How corporate agribusiness prevents small farmers from saving and exchanging seeds

This post is an exerpt from the report Seed laws that criminalise farmers: resistance and fightback, published jointly by Via Campesina and GRAIN.

Almost all farming communities know how to save, store and share seeds. Millions of families and farming communities have worked to create hundreds of crops and thousands of varieties of these crops. The regular exchange of seeds among communities and peoples has allowed crops to adapt to different conditions, climates and topographies. This is what has allowed farming to spread and grow and feed the world with a diversified diet.

Corporations’ ongoing struggle to control all food production

Seeds have also… given rural people the resolute ability to maintain some degree of autonomy and to refuse to be completely controlled by big business and big money. From the point of view of corporate interests that are striving to take control of land, farming, food and the huge market that these factors represent, this independence is an obstacle.

Corporations have deployed a range of strategies to get this control, but farmers and indigenous peoples have resisted and continue to resist this takeover in different ways. Today, the corporate sector is trying to stamp out this rebellion through a global legal offensive. The result is that seed laws are constantly evolving and becoming more aggressive. Through new waves of political and economic pressure – especially through so-called free trade agreements, bilateral investment treaties and regional integration initiatives – all the ‘soft’ forms of ownership rights over seeds were hardened and continue to be made more restrictive at a faster pace. Seed laws and plant variety rights are being revised again and again to adapt to the new demands of the seed and biotechnology industry.

How seed laws make farmers’ seeds illegal

Marketing laws: are often justified as a means of protecting farmers, as consumers of seeds, in order to ensure that they are only offered good seeds – both in terms of physical quality (germination rate, purity, etc.) and of the variety in question (genetic potential). But whose criteria are used? In the countries that have adopted the system of “compulsory catalogue”, seeds are allowed on the market only if they are “distinct”, “uniform” and “stable” (DUS criteria). This means that all plants grown from a batch of seed will be the same, and that their characteristics will last over time. Peasant varieties do not fit these criteria, because they are diverse and evolving.

Intellectual property laws: applied to seeds are regulations that recognise a person or an entity, most often a seed company, as the exclusive owner of seeds having specific characteristics. The owner then has the legal right to prevent others from using, producing, exchanging or selling them.

Plant health and biosafety laws: Such laws are intended to prevent health or environmental hazards that can arise from seeds… The problem lies in the fact that these laws actually serve to protect the interests of industry. For example, sometimes small-scale exchanges of seeds among farmers are prohibited, or their seeds are confiscated and destroyed, because farmers are held to the same standards as multinational corporations, which sell seeds in far greater amounts and to more distant locations – with a corresponding increase in the chance of spreading disease. Under such laws, farmers’ seeds may be viewed as a potential risk or hazard while industry seeds are hailed as the only safe ones, even though they play a huge role in spreading disease and contamination.