Powerful seed companies and government subsidies are weakening crop diversity and may be destroying some of the very keys to future climate adaptation, a group of researchers warns as the World Seed Conference opens today in Rome.
The researchers – from the non-profit International Institute for Environment and Development and partner organizations in China, India, Kenya, Panama and Peru – say seed diversity and ancient traits that could sustain crops through droughts and disease are quickly being lost.
Around the world today, a small range of modern seeds bred by corporations to produce higher yields are taking over agricultural markets. In many places, government subsidies have made these modern seeds cheaper, effectively pushing out a wide variety of traditional and native seeds that local farmers once used.
At the same time, corporations are lobbying to strengthen already-restrictive local and international seed-use laws that protect the profits of plant breeders.
The impact of these growing seed monopolies will hit food production in the form of less genetically diverse crops that are poorly able to whether the effects of climate change, the researchers say. They argue that farmers must be allowed to save, use and exchange farm-saved seeds to protect genetic diversity, seed quality and the livelihoods of rural communities.
"The farming communities that have developed and sustained a rich diversity of seeds over millennia urgently need incentives to continue sustaining them," says Ruchi Pant of Ecoserve in India.
"They need the same rights over their traditional seed varieties and associated knowledge as corporations have over modern varieties they develop and patent. The new seed laws being introduced in developing agrarian countries are posing a threat to the rights of small farmers to save, sow and exchange their traditional varieties."
One solution is participatory plant breeding—research partnerships between farmers and breeders in which farmers who contribute seeds and knowledge share the benefits. Some farmers are already involved such programs in Southwest China, where traditional varieties are critical to helping them adapt their crops to the changing climate, says Jingsong Li of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy.
Getting to that level of cooperation on a wider scale, however, will mean rewriting international and local laws so they "protect the collective rights of farmers over their landraces and traditional knowledge, and ensure equitable benefit-sharing for their contribution to improved seeds," says IIED agriculture researcher Krystyna Swiderska.
Currently, the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) convention gives breeders exclusive rights to the commercial use of their seeds for at least 15 years. These plant breeders rights, similar to intellectual property rights, can create market monopolies on biotech seeds.
Even though the breeders often use farmers' varieties to develop commercial seeds, the farmers get no benefit under the law, Swiderska noted. A revision to the convention in 1991 has made it "almost impossible for farmers to re-use protected seeds without permission, restricting import and export of other seeds of the same type, including traditional varieties."
Swiderska points to India as an example of how powerful breeders rights and government subsidies helped to push out traditional seed varieties.
In 1967, India's Green Revolution ushered in intensive modern farming methods and a switch to high-yield, scientifically enhanced wheat, rice, corn and millet seeds. Modern rice has since been distributed through a government-subsidized Public Distribution System (PDS).
"Wealthy rice farmers put pressure on governments to take on their varieties. As a result, there has been a significant decline in traditional varieties," Swiderska said.
"In one of our study areas in the Eastern Himalayas, we found that traditional rice varieties have significantly declined since communities have started using cheaper modern varieties – they are not planting modern varieties, but are using them for consumption and making rice-based products, and have therefore stopped growing many of their traditional rice varieties.
"In dryland Andhra Pradesh the PDS has led to a decline in traditional varieties such as drought-resistant millets."
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the 20th century saw the loss of about 75 percent of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops worldwide.
Seed companies have a different perspective on their role, however: They see themselves as the solution.
"Faced with evolving constraints such as climate change and the need to significantly improve crop yields in a relatively short time to feed the fast growing needs, the seed industry and governments have to embark on the use of new plant breeding technologies with set targets or goals," Marcel B. Kanungwe, director of Pannar Seed (Z) Ltd. wrote in slides prepared for the World Seed Conference.
Kanungwe argues that adopting progressive seed laws with effective harmonization of seed trade will improve farmers' access to hardier biotech seeds developed with improved resistance to such elements as disease, drought, salt, cold and frost.
Swiderska notes that the corporations aren't the only innovators, though.
"Traditional farmers are themselves promoting breeding for seed improvement, by selecting traits to adapt to changes in the local environment as they have done for millennia," she said.
However, "many traditional farmers nurturing important genetic diversity face pressure from commercial interests wishing to take over their natural resources. Hence new laws are also needed to strengthen the rights of farmers over their land and natural resources, especially in centers of origin and diversity of native varieties."
"A holistic approach is needed which protects rights to traditional knowledge, bio-resources, land, customary laws and cultural and spiritual values, since all of these components of 'biocultural heritage' are closely inter-connected and interdependent."