No to Monsanto laws!

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Europe is in the process of changing its seed laws to harmonize them with those of the North American continent. The issue of this reform concerns the whole planet because Europe and North America (United States and Canada) are the laboratory of the industry’s seed laws, laws that are then exported to all countries in the world through UPOV (Union of States for the Protection of Plant Breeders’ Rights — see below) and free trade agreements.

Today, Monsanto and its accomplices Pionner, Syngenta, Limagrain, Bayer, BASF… want to impose in each country laws applying the UPOV agreements of 1991. France has already obeyed them with the law on Plant Variety Certificates (VOC) of December 8, 2011. Europe is also revising its seed laws to follow their wishes. In Mexico, in Latin America, in all the countries of the APIRO(1) in East Africa, in India…, the peasant movements are also fighting against this invasion of the planet by the same threat that they have named the « Monsanto laws ».

What are the issues?

Three quarters of the world’s food is produced locally by subsistence farmers, only one quarter comes from industrial agriculture for the global market. The small farmers who feed the world in this way have no money to buy the industry’s seeds, nor the large machines, fertilizers, pesticides and often access to water that are essential to their crops. This is why the seed industry has focused on the 10% of the world’s farmers who use machinery and primarily on the 2% who use motorized machinery. If this industry does not sell anything to peasant farmers, on the other hand, it has provided them free of charge with all the seeds selected and maintained by hundreds of generations of farmers and which are the basis of all industrial selections. Farmers’ seeds have thus become the « plant genetic resources » of the industry. To guarantee its free access to this indispensable resource, it has named them the « common heritage of humanity ». At the same time, it has imposed several regulations (catalog, certification, Plant Variety Certificate (PVC) and patent laws) to limit farmers’ access to their own seeds. Before they disappeared from the fields, they collected all these farmers’ seeds, then locked them up in the freezers of their gene banks where they became « the exclusive common heritage of the seed industry ».

Today, the industry feels that this collection is coming to an end and has decided to take another step towards the realization of its project to eradicate peasant seeds for good. Just as peasants are being driven off their land to make way for investment companies that generalize export crops for the global market, peasant seeds are being driven off the land to make way for GMOs, non-reproducible F1 hybrids and other toxic seeds.

Why are industrial seeds toxic?

Beyond the direct toxicity of the new GMOs or wheat with indigestible glutens, it is also because none of these industrial seeds is capable of growing and adapting to climate change without toxic fertilizers and pesticides, nor without confiscating all the available water for themselves. The manufacture of these chemical inputs consumes more fossil energy, mostly oil, than the plants they grow can then fix from solar energy. These toxic seeds sold under the pretext of adapting to climate change are the first to warm the planet and pollute the environment. On the other hand, farmers’ seeds carefully selected in each field by the farmers are the only ones able to adapt without chemical inputs, while preserving in the soil the energy of photosynthesis in the form of carbon buried in the humus.

How does it work with the laws?

The laws of the catalog and certification prohibit the marketing and exchange of peasant seeds, which, like all living beings, are diversified and evolving in order to favour their constantly renewed adaptation to the diversity of the terroirs and to the evolution of climates and human needs. The laws only allow industrial seeds that have been homogenized and stabilized to fit the same chemical inputs everywhere. Most of these industrial seeds belong to varieties protected by Plant Variety Certificates (PVC), which must also be completely uniform and stable(2). Half of them are « F1 hybrids »: farmers cannot reuse their harvest as seed. For the other half, the pre-1991 VOC laws(3) tolerated farm-saved seed(4). These laws applied only to commercial agriculture and not to farm-saved seed or seed for home-grown and local food crops.

But with GMOs, then new genetic technologies, came the patent. The patent allows the appropriation of genes and plant traits. It allows the appropriation by the industry of any plant containing the gene and/or expressing the patented trait, whether it is the result of reproduction of patented seeds or genetic contamination of conventional or farmer seeds. Patents are spread everywhere by the wind, insects, birds… which carry pollen and seeds containing patented genes. With a simple, inexpensive analysis, the patent owner knows immediately whether the genetic or molecular markers of his patented gene are in a farmer’s field or in the seeds of his competitors: if he locates a gene for which he has a patent, he can enforce his rights on the crop or the seeds of his competitors.

De facto, it now has the technical tool to ban all farm seeds and appropriate all the peasant seeds in the world. A handful of multinationals can decide which people will have seeds to produce their food and which will not. This attack on the right to food is an unacceptable attack on the food and political sovereignty of peoples.

What is « UPOV91 »?

It is the accumulation of two property titles on each seed: a COV on the variety + a patent on each plant of the variety. It is also the progressive transformation of the VOC into a patent. Before 1991, the variety protected by a VOC was totally free to select another one. From now on, the protection of the VOC extends to the « essentially derived variety » (EDV) of the protected variety: this extension organizes the sharing of license rights between the VOC holder on the variety and the patent holder on the genes or characteristics of the plants of the same variety. Another change concerns farm-saved seed, which is prohibited by the patent. In order not to be outdone, the VOCs now make them « counterfeit », prohibited or subject to the payment of royalties to the breeder(5).

This UPOV 91 convention was transcribed into a European regulation in 1994, but farmers refused to obey: in the name of what legitimacy would they be deprived of access to their own seeds, or would they have to pay royalties to the industry to reuse them, when the latter has never paid anything to take their seeds in order to select its own? Apart from a few exceptions, no breeder has been able to prove, at a cost commensurate with the expected royalties, that his variety and not another is the source of the farm-saved seed used by a farmer. No proof, no royalties, no ban on farm-saved seed.

For their part, the people of Europe have rejected GMOs. Without GMOs, there are no patented genes that are easy to identify in the fields to demand royalties or ban farm-saved seeds. But today, new patented seeds are arriving on the market: the hidden GMOs. They are not transgenic, they are not labeled, so European consumers cannot recognize them to refuse them. Their genes are mutated, characterized by molecular markers and patented. They are also toxic seeds: most of them are herbicide tolerant! Since the end of the 2010s, the industry has been massively disseminating these patented genes hidden in European fields: sunflowers, rapeseed, corn, and tomorrow wheat… Monsanto, Syngenta and other multinationals are now also patenting « climate » or « nutritional » genes(6) that already exist in our plants and fields. For these multinationals, the time has come to ban all peasant seeds.

Nipping in the bud the European renaissance of farmers’ seeds

In Western Europe and in France, local food agriculture has almost completely disappeared and with it most of the peasant seeds. Only amateur gardeners have preserved many old varieties of vegetables and fruit trees. The industry’s propaganda would have us believe that this is just a new hobby consisting of growing three tomatoes on bourgeois balconies in European capitals. The millions of small farmers in the Eastern European countries that have recently joined the European Union do not grow crops to occupy their leisure time, nor to export to the global market, but for local food. They are now joined by the Irish, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese populations… thrown into the street by the financial crisis and who occupy abandoned lands to feed themselves. In the last ten years, more and more farmers in Western Europe have also decided to start selecting and producing their own seeds again. They want to give up the chemicals needed for industrial seeds and be sure not to buy GMOs. In France, several thousand of them are today grouped together in the member organizations of the Farmers’ Seeds Network.

For the past 10 years, the French industry has also been waging war against the sale of « old seeds » not registered in the catalog, in particular targeting Kokopelli. By confusing heirloom seeds with home gardening, its propaganda attempts to make people believe that selling seeds of unregistered varieties for home consumption is forbidden, or that farmers do not have the same right as industrial breeders to exchange seeds of unregistered varieties for their own breeding or for the conservation and renewal of their local varieties. This is a huge lie, this right is still enshrined in our laws which only apply to the sale of seeds for « commercial exploitation ». We must defend this right. Our rights are indeed like the freedom of the press: they only wear out when they are not used!

This industry propaganda has only one purpose: to defuse any challenge to the new seed laws they are now trying to impose in Europe. A new regulation is being discussed to extend the obligation to respect seed regulations to home gardening and food agriculture, which has never been done by any seed law in the world. In order to convince an increasingly distrustful public, this project promises to simplify the registration of so-called « conservation » varieties. Old seeds are certainly an invaluable treasure of diversity to start new selections. But many of them are no longer adapted to current conditions. The farmers’ seeds of today and tomorrow are not older than the climatic conditions and the current or future cultivation methods: every year, farmers make their varieties evolve to adapt them to the evolution of the environmental and cultivation conditions, to discover new tastes, to improve their nutritional characteristics…

Moreover, the proposed simplification is only apparent since the new regulation imposes the UPOV definition of variety for any commercialization, which excludes farmers’ « population » varieties. However « simplified » they may be, the cost, the bureaucracy and the standards of registration in the catalog will thus make disappear the tens of thousands of old and new peasant varieties that guarantee the existence of peasant and organic farming free of toxic inputs, but also the right to food of the poorest European populations. Apart from a few well-guarded niches, only seeds protected by VOCs and patents will be allowed to be commercialized while the dissemination of patented genes will invade the last farmers’ seeds.

Indeed, new obligations appear with this regulation: all farmers who produce seeds will be obliged to declare their activity to the authorities and to register all their purchases or exchanges of seeds. In the name of the fight against counterfeiting, the authorities will be able to communicate this list to the breeders who will only have to come and claim their royalties from these farmers, or prosecute those who have used prohibited farm seeds. The new regulation also aims to impose industrial « safety » and biosafety standards on farmers and small-scale seed growers that are totally out of their reach: no farmer or small-scale seed grower will be able to test each batch of seed for the absence of any regulated pathogens or GMOs. These new obligations of « self-checking under official control » will force farmers to buy industrial seeds if they do not want to be sued for not respecting sanitary and biosecurity standards. They will also push small artisanal seed producers into bankruptcy.

And to facilitate the collection of farmers’ seeds that are still « free » despite all these constraints, the new regulation only allows their cultivation under the supervision of gene banks. Such a deception is unacceptable: it is the farmers who must monitor the gene banks, if only to ban all GMOs, and not the other way around!

Recognize and protect the collective rights of farmers over their seeds

If implemented in Europe, such a reform will nip the revival of farmers’ seeds in the bud and make patented seeds widespread within a few years. Extended to the scale of the planet, it is aimed directly at the millions of small farmers who resist land grabbing: without peasant seeds, they will no longer be able to feed themselves and will give way to industrial crops. This is why the European people must reject it and instead impose a law to protect the rights of farmers to use, exchange and sell their own seeds, and to protect them from GMOs, patents and biopiracy. Not only for them, but for all the peasants of the world.

Guy Kastler, general delegate of the Farmers’ Seeds Network, January 20, 2013.

Notes et références
  1.  Organisation régionale Africaine de la Propriété Intellectuelle.
  2.  «  Homogène  », c’est-à-dire constituée de plantes identiques, et «  stables  », c’est-à-dire «  si chaque lot de semences commercialisées produit des plantes présentant les mêmes caractéristiques que celles décrites au moment de l’homologation de la variété.
  3.  Ou d’avant 1970 pour la France toujours en avance contre les droits des paysans.
  4. Semences de ferme : semences reproduites à la ferme à partir d’une variété commerciale. / Semences paysanne : semences sélectionnées et multipliées par des agriculteurs.
  5. L’obtenteur est le détenteur d’un droit de propriété intellectuelle sur une variété végétale… Ce sont le plus souvent des semenciers comme Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, etc. mais également des laboratoires, des spin-off d’universités, des petites entreprises plus locales, etc.
  6. Gènes auxquels on accorde un rôle dans l’adaptation aux changements climatiques, à la sécheresse.. ou dans les qualités nutritionnelles des plantes.
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