Seeds might be small, inconspicuous things but they hold a great deal of power. For some, seeds mean survival, ritual, life. They are the basis of much of the food we consume. Perhaps because of their power and their value to the planet’s food security, seeds are a controversial topic. The sale of seeds, the modification of seeds and the saving of seeds are all issues which inspire much discourse and disagreement.
The Gaia Foundation produced a video called Seeds of Freedom, which documents the century’s old custom of saving and selecting seeds best adapted to local conditions, cultural preferences, and resilient to environmental constraints. The film highlights the threat that privatisation of the production and sale of seeds poses to these traditional farming practices.
Cycles of seed saving and the maintenance of agricultural biodiversity have been challenged by the introduction of higher-yielding hybrid and introduced crops that can lose their vitality after the first season, thus requiring farmers to purchase new seeds every year. The video paints the leaders of the Green Revolution as seeking power over the seed value chain. And while many would disagree with this, that scientists were developing high-yielding locally adapted crops with the aim of increasing food production and reducing hunger, there is little doubt that agricultural crop biodiversity was lost as the rise of monocultures and heavy chemical use expanded rapidly. In the Philippines, a poster country of the Green Revolution, only 8 rice varieties out of 3,500 are now grown.
Agricultural biodiversity and the wealth of information and traits it contains is particularly important given the global challenges we face, not least climate change. There are crops and crop varieties that can withstand extremes that would decimate many of the crops we regularly eat. Pearl millet for example, a crop grown annually on more than 29 million hectares in the arid and semi-arid tropical regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America, can survive the most hot and hostile Sahelian conditions. Thus conserving seed diversity both in situ and in seed banks is imperative. A recent blog on Food Tank outlines 15 seed saving initiatives protecting biodiversity for future generations.
For many the concept of saving seeds is firmly entrenched in the ideals of food sovereignty, which is about the right of people to define their own food systems. Few would argue against increasing food production in developing countries and reducing the huge amounts of imports, which can leave poor consumers at the mercy of volatile global food prices. But in the extreme, food sovereignty espouses the restriction of all food trade and corporate involvement which raises a couple of issues.
Firstly agro-ecological methods and traditional farming, while often more resilient than conventional monocultures, have limits to the amount of food they can produce per unit of labour. In Africa, where smallholder farms dominate, maize yields average 1 ton per hectare, compared to Iowa, where farmers have access to the most cutting edge of technologies including GM and get, on average, yields of 11 tons per hectare. The answer is not in transferring an Iowan system of farming to Africa but technology does have the potential to transform productivity and livelihoods.
Secondly, when locked into a low input farming system, particularly one that in turn only produces low outputs, there is little chance of improving livelihoods and breaking the poverty cycle. Only through improving efficiency, accessing equitable market opportunities and ultimately increasing the amount of quality food they can sell can poor farmers increase their household incomes.
Despite vocal support for seed saving by food sovereignty activists, the arguments against food sovereignty are not at odds with the need to protect agricultural biodiversity.
When discussing seeds, the issue of large corporations and their dominance in the seed market is often raised. Private corporations work to increase their market share and profit, which can be incompatible with developmental goals. But large corporations may also offer a valuable product in the same way that big pharmaceutical companies dominate the health industry but offer lifesaving vaccines. Working in partnership to improve farming while safeguarding the most vulnerable, or in other words, saving and buying seeds can surely go hand in hand? When Greenpeace, a large multinational itself, joined forces with McDonalds they secured a 3-year moratorium from the big grain companies on buying soy from newly deforested areas in the Amazon, giving some breathing space to find a more permanent solution to Amazonian deforestation for soy production.
Indeed as with many polarising issues sometimes the answer is not ‘either…or…’ but, as Gordon Conway says, ‘both…and…’ The need to conserve crop varieties and biodiversity on farms cannot be overstated. In Odisha, India, for example, Dr Debal Deb has saved some 920 varieties of rice through community seed banks, where anyone can access the seeds, use them and replace them after the next harvest. But at the same time we have the opportunity to improve seeds through conventional or biotechnological means, to perform better, feed more people and reduce agriculture’s environmental burden. The challenge is to make improved seeds work for farmers in developing countries.
The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is working to develop pearl millet varieties that are not only tolerant of hot temperatures but high yielding. In India since 1986, 67 cultivars, both open-pollinated and hybrid varieties, based on ICRISAT-bred germplasm, have been released. 10 of these were developed by ICRISAT, 17 by the private sector and 40 by National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS), publicly funded. These improved varieties are now grown on more than 4.5 million ha of land (of about 9 million ha).
Several courses of action appear important. Firstly the need for the public sector and civil society to work with the private sector to safeguard poor farmers, communicate farmer needs and help to make private sector engagement more transparent and equitable. Secondly, greater attention must be paid to publicly funded seed breeding programmes, which are able to focus more on crops that have less commercial potential such as orphan crops. Greater development assistance to these crops, that are the mainstays of subsistence diets, as well as to public research on improving local varieties and the methods of farming them are urgently needed. Thirdly, we need a clearer understanding of the importance of saving seed for smallholder farmers and policies in place that support this tradition without penalty to the farmers themselves or their market opportunities. Finally, we need donor and government support of community seed banks, such as in Odisha, and, as a last resort, ex situ seed banks.