The question of seeds raises some major issues in terms of biodiversity, food security and food sovereignty. The subject is beyond the scope of the food and agricultural sector. Currently, it is also a political and economic issue.
An economic issue: who holds the purse strings ?
Today, three transnational companies control 53% of the seed market. This monopoly makes the average farmer more dependent and reduces the choice of seeds; hence, a price increase, where a wider choice would make them less expensive.
Making investments profitable…
The Research and Development (R&D) on plant selection and biotechnology is largely dominated by transnational firms, and is aimed to improve varieties and to increase agricultural productivity. Large financial investments are required, leading to significant pressure on their return. The patenting of seeds is thus an efficient way to remunerate innovations. How? Through the payment of royalties for their use. The members of the WTO must enforce these rights.
A political issue: what sovereignty for farmers in this context ?
Throughout the world, peasant organisations are striving for an alternative pattern to the generalised seed marketing system and release free of right seeds which are based on farmer-led research and innovation.
In the countries of the Global South, 80 to 90% of the seeds used by farmers are non-patented and come from informal markets. Many of these countries refused to sign the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants which prohibits the exchange of farm-saved seeds (seeds multiplied directly by farmers).
An ecological issue : biodiversity loss
Seeds are a key component of agriculture, but also, and more generally of ecosystems. The decline in biodiversity we see today is partly due to the industrial agricultural model.
Many of the conventional agricultural practices contribute to both environmental degradation and plant and animal species extinction.
Besides the landscape disruption caused by the agro-industrial system, the massive use of agrochemicals has a harmful impact on the environment. Furthermore, the restrictive selection of commercial varieties is worrying, ecologically speaking.
Indeed, as a consequence of reduced diversity within species, commonly used varieties could become less resilient and gradually disappear. GMOs, as well as some hybrid varieties, cannot adapt to any kind of environment. Moreover, hybrid seeds are frequently sterile, which makes farmers dependent on external seed suppliers.
Such a situation goes against the global food security agenda and raises questions about the food sovereignty of farmers.
Commoditization of nature through patenting on the one hand, and environmental damage caused by the agro-industrial production methods on the other hand, suggest that food supply will be a growing problem with a decisive impact on hunger in the world.
Jasmine Ingabere and Thomas Ferdin, volunteers