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Saving the diversity of seed varieties: the first step towards sustainable agriculture

The key role of collective farm-seed houses

Sophie CHAPELLE

03 / 2009

Agriculture can not exist without seeds. They represent the first stage in agriculture of all kinds. Yet for small-scale farmers to gain access to them in all their diversity, something that enables the farmers to adapt the varieties and methods of agriculture to their environment is under threat due to the manipulation and privatisation of living organisms: second generation GMOs, plants that have been mutated by radiation, synthetic seeds whose genes have been digitalised and privatised… In this interview, Guy Kassler, General Secretary of the Farm Seed Network, chargé de mission for Nature et Progrès, member of the Confédération Paysanne and of the Biodiversity Commission of the Via Campesina, describes what the multinationals in the genetics and agribusiness industries are in the process of developing. It’s enough to make us shiver. The General Secretary of the Farm Seed Network also explains how we, as gardeners, small-scale farmers or simple urban citizens can stop this programmed destruction of living organisms by participating in the collective farm-seed houses.

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Photo : Semences Paysannes

Are we already eating mutated plants?

Yes indeed, we are all eating mutated wheat or vegetables. Unlike transgenic plants, there is no legal obligation to inform consumers. Mutated plants are considered as GMOs by the European Directive 2001-18 but are not included in the field of application. Almost 3000 varieties of 170 different species that have been obtained from deliberate mutations have been listed by the IAAE (the International Agency for Atomic Energy). They are commercialised without any labelling and without any assessment as to environmental or health impacts. Yet the scientists themselves admit that the violent stress that these plants are subjected to produces more random genetic recombinations than transgenesis. These recombinations are responsible for most of the harmful impacts of GMOs on people’s health. There is no reason to believe that they are harmless in the case of mutated plants.

Since when has the International Agency for Atomic Energy been involved in agriculture?

It has been working in partnership with the FAO for about ten years on increasing the food production of its member States. They justify using mutagenesis by the need to have plants right now to feed the world.

And what does this mutagenesis involve?

Since the 1950s, researchers have been working on cells that they subject to a high level of stress: by irradiating them – bombarding them with cobalt or gamma rays – or by using very aggressive chemical products like colchicines. It is this stress that causes genetic mutation that is also termed «incited mutation» by the IAAE (1). The cost of this random technique was an obstacle to its development for many years. After subjecting thousands of cells to mutagenic stress, it was then necessary to multiply them in an equal number of plants before being able to determine whether the mutation presented any interest. Today’s knowledge of the genome of plants means that the methods of mutagenesis are economically interesting and viable from an industrial point of view. As soon as we have the complete genetic sequence of a plant we can immediately identify whether a gene has mutated in any given cell and whether this mutation is of any interest. About a dozen multiplications are then enough to be able to obtain the desired cell population. Incited mutation is classified as “a traditional method of selection”, but it’s a very recent tradition. It is supposed to be nothing more than the acceleration of a natural process of the spontaneous modification of plants that occurs over thousands of years and the evolution linked to the environment (2).

Is it too late to fight against “simple” GMOs? What is the state of play at European level?

The fight against first-generation GMOs – pesticide GMOs and/or herbicide-resistant GMOs – still has not been won in Europe. Nevertheless for the last 15 years we have been able to maintain a balance of power in our favour. This is important for the countries of the South as it justifies their moratoriums. But this is likely to change with the introduction of second generation GMOs on the market. These so-called “secure” and “eco-compatible” GMOs are supposed to be risk-free for the environment and enable GMO and other crops to co-exist. Their transgenes are supposed to become inactive prior to blooming or harvesting or else could only be activated by using chemical products. This would stop all contamination. At present, research is being carried out on these second generation GMOs in a programme called “Transcontainer”, that is funded by the European Union.

Second generation GMOs in the pipeline, mutated plants that are already being commercialised… What else are the apprentice sorcerers preparing for the 21st century?

For many years, molecular biology held that a given gene corresponded to a protein. When a gene was modified, it was believed that only the protein was modified. This belief has now been totally undermined by synthetic biology. Also known as “systemic” biology, this subject concerns the way in which genes are interlinked. The links that organise the relationship between genes have as much influence as the genes themselves on the presence and the nature of the proteins. This has led researchers to currently work on the combination of several genes aimed at developing drought-resistant plants. But for the moment this research has not succeeded.

In transgenesis, the genes that are transferred are already the result of chemical synthesis that imitates the sequence of natural genes. A new step forward has now been made. We have moved from inserting a synthetic gene into real living organisms – GMOs – to the chain sequencing of these genes and producing parts of the genome or even totally synthetic genomes. In other words, it is now possible to produce totally new living organisms that can then be further reproduced. Laboratories have managed to do this with bacteria. Now they are working with plants. This is where the main danger lies: as whole plants can be synthetically produced, researchers no longer need living seeds; they only require their digital computerised genetic sequence.

Might the seed banks that preserve the biodiversity of cultivated plants become supplanted by privatised “digital” seeds?

This has already happened, particularly in the countries of the South. States are supposed to be responsible for preserving genetic resources (animals, germs, plants) and making them freely available to all. This mission is all the more essential in countries that have industrialised their agriculture and where the biodiversity of what is grown in the fields has vanished. This mission has been progressively abandoned on the pretext that there is not enough funding available. Some of the gene banks have now been privatised, and access for farmers and gardeners has become increasingly restricted. All the firms have developed their own gene banks, thanks to the fact that they had easy access to public seed banks.

In France, the Office for Genetic Resources (Bureau des Ressources Génétiques) was taken over by a private Foundation(Fondation pour la Recherche sur la Biodiversité) that includes public structures on its board of directors – INRA (3), CNRS, the Museum of natural history, CIRAD – as well as members representing private interests (4). The latter being members of the Board of Directors, they have easily become the majority.

On the island of Svalbard in Norway, the Bill Gates and Rockefeller Foundations have funded a gene bank where over 4.5 million seed samples are kept in a cold chamber. Access to this bank is reserved for institutions that are controlled by the multinational seed companies. These seeds can not be resown: they will lose their ability to germinate very quickly. Even dead, their genetic sequences can be programmed into industrial computers. People in the industry are convinced that they can recreate an artificial world from these sequences alone. This world would then be totally dependent on intellectual property rights over the genes. But the industry will never be able to create plants that are capable of adapting to all sorts of climates. They will make a few for the whole world that will only grow with increasing amounts of fertiliser and pesticides. By doing this, they are endangering the possibility for our children to feed themselves.

How can we avoid this destruction of living organisms?

The Farm Seed Network was created in 2003. It developed very fast with GMOs putting in an appearance. Small-scale farmers and market gardeners became aware that if they did not wish to have GMOs they would have to carry out the conservation, selection and multiplication work on the seeds. The first stage therefore was to re-appropriate knowledge and the genetic resources to be able to grow the seeds again. At the same time as carrying this re-appropriation work, we are moving forward to a second phase. Because there is a risk of losing the thousands of seeds that are locked up in seed banks, and because it is impossible to select healthy plants from the commercial seeds on sale that have been interfered with, and because of the loss of nutritional value and the need for fertilisers if they are to grow, we are calling for the seed banks to be emptied and to make way for collective farm-seed houses.

What is the point of creating collective farm-seed houses? What role can simple citizens play?

The idea of collective farm-seed houses is that small-scale farmers and market gardeners can come together to pool their seeds and jointly manage this heritage. We can not all plant some 500 or 800 varieties of seeds every year. Inasmuch as the State is privatising what should remain in the public sector, civil society needs to take matters into their own hands and ensure that this heritage is managed collectively. Small-scale farmers have a clear role to play here in growing the seeds. Amateur gardeners are also an essential part of the story. In recent years they have preserved thousands of old varieties of vegetables and fruit trees that will be an important part of tomorrow’s food. For those who do not have access to land, we need administrative support. We also need people who can communicate on our work and help it to be meaningful. Civil society also needs to help us to mobilise elected representatives to recognise farmers’ and gardeners’ rights to conserve, resow and exchange their seeds. Many town halls have already voted to support this.

Do current laws actually prevent farmers from resowing their own seeds?

The legal constraints are increasingly stricter. In France, farmers are not entitled to exchange seeds. They may no longer resow part of last year’s crops without having to pay royalties, that is to say a tax to the seed companies. The text talks about a “voluntary compulsory contribution” for wheat. This system may well be extended to all other varieties. We are still allowed to exchange seeds that have not been catalogued; but we have to pay for this, unless they are to be non-commercially grown. For example it is possible to sell seeds to an amateur gardener because he intends to eat his own produce, and not sell the vegetables on the market. This margin for manoeuvre will probably disappear with the current reform by the European Parliament. However the Parliament ratified the ITPGRFA treaty (5). This treaty recognises the rights of all farmers to resow, exchange and sell their seeds. But the government has not implemented this treaty, and a citizen’s campaign is now essential to ensure that these rights are recognised.

Are these trends the same throughout Europe?

There are similar networks to ours in Italy, in Spain in Germany and in Austria. Citizen’s mobilisation in Europe on the issue of seeds is gathering speed and is often associated with the fight against GMOs. We have fallen behind the countries of the South, where protecting biodiversity is the first act of protecting food crops. All those small-scale farmers conserve and exchange their seeds. Their mobilisation is very important to fight against European laws that are being imposed on the whole planet, and against GMOs to protect their seeds from contamination. We have a lot to learn from the countries of the South.

 

 

(1) “The scientists of the IAAE use radiation to produce improved plants with higher yields that are able to adapt to difficult climate conditions like drought or flooding, or to resist certain diseases and insects. Mutation induction is the technical term; it is safe, approved and profitable. It has been used since the 1920s” IAEA communiqué, December 2008, “La science nucléaire au service de la sécurité alimentaire”.
(2) “I understand that people distrust these technologies but as far as we are concerned, we need to understand that in our plant selection we are not doing anything that does not naturally occur in nature itself. No residual radiation remains in a plant after mutation induction has occurred” », Pierre Lagoda Mixed Division FAO/IAAE
(3) Public Institute for agronomic research
(4) For breeders, France Génétique Élevage, Limagrain or Oleosem for the seed companies, l’Oréal or LVMH for cosmetics, Total for the energy sector or the MEDEF, to name but a few are members of the strategic orientation committee of the foundation, alongside the public bodies or associations for the defence of the environment. editorial note
(5) The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources.

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