.
America’s National Association of Manufacturers — which represents about 50 US business groups — gave the suggestion to the US Trade Representatives’ office to designate India a “Priority Foreign Country”, a tag it gives to worst offenders of intellectual property rights. This is not just a US-India dispute. It is a fight against corporate enclosures of the commons. If we have to survive as a species, we need to reclaim our commons — of seed, of climate, of knowledge and resist the privatisation of every aspect of life.
We need to create the commons of the seed and cultivate seed freedom through seed saving, seed exchange and participatory breeding.