The Defence of Seeds in Latin America: outlooks and challenges

At present, the gravest threats to agro-biodiversity are genetic contamination, and genetic erosion due to legal support or as a result of the globalized food industry.

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In 1999, the FAO announced in one of its documents(1) that humanity had lost 75% of its plant genetic resources in the course of the last century. That is to say, the seeds that we inherited from our ancestors.


Agricultural seed is always the result of long processes of adaptation. Let’s take the case of maize: necessity and taste, some ten thousand years ago, led campesinos in Mexico to place their hope in a wild weed that grew in the zone, the teosinte. It was a plant with several stalks, at the end of which there was a row of small seeds, each grain covered with a sheath or skin, similar to that of wheat or oats. From time to time a mutation would occur that covered the whole ear with one sheath, making the extraction of the grain much easier. The peasants began to sow only the seeds of plants that had presented this mutation: over time they selected bigger and bigger grains, then they discovered a new mutation that doubled the rows to two, and later another that led to four, then eight and more. After much time, these mutations became stable. A new species had been born: maize.


In each little valley, the farmers adapted the plant to local conditions of soil, climate, plagues, a process that could take many years or decades. In this way, new types of maize appeared. At the time of the arrival of the Europeans thousands of varieties existed in the Americas, adapted to the most diverse geographic conditions.


Similar processes took place in the creation of all the species and varieties that we have inherited: apples in Kazajstan, citric fruits and rice in Southeast Asia; coffee in Ethiopia, wheat, barley and oats in Mesopotamia, cabbage in Europe, vines and olives in the Mediterranean, etc. There is an impressive agricultural diversity, the fruit of the labour of millions of small farmers over thousands of years.


In recent years, modern science has not been capable of adding a single species to the world basket. This is mainly due to the fact that the evolution of crops is based on an extreme lottery: the next useful genetic mutation can appear in one plant among millions. Therefore, no institution, no team of scientists, no state or private budget can replace the labour of millions of peasants selecting continuously, year after year.


In addition, the evolution of plants for cultivation should take place under natural conditions, in the fields, not in the artificial conditions of laboratories or in the control plots of institutions. And it should take place in a social context, in the heart of a society that is constantly recreating its food culture on the basis of local conditions, always seeking a balance between quality and efficiency in production.


Industrial agriculture


This was precisely the situation at the global level until the takeoff of industrial agriculture in the decade of the sixties of the past century. Within a few years, millions of farmers stopped selecting and saving their seeds. The quality of crops, that had depended on the farmer management of seeds and soils, began to depend on hybrid seeds and agro-toxins.


When the farmers in a region abandon their seeds in favour of hybrids, there is no turning back; the genetic erosion puts an end in a few years to varieties that were locally adapted, dangerously reducing the capacity to create new varieties that are resistant and productive, generating a total dependency on seeds controlled by industry and its package of agro-toxins.


At the end of the twentieth century, a number of enterprises that had been taking advantage of this situation began a process of monopolisation of the sector, and launched a new phase of the process with the introduction of genetically modified crops. Their names are well-known: Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Novartis, Dupont and Seminis. Their domination of the seed markets has been consolidated, which represents an enormous risk for humanity in general.  In these days of climate change and in the advent of a shortage of petroleum, in coming decades, genetic erosion, the incapacity to create new locally adapted varieties and the dependency on seeds that will not function without the support of fossil fuels will be important factors in the loss of productivity, generating hunger and poverty. Seeds are an essential factor for both the well-being and the survival of future generations.


At present the most serious threats to agro-biodiversity are:


1. Genetic contamination. The massive introduction of genetically modified crops is irremediably affecting local genetic wealth in various Latin American countries. The continent is unwillingly participating in an experiment on a grand scale; in reality, we do not know what will be the long-term consequences of the genetic contamination of crops. Nevertheless, the social, economic and ecological affectation, and that in terms of food sovereignty and genetic erosion, are incalculable.


2. Genetic erosion with legal support: the majority of the countries that signed the international treaty UPOV 91, and even those that did not sign, are at distinct stages of implementating laws that regulate the production and circulation of seeds within their territories. These laws are practically carbon copies, they pursue the same ends with similar tools. With the pretext of protecting seeds from infirmities and elevating the quality of the crops -- both claims that have no scientific justification -- national systems of control are created that only allow the circulation of certified seed that is in the national catalogue. France, one of the first countries to enforce these regulations, is an example of the consequences: nearly 100% of the seeds registered in the national catalogue are industrial hybrids; big business fails to comply with the regulations, but these are applied with force to the associations that produce free and ancestral seeds, giving rise to costly legal processes that the small producers cannot afford. Another example is Colombia, where the police have confiscated trucks that were traveling without special permits while carrying products that could serve as seeds, such as whole grain rice; the transporters have been fined and the grain buried in municipal dumps.


3.  Genetic erosion resulting from food globalization. Probably the most important cause is the lack of knowledge on the part of the population, that has adopted a globalized diet where even organic vegetables follow the European / US model and compete with local products.


Agro-ecological challenges


But it is perhaps here that there is hope. Latin America is experiencing a re-valorization of its traditional cuisine, for motives that include tourist gastronomy, on the one hand, and on the other, a growing awareness on the part of the population that the national diets are more adequate for health. Agro-ecology continues to expand in the continent and will without doubt pick up strength. This creates ideal conditions to promote the consumption of ancestral crops in each country, and from there, to rescue inherited, free and local seeds.


The success of this strategy will depend on the capacity of interconnection and economic sustainability of the actors that promote agro-diversity in the initial stage.  Latin America has a tradition of various decades of social and political struggle around this issue, hand-in-hand with various organizations at the national and continental levels. Thanks to their work, seeds occupy an important position that generates positive reactions in public opinion. But this work, while it has limited the expansion of the plant genetic monopoly on various fronts, has not been able to ensure a self-supply of seeds at the local level; so genetic erosion continues. This is the challenge that the networks of guardians and custodians of seeds now face, through new and existing networks in each country of the continent. These are groups of citizens, producers of seeds who are organizing to confront together the challenges of organic production of seeds under the present difficult conditions.


In Europe, various associations of this kind have been able to subsist and even carry out successful legal battles against the corporations and their State allies. In the United States, in spite of the regulations, there exists an authentic growth of networks, family micro enterprises and associations that are succeeding not only in the retrieval of agro-diversity, but also in the creation of new varieties of crops.


The situation in Latin America is critical. There are cases that bring hope, such as the peasant-farmer enterprise Bionatur in the South of Brazil, but in general, there is a lack of autonomous, self-sustaining strategies for the rescue and promotion of seeds.


It is in this context that the aforementioned networks are working. Those that are grouped in the new network Red Semillas de Libertad (Freedom Seeds Network) have impressive successes and much experience share.  Some examples are the campaign Sin Maíz no hay País (without maize there is no country) in Mexico; the processes of commercialization of peasant seeds in Guatemala; the declaration of 70% of municipalities free of transgenic seeds in Costa Rica; the more than 3000 varieties of seeds preserved by the Network of Seed Guardians in Ecuador and Colombia; the retrieval of the Huatunakuy Festival in Peru; the creation of the Cooperativa de Productores de Semilla Austral (Southern cooperative of seed producers) in Chile. Assuming the responsibility for maintaining one of the regions of greatest agricultural diverse in the world, without economic support and with little knowledge of how their efforts can be sustainable, while facing legislation that is often opposed to their labour, the guardians and custodians of seeds, both women and men, are working every day to bring free, organic seeds of our ancestral heritage to the population. 


(Translated for ALAI by Jordan Bishop)


- Javier Carrera, Red de Guardianes de Semillas, Ecuador.


Article published in the April edition of ALAI’s Spanish language magazine América Latina en Movimiento (No. 512), titled “Por los caminos de la soberanía alimentaria” (on the pathways of food sovereignty).


[i] FAO (1999) Women: users, preservers and managers of agrobiodiversity. Rome, FAO.
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