May 22 is the International Day for Biological Diversity, a day to highlight the rich variety of life on this planet and its inherent interconnectedness. When conjuring images of biological diversity, we cast our minds to lush tropical rainforests, colourful coral reefs, or vast deep oceans and the millions of lifeforms they support. Rarely do we consider the tiny, inconspicuous entities at the heart of much of the world’s biological and cultural diversity: seeds.
As Sister Joan Chittister eloquently explains, “In every seed lie the components of all life the world has known from all time to now.” As profound and unequivocal this statement may be, seed varieties are at risk of erasure: the last 100 years has seen the decimation of 94 percent of the world’s seed diversity.
For millennia, generations of small-scale family farmers have selected, saved and shared their best seeds, expanding and enriching seed and plant diversity over time. They have nurtured thousands of varieties that present unique characteristics and strengths, adapting to different environments and changing conditions. Some varieties may be resistant to specific pests or diseases, while others may be tolerant of weather extremes like drought or floods. Some have better yields or superior nutrition. The art of seed saving is a valuable conservation practice that preserves these desirable traits. Agricultural systems need all these traits – now more than ever.
Cycles of seed saving and the maintenance of agricultural biodiversity, however, have been threatened by a number of interlinking processes: the introduction of higher-yielding hybrid and genetically engineered varieties, patents and intellectual property laws that monopolise genetic information and an increasingly concentrated commercial seed industry. In fact, a suite of mega-mergers among Big Seed corporations has recently been approved, resulting in just three companies claiming control of 61% of the world’s commercial seed sales – the biggest agribusiness oligopoly in history.
Big Seed corporations breed seeds that respond to their chemical or other “premium” (read: expensive) products, and these products work best in monoculture agricultural systems. With just a handful of corporations owning the majority of the world’s seeds, the fate of food and farming lies precariously in the hands of a few individuals. The more concentrated the power of agribusiness corporations, the more political and economic clout they have to skew trade agreements, farming policies and agricultural research in ways that favour the industrial farming model their products support, constricting the rise of more sustainable and diverse models of agriculture.
According to a study by the United Nations, corporate concentration of the agricultural seed and inputs sector “has far-reaching implications for global food security.” The study affirms that the privatisation and patenting of the genetic resources embodied in seeds has supplanted traditional agricultural understandings of seed practices and farmers’ rights, such as the right to save and replant seeds. As many farmers have already experienced, their custodial link to seeds and seed practices are becoming lost to private interests, and their control and choices over farming practices are becoming increasingly diminished.
Renowned ecofeminist and environmentalist activist Vandana Shiva describes this process of seed privatisation as “The Great Seed Robbery”:
“The seed, the source of life, the embodiment of our biological and cultural diversity, the link between the past and the future of evolution, the common property of past, present and future generations of farming communities who have been seed breeders is today being stolen from the farmers and being sold back to us as “proprietary” seed, owned by corporations like Monsanto.”
Today, seeds are a contentious symbol for ecological, economic, cultural and political debate. These debates form the discursive and territorial battleground on which competing visions and interests for the future of seed, food and farming practices play out.
Across the globe, a united voice is challenging the mantra that patented industrial seeds and large-scale, monoculture agriculture is the only means by which we can feed the world. A growing movement to preserve seed diversity and reinstate the agricultural legacy of passing seeds from generation to generation is underway in communities as diverse as the seeds themselves. For many, reclaiming, planting, conserving and sharing of native or heirloom seeds is firmly entrenched in the ideals of food sovereignty. Viewed from this perspective, seeds are the containers of cultural knowledge and historical breeding practices, the key to protecting biodiversity and the embodiment of the right to design our local food systems.
A resilient and flourishing agricultural sector dedicated to nourishing communities and enriching ecosystems starts with seed diversity. Advocating for seed diversity takes an ensemble of individuals, networks, organisations and practices working together to articulate and collectively work towards a vision for a just and healthy food system. Building broad alliances for seed sovereignty in our communities and standing in solidarity with smallholder farmers across the globe starts with the understanding that seeds play a vital role in the well-being of all living creatures; they are the source of life.
This International Day for Biological Diversity, let’s sow seeds of solidarity. Whether it be buying a sustainably-grown, local produce from the farmers market, planting unusual vegetable varieties in garden beds or windowsill planters, or campaigning for laws that protect farmers’ seed systems, we collectively become a part of a network of seed savers nurturing seeds of diversity, freedom and resilience.
Photo courtesy of Future Feeders.