Wednesday, March 5, 2008

No Strain, No Gain - EU Fines Heirloom Seed Company for Selling "Endangered Strains"

SchNEWS looks at how corporations and governments are limiting and controlling the varieties of crops grown…

Last week, in France, the independent seed-saving and selling Association Kokopelli were fined €35,000 after being taken to court by corporate seed merchant Baumaux. Their crime was selling traditional and rare seed varieties which weren’t on the official EU-approved list – and, therefore, illegal to sell – thus giving them an ‘unfair trading advantage’. As the European Commission met this week to prepare new legislation for seed control, due in 2009, which will further restrict the geographic movement and range of crop varieties, this ruling will set a dangerous precedent.

Kokopelli, the non-profit French group set up in 1999 to safeguard endangered seed strains, may be driven out of existence by the fine. Their focus is biodiversity, food security, and the development of sustainable organic agriculture and seed networks in the ‘global south’. They have created one of the largest independent collections in Europe – with over 2500 sorts of vegetable, flower and cereals. Other non-government seedbanks are held by large agro-industrial companies like Limagrain, Syngenta and Pioneer – and guess what their main interest is money rather than starving subsistence farmers.

You may think that in an era of mass extinction it would be a no-brainer that we need to protect biodiversity and the heritage of the crop varieties which have been build up over centuries… but no. Since the 1970s, laws in the UK and Europe mean that to sell seeds, the strain needs to be registered – and everything else becomes ‘outlaw’ seeds, illegal to sell. In the UK it costs £300 per year to maintain the registration and £2000 to register a ‘new’ one – which all disadvantages smaller organisations.

Garden Organic in the UK run a Heritage Seed Library (, and they get around the law by not selling ‘outlaw’ seeds, but getting individual gardeners to become ‘seed guardians’ who pass around seeds for free to other members of the Library. Unlike other seedbanks, seeds are not kept in cold storage, but are living species which are continually grown and allowed to adapt to new environmental factors.

Another law-busting approach is seed swaps – which in recent years have sprouted up and down the country. People freely share seeds for another year’s growing – a co-operative way of maintaining genetic diversity. Most are around February - see for the remaining events this year.


There’s so many types of potato – why not just use the best ones and forget the rest? Seed varieties which have been developed over the centuries have adapted to environments, and the genepool has to survive unforeseen factors such as pests and diseases – or climate change. The Irish potato famine was caused by an over-reliance on blight afflicted spuds, or, to take another example, a variety of cauliflower grown in Cornwall was abandoned in the 1940s for a French cauli which gave a higher yield, but turned out to be vulnerable to fungal ringspot – but the old ringspot-resistant Cornish type is now extinct.

Limiting the varieties means limiting the genetic base – presumably to leave GM technology in the clear as the only option.

While mass extinctions are taking place in natural ecosystems, the same has taken place in domesticated seeds. Today there are only half a dozen apple types grown in the UK, down from 2,000 a century ago. Over 90% of crop types listed in the US have been lost in 80 years, and China now grows fifty types of rice, down from 8,000 just twenty years ago. The whole human population is supported by just 30 main crop varieties – a recipe for disaster.


Originally laws regarding seeds were brought in during the 1920s – mostly to regulate quality and make sure they did what they said on the tin, and not disease ridden, full of stray weed seed or stones. At the time these laws were a good thing but guess what! It’s all been twisted around and now companies use these and subsequent laws to get control of the market. By cutting out the independent networks of farmers, gardeners, and independent seed-sellers - on a worldwide scale - ten companies now control two-thirds of seed distribution. And which companies are we talking about? It’s yer bio-tech giants like Monsanto and Syngenta. Unsurprisingly governments around the world are building up the legal framework to support these firms.

When you register a seed type, potentially anyone growing it is liable to pay you royalties – making ‘intellectual property’ out of plants which have evolved over thousands of years. These companies take an interest in the myriad of varieties with a view to splicing genetic traits into other types, and take out patents on the genetic content. Monsanto have a European patent on a type of wheat which is derived from a traditional Indian one, the sort used to make chapatis.

These same companies are narrowing the market down to the few mono-culture crops they are flogging, reducing diversity. Once farmers limit theirs to these few types – often hybrids which produce defective seeds – they are forced to return to ‘the man’ to buy next year’s seed rather than being able to save and use last year’s. This is the next thing down from the prospect of ‘terminator’ seeds – genetically modified to be sterile, and deliberately unable to supply future yields (See SchNEWS 557).

The farmers were in a far stronger position with their traditional varieties which were open-pollinated, carrying a wider genepool, and better able to adapt to new conditions and diseases.


Seeds – and ultimately the control over production of food - becomes another front in which communities and individual farmers across the world have to fight against the forces of neoliberalism and corporatisation.

Via Campesino – the international peasants movement – held a gathering last weekend in Austria, bringing together small farmers from sixteen countries on ‘food and power’. They are increasing networking and solidarity amongst farmers across the world both to protect biodiversity and increase the sharing of crop choices and farming techniques. And it’s not just the corporations and large-scale agro-industry they are up against – due to climate change they are being forced to adapt quickly to new environmental factors and more than ever need to pool knowledge and resources.

For more see


But don’t fret – whatever catastrophe, armageddon or ecocide befalls us, measures are at hand to make sure that if we survive a nuclear winter or total desertification, we’ll be able to recreate a bucolic paradise: This Tuesday (26th), Norway opened the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic circle. The vault is over 500 feet inside a mountain, and 130 metres above sea-level – in case the polar ice caps melt. Seeds are stored at below -20 degrees in moisture free packs and it is claimed that many will last a hundred years – longer for some cereals. Maybe after all the cyborg mutant terminator seeds have all long since sprouted legs and run off into the sunset, the traditional common-or-garden varieties will be the ones saying, “I’ll be back”.

* See
* For more about Kokopelli see

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