Primitive seeds, elite seeds: what’s the difference? (History, money, and power.)

The indigenous varieties, or land races, evolved through both natural and human selection, and produced and used by Third World farmers worldwide are called ‘primitive cultivars’. Those varieties created by modern plant breeders in international agricultural research centers by transnational seed corporations are called ‘advanced’ or ‘elite’.

– ‘The Violence of the Green Revolution’ by Vandana Shiva, p.67-68.

Land race: A traditional variety of animal, plant, or tree used in agriculture.

Germplasm: A germplasm is a collection of genetic resources for an organism. For plants, the germplasm may be stored as a seed collection or, for trees, in a nursery. (Source: Wikipedia).

Seeds of struggle

The following is an adaptation of portions of chapter 7, ‘Seeds of Struggle’ from the book ‘First the Seed’, by Jack Kloppenberg.

On the one hand, governments and companies of the advanced capitalist nations have encouraged the developing nations to adopt PBR (plant breeders’ rights) legislation – that is, to recognize private property rights in one form of germplasm. At the same time, they have argued forcefully for the need to collect and preserve other forms of germplasm such as primitive cultivars and land races. Plant genetic resources in the Third World have been held to be the common heritage of humanity, a public good to be freely appropriated.

The ideology of common heritage and the norm of free exchange of plant germplasm have greatly benefited the advanced capitalist nations. Every species of economic importance in the Industrial North has benefited from introgression of foreign genes. No systematic effort has been made to estimate the monetary value of these infusions of genetic material. In a few instances some rough valuations have been reported. A Turkish land race of wheat supplied American varieties with genes for resistance to stripe rust, a contribution estimated to have been worth $50 million per year. The Indian selection that provided sorghum with resistance to greenbug has resulted in $12 million in yearly benefits to American agriculture. An Ethiopian gene protects the American barley crop from yellow dwarf disease to the amount of $150 million per annum. The value to the American tomato industry of genes from Peru that permitted an increase in the soluble solid content of the fruit is reported to be $5 million per annum. And new soybean varieties developed at the University of Illinois by plant breeders using germplasm from Korea may save American agriculture an estimated $100-500 million in yearly processing costs. It is no exaggeration to say that the plant genetic resources received as free goods from the Third World have been worth untold billions of dollars to the advanced capitalist nations.

What is it about the germplasm in commercial varieties as opposed to the germplasm in land races that justifies classification of the former as a commodity and the latter as a free public good?

An answer to this question was provided by Dr. J.T. Williams, Executive Secretary of the IBPGR (International Board for Plant Genetic Resources), at the 1983 “Plant Breeding Research Forum”:

Some insist that since germplasm is a resource belonging to the public, such improved varieties would be supplied to the source countries at little or no cost. This overlooks the fact that “raw” germplasm only becomes valuable after considerable investment of time and money, both in adapting exotic germplasm for use by applied plant breeders and in incorporating the germplasm into varieties useful to farmers.

(Reference for this quote: “Conservation and utilization of exotic germplasm to improve varieties.” In ‘Report of the International Plant Breeding Research Forum’. Des Moines, IA: Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.)

In giving this response Dr. Williams seemed to assume that only the commercial varieties have required an investment of time and money. But in fact, the land races of the Third World, which Dr. Williams refered to as ‘”raw” germplasm’, are most emphatically not simple products of nature. Traditional agriculturalists have made very real advances in crop productivity. Domesticated forms of a species are frequently very different in form from their wild or weedy relations. Harlan credits Native Americans with a “magnificent performance” in the improvement of maize, potato, manioc, sweet potato, peanut, and the common bean. Robert Leffel, Program Leader of the USDA National Research Program for Oilseed crops, told the 1980 Soybean Research Conference that “In our more modest moments, today’s soybean breeders must admit that a more ancient society made the big accomplishment in soybean breeding and that we have merely fine-tuned the system to date.” Plant breeder Norman Simmonds, in his widely-used text Principles of crop improvement observes that “Probably, the total genetic change achieved by farmers over the millennia was far greater than that achieved by the last hundred or two years of more systematic science-based effort.”

Nor was this labor performed entirely in the past. In their day-to-day agricultural activities, contemporary peasant farmers the world over constantly produce and reproduce the genetic diversity that is the raw material of the modern plant breeder. The germplasm of domesticated species is not a free gift of nature, but the product of millions and millions of hours of human labor.

The arguments put forward by the seed industry and the functionaries of developed nations’ governments to justify distinguishing some germplasm as valueless (and therefore free) common heritage and other germplasm as a valuable commodity and private property are baseless. That such a distinction exists has nothing to do with the germplasm itself, and everything to do with history, money, and politics.

(This post is an adaptation of portions of chapter 7, ‘Seeds of Struggle’ from the book ‘First the Seed’, by Jack Kloppenberg.)