The pandemic and quarantine put the supply, availability, price and quality of food at the center of concern. This connects us with our entire agri-food system, at the origin of which are the seeds on which everything else depends. They are the first link in any agri-food chain. Food sovereignty and the agricultural development of a country depend on their possession, production and trade.
In the 1970s Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State said: "Control food and you control people, control oil and control nations." And at the beginning of the 21st century, this definition of the dominance of food as a political weapon reappeared strongly in the words of the former president of the United States, George Bush (son): “Can you imagine a country incapable of producing enough food to feed its population? It would be a nation subject to international pressure. It would be a nation at risk ”.
Whoever controls the seeds, controls the production chain and, therefore, the availability of food. That is why they are an important source of power and disputes. This is how the organizations of family, peasant and indigenous agriculture understand it, which for a long time have been resisting the attacks of a model that deprives them; in front of biotechnology companies, who identified the enormous value that seeds and their associated technological packages have in the control of world agriculture.
Currently the commercial seed market is one of the most concentrated and is controlled by a handful of transnational companies. Just three companies control 60% of the global seed market: Bayer-Monsanto, Corteva (merger of Dow and Dupont) and ChemChina-Syngenta.
Historically, they have been enhanced and shared by farmers around the world, leading to great productive biodiversity as a result of human labor. This form of improvement and conservation "in situ" (in the ecological and cultural environments where they have managed to develop their specific properties) has been responsible for the creation of thousands of varieties locally adapted to various ecosystems and cultures. This is an essential part of agriculture, an individual creative act, but above all, a collective one. However, in the last 70 years, diversity has been drastically reduced as a consequence of the advancement of industrial agriculture and the concentration of the seed market.
From common good to private property
Unlike other products, seeds are living organisms that can reproduce and that is why capital accumulation based on private appropriation has been difficult, which is why they were (and in part still are not) considered "common goods" of The humanity.
However, capital always looked for different strategies to overcome this difficulty and when agriculture began to “modernize” and then when the possibility of controlling the genes of the seeds arrived in order to prevent others from using them, they were transformed into negotiable commodities. , sites of political conflict, themes of antagonistic discourses on rights, and drivers of social exclusion and dispossession.
From the middle of the 20th century, two milestones occurred in the technical transformations of seeds that took important steps in this direction. On the one hand, the appearance of hybrid seeds (overcrowded in the framework of the Green Revolution) that broke the seed-grain identity and therefore, meant the farmer's separation from his ability to replant and the beginning of dependence on the companies that provide the inputs. On the other hand, the expansion of biotechnologies applied to agriculture gave rise to transgenic seeds, generating great changes in knowledge privatization strategies, enabling new mechanisms for capital accumulation.
In an articulated manner, legal mechanisms were produced that accompanied the changes in the forms of appropriation of the same: seed laws, which require mandatory registration and certification; contracts that companies enter into asymmetrically with producers; and above all, intellectual property laws. In this way, those common goods that circulated freely for thousands of years, can now be privatized and controlled by a person or company that is awarded the obtaining of a new variety.
Until the 1960s, plant materials used for genetic improvement were freely available. This principle began to break down with the appearance of breeder's rights (DOV), a particular form of intellectual property for seeds, and its institutionalization in 1961 with the birth of the Union for the Protection of Plant Varieties (UPOV). Version 78, still in force in many countries like Argentina, implicitly contemplates the rights of farmers. It means that these, with the exception of their commercial sale, retain the right to freely produce their seeds, being able to use the product of the harvest that they have obtained by growing it on their own farm. This is what is known as the proper use of the seeds.
In the 1990s, the appropriation of seeds went up several notches: UPOV was amended in 1991, cutting farmers' rights to their seeds; the World Trade Organization (WTO) was created in 1995 with its “new trade issues” that gave rise to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS); and the signing of free trade agreements was extended, in which intellectual property acquired great prominence and imposes conditions that directly affect seeds.
In Argentina, transgenic seeds occupy more than 67% of the sown area. They were introduced in 1996, along with the accompanying biotech package. This produced transformations in the national agricultural system, with important increases in production, intensification of agriculture and specialization of exports of agricultural origin.
The other side were the tremendous environmental and social consequences, which directly affect agrobiodiversity (and therefore the availability of seeds), such as the concentration of land and production; deforestation and clearings; contamination by the massive use of pesticides; and the evictions of indigenous and peasant communities.
At the same time, seeds have been an axis of debate and popular mobilization around the discussion for the modification of the Seed Law and the possibility of adhering to UPOV 91, which could not yet materialize due to the resistance that arose from multiple sectors of society and the diverse and contradictory positions that occurred within the State.
And at the same time, for many years the organizations of family, peasant and indigenous agriculture; environmental movements; researchers and researchers; and from various agencies the State, experiences of agroecological production began to be replicated, at the same time that campaigns are being developed, building daily practices, and erecting institutions aimed at preserving native and creole seeds; germplasm; and ancestral knowledge.
Today, the debate around food sovereignty that has been strongly installed on the public scene in recent days, opens a unique opportunity to multiply these experiences, on the way to move towards a transition towards another agricultural and food model. The debate is actually an asymmetric conflict between models - one that deepens transgenic monoculture and is based on the private appropriation of nature, on the one hand; and that based on diversity, agroecology and the vindication of seeds as heritage of the peoples at the service of humanity, on the other hand - and how it is developed and settled will have profound implications for the future of our country and humanity. .
Tamara Perelmuter: @tamiperelmuter