73% of seed crops are now ‘owned’ by 10 corporations – while community and grassroots initiatives are working to keep global diversity alive. This weekend The Great Seed Festival in London celebrates the people and places that hold the future of many of our crops in their hands. In our Autumn issue we look at seed swaps, seed banks, and open source pollination (by bees and humans). Here Warren Draper reports on the radical acts of exchange happening…online
It is hard to comprehend how patent examiners can grant patents on seeds for plants which have been commonly used, exchanged and cross-bred worldwide for thousands of years: surely it’s like granting a large car manufacturer a patent for the wheel? But large corporations get their own way regarding patents in exactly the same way they control everything else – through powerful lobbying and relentless bullying.
As VQR Online reported recently in their excellent article ‘Linux for Lettuce’ one patent application by Monsanto – for easy harvesting broccoli which they acquired through a corporate takeover in 2005 – was refused because it was too generic and could lead to Monsanto claiming ‘ownership’ of all exserted head broccoli strains. This sounds like a win for common sense, but Jim Myers, professor of genetics for Oregon State University warns that the decision is “not necessarily final.” Monsanto have appealed and Myers writes that after years of legal wrangling patent examiners are tempted to “cave and grant the broader claims as they get worn down by the attorneys’ arguments.”
The hard truth is that seed patents benefit nobody in the end. Peasant farmers, smallholders and organic growers worldwide are suffering due to international laws which seek to prohibit access to heritage seeds. But in the face of climate change and economic uncertainty a large and diverse gene pool is crucial for every breeder – even those working for the corporations who are currently too blind or too greedy to see the long-term damage they are inflicting upon their own industry. Luckily there’s a newly emerging alternative to proprietary seed patents in the form of the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI).
The Open Source Seed Initiative seeks to guarantee the right to exchange seeds in much the same way that an open source software license like the GPL guarantees the freedom to share and alter a software program, so long as it remains open source. The OSSI pledge is printed on seed packets and describes how the seeds can be freely used, sold, bred and shared, but not legally restricted. On April 17th (La Via Campesina’s ‘International Day of Farmer’s Struggles’) OSSI breeders released the seeds of 36 varieties of 14 different crops under the OSSI license. The relevance of this should not be underestimated; before OSSI, farmers in many countries routinely faced legal intimidation:
“As a small farmer, I’m constantly worried that I might get ticketed, fined, or even arrested for keeping my own seeds or participating in local seed-banks and seed-sharing programs.” (Thomas Luce, Washington State Farmer).
This is why it is vital for as many breeders as possible to start licensing their own strains under the OSSI pledge. The greater the genetic diversity of open source seeds available, the less likely it is that companies such as Monsanto are able to seize sweeping control of crop types. If you haven’t tried breeding crops yourself then maybe it’s time to start. Even if you have no intention of developing your own strain, letting plants go to seed does have other benefits.
My good friends at the Brotherhood Church, a 90 year old Tolstoy-inspired anarchist commune in North Yorkshire, routinely open-pollinate salad crops in their greenhouse over winter. This not only provides seeds for the following season, it also gives them a source of fresh leaves during leaner times. These leaves are perfectly palatable and the 6ft plus plants are a joy to behold.
As individuals and small-scale growers we can also do our bit to guarantee universal seed sovereignty by supporting seed-banks and participating in seed exchanges. We could also create a UK wide network for the exchange of heirloom seeds and the development of open source varieties… Transition Seed Express anyone?
The Great Seed Festival – Celebrating the Seeds That Feed Us, 10th-12th October is at Garden Museum, Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7LB
Warren Draper is a contributor to The Idler magazine and the Dark Mountain journals. He is involved with a number of resilience and rewilding projects in Doncaster.
Images: Gone to seed: Salad crops at The Brotherhood Church, a seven acre paradise which shows exactly what can be achieved ecologically in a single lifetime; Seed swap at Brighton, the oldest seed exchange in the UK; Fife Diet’s Seed Truck on the road in Scotland
Read the whole of Transition Free Press 6 on line here, including Lucy Purdy on Heritage Seeds in the food pages (p19)