Seeds and farming

The multiplication, regeneration and improvement of seeds are necessary in order to grow vegetables, cereals or other edible plants in realistic conditions. The seed`s ability to maintain its quality during its lifecycle is limited. Even gene-banks cannot freeze and store seeds forever if they do not re-cultivate them again in the soil. They must be replicated every 5-10 years in the fields before they are frozen again. The majority of countries, especially those in poorer areas, currently import 90% of their agricultural seeds from the big seed company giants (e.g. Dupont, US, Monsanto/Bayer, Germany, Stakata, Japan, Limagrain, France, Syngenta, China, KFW, Germany). The USA, Germany, France, Japan and Russia are exceptions, as well as the Netherlands, which is one of the biggest seed exporters in the world. Most of the profit from seed production is kept within the small number of top industrial nations as listed above, where the headquarters of the top 10 seed companies are located. It is, however, not only about seeds. 70% of the world’s food trade is in the hands of 4 international companies: Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus. Most populations are currently dependent of the ‘good will’ of 4-10 globally operating companies, located in rich countries. The poor are buying from the rich. With the potential of a food crisis caused by bad weather, these companies are raising their prices even higher in order to maintain their wealth.

Till the 19th century, seeds and plant breeding were part of the public domain – exchanged or locally developed in public institutions/research centres. This has changed drastically in the last 60-100 years. Private companies now mostly have the monopoly on plant breeding, keeping the knowledge inaccessible to the public. They began by developing hybrids, withholding the information regarding the family lines. The hybrid seeds showed higher yield and more uniformity making transport and storage easier whilst also resulting in the loss of flavour and aroma. They then developed genetically manipulated seeds, resistant to specific pesticides also developed by the same company. This meant the farmer buying the company’s seeds would also be forced to buy their specific pesticides and fertilisers to balance the local conditions (as the seeds are not adapted to their climates), in order to produce a reliable yield. Whilst this may all sound benign on the surface, in reality the implications are very serious. This model ensures that the money is kept by the agricultural giants such as Bayer, Syngenta, Dupont, Limagrain, Stakata and not by the farmer, who becomes increasingly reliant on these companies for his business. In addition to this, if the soil becomes unhealthy, the cost of this falls to the farmer, not the agrochemical giants, whilst that of the water pollution is covered by the taxpayer. The annual investment in private plant-breeding is around 100 times greater than that of the public counterpart. The ten big seed companies in the world currently invest around €1bn per year in research and development of plant breeding. The estimated total investment in organic and biodynamic plant breeding, however, is more like €10m per year – 100 times less than their corporate equivalents. The conventional seed business model is based on the privatisation of seed production (most companies hold patents or plant breeder rights) and the processing of knowledge in such a way that farmers cannot reproduce the seeds. They sell the seeds on a yearly basis to farmers in combination with fertilisers and pesticides. The ten big seed companies have their own gene-banks and are financing hundreds of highly paid researchers. The client farmers are dependent on their systems and knowledge in order for these seeds to grow.

What are the organic and biodynamic farmers doing? Well even they are now using mostly conventional seeds. What has happened in the last 70 years? The food chain is now very different to how it’s always been. Instead of locally grown and sourced food we are confronted with a global food chain, uniform flavours and the necessity of driving to the supermarket. The retailer now dictates both the price and appearance of our foods, due to storage and transport conditions. Nowadays most consumers want to buy their food cheaply, readily prepared and available all year round. Instead of tomatoes, people consume Ketchup from Heinz. We do not have an ‘asparagus season’ and the concept of ‘Easter lamb’ no longer exists; people want it all the whole year round. Due to global tourism, people are buying the exotic fruits they have tasted during their holidays abroad, without concern for the season. The modern seed industry breeds their seeds with focus on characteristics such as uniformity of appearance and taste, transport ease and yield. Flavour, aroma and nutrition do not matter so much. The industrial production of and demand for food has caused the industrial production of seeds and supressed more and more of the traditional seeds. We are now at the point where, when people remember the value of health, taste and aroma, there will suddenly be no adequate seeds available. 75% of seed varieties have been lost. In the past there was a record of over 300,000 seed strains across the planet. 30,000 of which were edible. Today, only 120 varieties are regularly used to produce food, while most people survive on only 10. Meanwhile, there are a growing number of scientific studies showing that diet is key to increasing lifespan. Along with the need to eat less meat, it is key that we increase our intake of vegetables. It is now crucial that we reintroduce education in food and nutrition to schools around the world.

Today the number of organic seeds produced are very restricted but growing. The untreated seed material in gene-banks is often poor quality, resulting in poorer quality of the traditional seeds as well. It is important that we improve the quality of these seeds but this requires time and knowledge. A full improvement programme for organic seeds can take several years and to generate a new organic variety can take up to a decade. It is this lengthy process which drives the motivation to use methods of genetic manipulation. However, while it shortens this cycle down to one or two years, it destroys the integrity of the plant – disregarding the complex interactions between the plant organism and the environment to which it is not adapted. Because of this, more and more initiatives in Europe, the US, Russia and China are moving towards organic and biodynamic farming – due to the collapse of the conventional, industrial farming model which is rapidly destroying the soil, polluting the water and reducing varieties of food.

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