Reclaim the Seeds first began in 2010 in response to proposed adjustments to seed-related legislation by the European Union. Since then, this event has occurred once every year in different locations throughout the Netherlands. These legislative adjustments pose as threats for farmers, small-scale breeders of seeds, and biodiversity in general. Raising awareness concerning these and other developments that pose serious threats for a sustainable and socially just agricultural system has always been a primary goal. Simultaneously emphasis is put on possible alternatives to the current situation. Due to recent agricultural developments, Reclaim the Seeds now focuses on property rights and patents on seeds and crops. As new biotechnologies are released every year, industries continue to gain power over agriculture all over the world. For such few people to have so much control of the global food system is a risk not only to producers, but consumers as well. There needs to be a diversified, and locally based food system with genetic material that is available to anybody who needs access to it.
No Patents on Seeds
For most participants of Reclaim the Seeds, the idea of owning a crop does not make a lot of sense. Crops are living creations that propagate and adjust to their environments. Farmers have taken care of breeding crops for thousands of years. Plants are part of nature; they are here for everyone and owned by none. Nevertheless, large seed multinationals regard new varieties and properties of crops as their own invention. Besides wanting to claim the sole right to 'their inventions', large seed companies want to prevent other farmers to continue breeding and developing 'their' crops. The result is an increased concentration of power for large companies through patenting and so-called gene pools. In the Netherlands, small and middle-sized seed companies are against those patenting policies.
An increasing number of crop patents have been granted in the last few years. Luckily, these developments are not irreversible. As a reaction to the widespread protests against the ability to patent plants and seeds, the European Commission openly announced their interpretation of the current BioTech Guideline 98/44/EC, in which they distance themselves from the current situation where it is possible to patent crops in conventional agriculture.
The Current Situation
On the 25th of March 2016 the European Patent Office (EPO) announced the following decision; "although no conventional cultivation processes can be patented, plants and animals that are generated through these processes can indeed be patented." Since this decision has been ratified, over 180 patents have been granted to conventionally produced crops and seeds. Examples are broccoli patented by Monsanto and insect repellent paprika and chili plants by Syngenta. Still over a 1000 other patents are pending for grants of patents.
Nevertheless, a prohibition has been included in the European Patent law on patenting plants and animals. Therefore, there is a lot of critique and protest against the current interpretation of the European law on patents. In a response to this resistance the European Commission published a notice in November 2016 in which distance is taken from the way in which the EPO interprets the patent laws.
To make a significant changes the nations of the European Union should clearly oppose themselves against the possibility of patenting plants and animals. In order to do so, one should make sure that the representatives of these nations say NO to patens on plants and animals during the assembly of the Administrative Council of the EPO this March. Derk-Jan de Groot and Paul van Beukering from the Ministry of Economic Affairs will represent the Netherlands during this meeting. Reclaim the Seeds at the 4th of March is a good moment to give them a clear message.
More about the current development scan be found in the following article 'It is time to stop patents on plants!'.
More background information, including information on individual patent requests, can be found on the website of No Patents On Seeds.
The website from Bionext contains information about the effects of patents on crops and on their campaign called De Grootste Zadenbank van Nederland (the largest seed bank of the Netherlands). The goals of the campaign is to influence the politics and the EPO the coming months.
Resistance against the European seed legislation
The demand for sustainable agricultural products is increasing. Therefore, multinational corporations are in a rush to protect their markets by lobbying for legislation which promotes industrial agriculture above alternative, more sustainable methods. Sustainable seeds (as defined by us) are the seeds of peasants; constantly evolving, genetically diverse, freely accessible, requiring low-inputs, low costs, healthy and traditional. These tiny sources of life are history lessons for they are the result of centuries of traditional plant breeding and selection by a multitude of unique communities and societies. Their diversity is the key for a future of sustainable agriculture that is both preventative and resistant to climate change. Already, too much bio-cultural heritage has been lost thanks to the genetic bottleneck which has occurred thanks to conventional agriculture.
The fight to protect biodiversity and seed sovereignty is never ending. One such fight, for example, was the DUS seed criteria proposed to the European Union. This proposed rule called for all commercial crops introduced in the market have to meet a set of criteria called DUS, which is an abbreviation for distinctiveness, uniformity, and stability. This regulation excluded many regional crops which are adjusted to local conditions, and thus require less input to grow. The legislative proposal to the European commission, which was heavily influenced by the intense lobby of the commercial seed industry, would have resulted in a decrease of seed diversity and an increased market share for the big seed monopolies. Reclaim the Seeds has always opposed and resisted these plans.
Justly, this bill has been rejected by the European parliament in March 2014. It is very unlikely that this controversial seed law will get a second chance. The European Commission now has to formulate a new seed legislation; an arduous process which can take many years. It seems like the pressure of societal organisations and other democratic processes has succeeded to temporarily restrain the influence of powerful seed lobbyists. However, we remain wary.
Since the seed law proposal was rejected, the current European guidelines will remain in place for the time being. Although these guidelines mainly relate to a number of commercial crops, they nevertheless influence and restrict the work of seed saving organisations. All the same, some countries within the European Union have adjusted their national seed legislation, and occasionally favour seed saving entities and individuals.
Sources for more information and recent updates on the European seed legislation include;
Market concentration and monopoly's in agriculture
The influence of large companies on the production of food worldwide is rapidly increasing. The global trade in seeds clearly demonstrates this; a decreasing number of large multinational corporations hold a monopoly on the market. While new European regulations are being formulated for agricultural crops, large companies are silently taking over the European market.
Recently, two comprehensive and shocking reports about the concentration of power have been published. One of those includes; 'Putting the Cartel before the Horse...and Farm, Seeds, Soil and Peasants etc: Who Will Control the Agricultural Inputs?' directed by ETC Group. The report describes how six large multinational corporations control 75% of all private processing of agricultural crops, 60% of the commercial seed market and 76% of the sales of agricultural pesticides worldwide. Meanwhile, with the acquisition of Syngenta by ChinaChem, Monsato by Bayer and the merging of Dow and Dupont this concentration of power has increased substantially. However, it is worthwhile to pose the question how much impact the acquisition of Monsanto by Bayer would actually have on the current state of affairs. The following article by ASEED elaborates on this issue: Bayer buys Monsanto, but which difference does it make??
In februari 2014 the green parties of the European Union published a report with comprehensive statistics about the European seed market. This report can be accessed through the following link: 'Concentration of market power in the EU seed market'. The research refuted the myth of the European seed market being very diverse which is often repeated by the European Seed Association (ESA) and the European Commission.
A brochure published by ASEED 'You Reap what You Sow - Monopolizing the seed industry' summarises the current state of affairs in the Netherlands and Europe and elaborates on which effects the current developments of the seed industry have on the agricultural sector. The brochure is available in Dutch and in English.
Genetic Modification a solution? For what?
We from Reclaim the Seeds share the opinion that genetic manipulation with the use of modern biotechnology is not right. Redically changing genes of a crop without exactly knowing what the effects may carries substantial risks for the environment. Another risk is that these modified crops cross pollinate with other crops which results in unwarranted spread of the modified genetic material. This process, which inherently modifies the gene selection of the 'untouched' crop, is irreversible.
Meanwhile, large seed companies, their lobbyists, and many scientists continue to point out the benefits of genetic modification. One of the main arguments is that genetically modified crops can help solve world hunger. However, genetic modification solely assures higher profits which seems to be the main goal of the industry.
The argument that GM crops are a solution to hunger in the world is false due to the fact that hunger is mainly a socio-economic problem. The amount of food that is produced is not insufficient; it is the wealth and the access to healthy food that are unequally divided. Additionally, a lot of food is wasted in the post-harvest phase and during processing. Furthermore, agricultural lands and food crops are being used to raise cattle and for dairy production instead of providing healthy food for people that suffer malnutrition and food insecurity. One of the solutions to these problems is to make sure that communities and regions are enabled to organise diverse and independent food system. The money that is now used for the development and introduction of genetically modified crops could be invested in the improvement of small scale agro-ecological alternatives. This is an example of a real solution to solve malnutrition and poverty throughout world. However, this is not as attractive for multinational corporations since profitability is not the ultimate goal of these alternatives.
When introducing a GM crop, the safety in consuming the particular crop should not be the sole concern; all social economic effects should be taken into account. In reality, it is the large seed companies that want to introduce patented crops to the market. This occurs at the expense of the farmers, small seed companies, and breeders. Additionally, agricultural biodiversity decreases which renders crops more vulnerable to plagues and pests. Genetic modification is part of an agricultural system that adjusts the environment for the sake of the crop using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and intense machinery. A sustainable agricultural system, on the other hand, supports diversity because the conditions are not so intensely adjusted to suit the crop. Instead, a breeder will select for a crop variety that is adjusted to each local environment. Thus, needing less toxic inputs. In order to feed the ever growing population, we as a society must support sustainable agricultural practices and protect ourselves as well as our natural resources.
also Greenpeace provides information about the negatives effects of GMOs and the organisation counters the criticism from GMO-lobbyist that stopping GMOs would be bad for people suffering malnutrition. See for example the article Voedselzekerheid kan niet wachten op de 'Gouden bergen' van gentech.
For which problems are GMOs the solution? This question as well the starting point for the production of the documentary 'Gen zoekt boer. Maar is de liefde wederzijds?' in 2008. The reader that goes together with the documentary shows the risks related to GMOs and the related to this in the Netherlands.
We are not against progress, but we do want that the situation of people is improving.
An overview of the alternatives
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DIY food production:
- Seed saving
- Seed swaps
- Balcony, rooftop garden, allotment garden, community garden
Relation consumer - producer:
- Community supported agriculture
- Other types of direct trade
- Crop rotation, intercropping, small scale production
- Healty soils
- Using open pollinated seeds
- Agroforestry, food forests and permaculture
Food Sovereignty as the answer
The concept of food sovereignty is often used as an overarching term for the numerous and diverse initiatives that aim to build a sustainable and social agricultural system. It is key that we as citizens are able to decide how we produce our food and what we consume. We from Reclaim the Seeds want short food chains and a real relation between the producer and consumer. If consumers would see how, where and by who their food is produced, the connection to their food is strengthened and hereby more effort would be taken to protect it. At the same time, it is motivating for producers to see where and how their products end up.
The struggle for food sovereignty is in itself a battle against the large agro-corporations and supermarkets. Their goals of offering the lowest price and getting the highest returns is the root of many agricultural, ecological, and societal problems. Large multinationals aim to have a few crops produced everywhere, which results in millions of acres of monocultures. Agrarian biodiversity does not at all thrive under these circumstances and the farmers become dispensable suppliers. In this problematic situation the seed industry plays a primary role.
Food is an increasingly important topic. More and more people want to know where their food comes from and how it is produced. Small scale initiatives to produce ones' own food or organise decentralised distribution systems are getting ever more popular. Clearly, it is time for food sovereignty, also in The Netherlands and Belgium! The brochure 'It is time for food sovereignty by ASEED, published in 2012 explores this topic and informs on how to work towards food sovereignty.
On an international level there is an expanding network working on food sovereignty and envisioning a different agricultural system. In November 2016 there was an important gathering in Romania where a large part of the Dutch delegation of this movement was present. Reports on the gathering, called Nyéléni, can be found on https://nyelenieurope.net/.