Seeds are an emotive issue. Across the globe, generations of farmers have been able to save seeds from each year's crops, store them, exchange them and re-use them in the next season. Seeds are the source of our food and for many communities seeds lie at the heart of culture. Women are traditionally the seed-savers, passing on knowledge down the generations, which seeds are suitable for different climatic conditions, soil types, which foods go well together when cooked, which seeds planted next to each other fix the nitrogen in the soil and so on. In my trip to Ghana last year, I met with rural communities, where seeds play an important part of the funeral process, as families ensure their loved ones have enough seeds for their after-life.
Farmers’ seeds and their rights to keep their seed systems are under threat. Seed corporations are pushing for more regulation and laws that increase corporate control over seeds and prevent farmers from saving and exchanging seeds. Bilateral trade deals, often negotiated in secret, have been a powerful vehicle in driving this agenda forward, posing a major threat to farmers' freedoms and rights to their own seeds.
CETA will accelerate seed privatisation
The proposed trade deal between EU and Canada – the Comprehensive Trade and Economic Agreement (or CETA for short) is hurtling towards completion. CETA has attracted as much opposition as the more widely known TTIP (EU-US trade deal) as it shares the same problems of undermining democracy and threatening public services. But buried on page 164 of the CETA agreement in legal jargon is clause 20.31 which embeds a controversial commitment to push for more corporate control of seeds.
"Farmers who save and exchange their own seeds or corporate seeds are seen as threats to future profitability."
In this clause, both parties commit to ‘promote and reinforce the 1991 Act of the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plant’ (or known as UPOV based on the French acronym). This convention, though technical and benign-sounding, is a dangerous and powerful tool for accelerating seed privatisation. It was agreed in 1961 and its latest iteration in 1991 has been especially controversial, as it grants strong monopoly powers to seed corporations and stops farmers from saving corporate seeds.
Even if farmers avoided purchasing corporate seeds, their own seeds are under jeopardy. UPOV 91 and patent laws allow companies to take seeds from farmers’ fields, reproduce them, homogenise them and then privatise their version of that seed as one that they have ‘discovered.’ The seeds then become the intellectual property of the seed company and farmers are forced to pay royalties.
Basically, UPOV strengthens the power of corporations over global food systems at the expense of small-scale producers. If CETA is approved, the EU and Canada (who are already signed up to UPOV 1991) would be committed to promoting UPOV with other countries and in other trade deals. This would have ramifications for farmers across the globe who are fighting to keep their seeds.
But what have farmers’ own seeds got to do with free trade? Seed corporations, like Monsanto, would argue that their investment (and future profits) in seed research needs legal protection. Farmers who save and exchange their own seeds or corporate seeds are seen as threats to future profitability. Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, around 70-80% of seeds that farmers use are farm-saved seeds either from their own production or through exchanging seeds in communities, so corporations are keen to break into these markets and trade deals are being used as a way for spreading the UPOV framework.
How you can help stop CETA
Even with Brexit, CETA could be approved before we leave the EU, meaning we would be subject to some of its provisions for up to 20 years. CETA has been hailed as the blueprint for future trade deals, so stopping CETA would deal a massive blow to the corporate agenda that CETA represents.
Stand in solidarity with the millions of small-scale food producers who are fighting for their freedom to keep their own seeds and help halt this dangerous trade deal.