Reclaiming peasants’ and farmers’ rights over our own seeds.
Brussels, 20th January 2014
A report back from the Landworkers’ Alliance delegation
On the 20th of January five Landworkers’ Alliance members joined over 300 other farmers, growers and people concerned about the rights of farmers. The protest in Brussels was to demonstrate that farmers across Europe are not willing to accept the proposed seed regulation (EU Plant Reproductive Material Law) that the seed industry is trying to push through parliament. This legislation would have a hugely negative effect on the rights of farmers to use, save and exchange their seeds.
Three of us joined about 10 others for the seed campaign working group of the European Coordination of Via Campesina (ECVC). Farmers from across Europe were represented including those in the UK, Spain, Italy, France, Romania, Germany and Turkey.
We heard updates of La Via Campesina’s work on the seed campaign across the world. It was explained that the proposed legislations would go against the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (also known as the International Seed Treaty). The Treaty is supposed to ensure that plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, are conserved and sustainably used, and that benefits from their use are equitably and fairly distributed. It has been ratified by a long list of countries as well as the EU. In actual fact the Treaty has allowed industry the access to peasant saved seed. Multi national seed corporations are then able to use this primary genetic resource and then patent these seeds, prohibiting peasants and farmers from saving the seeds that they themselves and their ancestors have bred over centuries.
Currently the seed legislation is made up of Directives which were put in place by the European Commission. Such directives can be interpreted by each member state, resulting in different levels of leniency. The proposed legislation is an EU Regulation which must be adhered to in its entirety across all member states. The result in the UK would be much tighter controls of seed saving and lead to the loss of many open pollinated varieties.
If a farmer saves their own seed it is their responsibility to analyse it to ensure that it is not contaminated with a neighbours crop (and patented genetic material). Technology for analysing is inaccessible to small scale producers, which means that farmers have fallen into the routine of buying seed from suppliers, who can afford the necessary analysis equipment.
The proposed legislation states that open pollinated seed varieties must be registered within the framework of hybrids, meaning that it must be Distinct, Uniform and Stable (D.U.S). Open pollinated varieties would not fit into the necessary criteria, since they contain inherent diversity and they change over time (this is of course a benefit as genetic diversity is improved). It also suggests the privatisation of the public control of the seed market. This would mean that large companies could have their own internal controls, and others would be overseen by private entities regulated by the industry. This would of course lead to even more peasant and farmer seed to be modified and patented, further depleting our access to seed.
If the proposed regulation is rejected the new commission would have to rewrite the legislations under further pressure from industry, especially as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment (TTIP) is pushed through. It is therefore hoped that the law is re-negotiated rather than rejected fully.
Systems for maintaining seed diversity
We shared stories of the current situation in each of our own countries with regards to seed legislations and seed saving. Many countries have setup strategies to continue maintaining and improving peasant seeds such as Reseau Semences Paysannes in France. This is a network of farmers across France who save their own seeds and exchange them with other farmers in their region. It seems to be a very well organised group that brings farmers together to share their experiences of seed saving and maintains, improves and disseminates traditional varieties. Another important role of such groups seems to be the engagement and mobilisation of consumers. It is essential that as the seed savers we must let our consumers know about the issues with seed laws and show that our traditional, open pollinated varieties build biodiversity and resilience into our farming system, and humanity’s continued sustainable presence upon this Earth.
Many of the successful seed networks were farmer led, but also involved students or technicians to help record data on the seeds to ensure that they are well maintained. This seems essential so as to allow the farmer to not be overwhelmed by the extra work involved in maintaining good traditional varieties. Seed fairs are then organised to bring farmers together and also raising awareness to the public.
After hearing these stories we felt that something similar should be set up in the UK amongst farmers and small holders. We will be looking at organising a similar network of seed savers and trying to revive the skill of seed saving through skill sharing events. More to follow soon with this.
GM across Europe
The following morning we were updated on the current situation of GM crops in the EU. Different technologies are being used to create “hidden” GM crops, which are being rushed onto the market by seed corporations before the Commission decides whether or not they should be classified as GM.
The Spanish government officials have strong links with Monsanto, whose propaganda can be found in the government offices. Trial sites are being kept secret in Spain, and organic growers have had to stop growing maize in fear that they will be contaminated by GM maize. Stories from Romania suggest that National Parks are at threat from being planted with GM crops, as government officials own swathes of land in the parks and may have links with Biotech firms.
After these incredibly fruitful workshops we headed to the protest that was organised by ECVC outside the offices of the European Parliament. It was a friendly gathering of farmers, growers and those who cared about the rights of farmers and food sovereignty. People came from all over Europe, including a tractor driven from Germany, and Severine (from Greenhorns) joined us from USA. A large crowd gathered around to listen to members of Via Campesina (including our very own Adam Payne and Gerald Miles) talk about the struggles faced by farmers not only in Europe but across the world as the rights of small scale farmers are being undermined. These were hugely inspirational talks and it made me very proud of being part of a wider movement, which for much of the year is easy to forget, as so many of us are wrapped up in our own work of farming and growing.
A hugely popular seed swap took place, organic lunch was served and a football match followed. FC Paysan took on Real Bio-tech in a match which saw the referee tie the hands of FC Paysans, and the team of Real Bio-Tech handing out money to the crowd. Needless to say, we (the supporters of FC Paysan) stormed the pitch and tried to even out some of the referees malodorous decisions.
The lobby tour then followed, which was given by the Corporate Europe Observatory. We gathered outside the offices of Bayer and the European Seed Association (ESA) whose location just outside the offices of EU Parliament illustrated how much lobbying presence they have. It was a real insight into the massive lobbying power of the seed industry at EU level. We learnt that there are between 15,000 and 50,000 lobbyists in Brussels – an astounding figure – the exact number is unknown, shrouded as it is. We did of course cover the fronts of the offices with posters showing our disapproval of the situation.
To wrap up our few days in Brussels a public conference was held with speakers including Elizabeth Mpofu (General Coordinater of La Via Campesina) who summarized the key struggles wonderfully. We had just about enough energy to have a good old dance, always good to see different growers dancing techniques – the “Scythe dance” was a favourite.