Biological diversity is the basis that will ensure that we can nourish mankind in the future. Access to seeds must be warranted.Over centuries, the seeds of cultivars established a special relationship between mankind and nature that was passed on through generations.
There are only a few things on earth as vital and wonderful as seeds. A seed can often rest for many years before germinating and developing into a new plant. Additionally, seeds maintain the knowledge and culture surrounding our nutrition.
For centuries, seeds were communal property
The history of our cultivated plants began approx. 12,000 years ago, when our ancestors settled down and began growing crops. Over centuries, farmers developed cultivars from wild plants. They improved the seeds by propagating the plants that had adapted best and trading them with their neighbor. The seeds of cultivars established a special relationship between mankind and nature over centuries, a relationship that was passed from one generation to the next. The subsequent generation always had access to the achievements of their ancestors.
The experience and knowledge contained in the seeds of our cultivars is invaluable. The biological diversity that has developed through the collaborative work of the farmers is important for the future of mankind to this day. In times of climate change, shrinking agricultural land, and increased population, we need the highest biological diversity possible to meet the challenges of the next centuries.
Cultivation and breeding away from agriculture
Today, we have in large part lost our access to seeds and to the knowledge about our cultivars. Now, seeds have become the private property of a few international corporations that, in addition to seeds, also sell tailored pesticides. Increasingly, breeding and cultivation takes place in the lab. New breeding techniques have moved in and replaced classical selection. Our cultivated plants are produced through CMS (cytoplasmic male sterility) hybridization, artificial DNA multiplication in the cells, cell fusion, and other new breeding techniques that target specific changes in the DNA.
Varieties and seeds have become a commodity
Knowledge of the role of DNA in the characteristics of a plant was added to the knowledge of our cultivars in relation to their environment. Gregor Mendel established the basis for that knowledge only 150 years ago. Since Mendel and his successors, cultivation has become increasingly more knowledge-intensive in the area of genetics and has moved away from agriculture to become a specialized breeding enterprise. A variety, as in a very specific variety of a respective cultivar with characteristic properties, has become a corporate product and commodity.
Since 1953, there is a law for »Variety protection and seeds of cultivars «. It regulates the rights of breeders with respect to the farmers and ensures that propagation of a certain variety by the farmer is limited; or fees have to be paid. The law does not have a serious effect on the breeding and further development of the varieties. Breeders can continue to work with the protected varieties and develop their own, improved varieties from them. That is the so-called breeder privilege.
No more patents for conventional breeding
The 1980’s saw the beginning of genetic engineering in plant breeding. As a result, patents increasingly appeared in breeding, either for specific processes in genetic engineering or for the engineered product, the variety, itself. As opposed to the variety protection, these patents also limited the work of the breeders since, if a particular variety had a patent, the breeder could no longer breed with that variety unless licensing fees were paid.
In the last few years, the European Patent Office even put patents on plants that were bred conventionally, i.e., without genetic engineering. People interested in the subject and various NGOs have fought against this development for years. A few weeks ago, November 2016, the European Commission issued a long-awaited statement that strengthens the position of the patent opponents. The statement says that plants and animals produced by conventional biological breeding processes cannot be patented. Hopefully, the European Patent Office will return to this line of reasoning (please also see No Patent On Seeds).
Lots of money for applied genetic engineering
Companies that wanted to play a leading role in plant cultivation and breeding in the era of genetic engineering had to spend a lot of money to build their knowledge base in applied genetic engineering and to drive corporate growth. One of the strategies was growth through acquisition. During the last decades, big corporations acquired many mid-sized breeding houses, resulting in a drastic depletion in the breeding landscape in Europe and worldwide.
Now, however, there are announcements that even the big corporations will acquire each other. Chemchina will acquire Syngenta for USD 43 billion, and Bayer intends to buy Monsanto for USD 66 billion (see article from Zeit Online, Bayer buys US seed manufacturer Monsanto). The merger of the US chemical and seed corporations Dow Chemical and DuPont was the start of these mega acquisitions. Against the background of the progressing privatization of seeds through patents, this is a disturbing development for biodiversity in the field.
Citizens demonstrate for biodiversity
Presumably, the growth and competition among these corporations will not lead to an increase in plant types and varieties in agriculture. Instead, it is more likely that these companies will try to make as much profit as possible with fewer types and varieties. In developed countries, by switching from so-called local varieties to modern, supra-regionally traded varieties, we have already lost a great deal of our agricultural biodiversity. It appears that we are currently accelerating our progress towards this dead end.
But people all over the world have recognized the importance of seeds for the future of mankind and have gotten involved. This spring, for the fourth year in a row, many took to the streets in numerous countries and cities to protest the increasing control over food production by large corporations in the so-called »March against Monsanto«.
We’re fed up!-Demonstration
People in Germany are more familiar with the annual “We’re fed up!” demonstration, which has been held every January since 2010. Demonstrators support healthy food, organic, farm-oriented agriculture, and fair trade, subjects which also put the topic of seeds in the forefront. Biodiversity in the field is a core theme of so-called farm-oriented agriculture. Compared to “specialized, industrial agriculture”, farm-oriented agriculture works with significantly greater biodiversity within its operating structure.
One example of the success of this civic movement was the rejection of a redraft of the EU Seed Act by the EU Parliament, and the complete withdrawal of the bill in 2015.
Put an end to corporate pressure
Political influence alone is not enough for a lot of people. The desire to retake control over the production and distribution of food has led to a boom in community supported agriculture (CSA) in Germany as well. Under this concept, several private households share the costs of a farm operation in return for the harvest.
This frees farmers from the pressures of the food retail chain on the one hand, and from the chemical and seed corporations on the other. It also makes room for agriculture that is consistently farm and region-oriented and that does not use genetically modified or patented seeds. Per the CSA network website, (www.solidarische-landwirtschaft.org), there are currently at least 117 community supported agricultural operations in Germany, and 106 are in the founding phase. A new generation of young farmers and gardeners is on the rise and stands shoulder to shoulder with the citizens and consumers.
Private gardeners get information from seed exchanges
Individuals who would like to sow themselves should visit one of the regional seed exchanges in the spring. There, gardeners can find a large assortment of seeds from good-tasting old and new varieties that are capable of reproduction and come from organic farming. Seed festivals are also great opportunities for visitors to share their gardening experiences. Organizers often provide additional knowledge input through presentations, workshops, or films. Thus well-equipped, you can then start the new gardening season. Schedule overview.
Propagating seeds on your own
Lastly, I want to encourage all gardening enthusiasts to propagate the seeds of their favorite plants themselves. First, let the plant fully bloom to let the seeds mature. Then harvest the seeds and keep them during the winter for trading with friends. In the spring, witness the reawakening and fresh vitality — a wonderful experience.