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Imagine you are a small farmer, growing what you need to feed your family. Every year you plant seed from the grains and vegetables which your family have grown for generations. One day a stranger arrrives on your doorstep asking about your crops and you show him your healthy fields and gardens with pride. You are amazed to discover that your little farm, with the seeds you have saved so carefully every year, is the only haven left in the world which has not been hit by a devastating plant disease.
This may sound far-fetched and fanciful but it is not. During the 1970's, for example, rice fields across Asia were devastated by the grassy-stunt virus. For these rice-eating nations, this was a disastor. It took four years of searching and the screening of 17,000 samples of wild and cultivated rice before a disease resistant variety was found. One population out of so many samples proved disease-free, growing wild near Gonda in Uttar Pradesh.
This is why biodiversity is so important, why it is vital that we preserve the genetic variation of plants, and that we look beyond the endangered species and miracle cures. So many species are not endangered. Indeed, they are abundant. At the moment. And many of them are not cuddly, nor do they have an obvious role in the alleviation of unpleasant diseases. But, like the Uttar Pradesh rice, they have an essential role to play. Ordinary farmers and gardeners, growing their local varieties of plants, are the protectors of our future food supply.
Biodiversity is not something which can be applied to small sections of our planet, to special areas set aside for the preservation of the natural world. It is so much more than that. Biodiversity is a whole earth matter. It is not simply about preserving the genetic resources of a particular species but is about the interconnections of an ecosystem. There are a multitude of mutual relationships between different species, some of which we understand and some of which we do not. For example, there are a group of saprophytic orchids which grow here in the West of Ireland. They have eccentric names like the Ghost Orchid and the Birdsnest Orchid, and they also have no chlorophyll. They feed on rotting vegetation with the aid of a fungus partner. Without their fungus they cannot survive. How many other such interactions are there of which we are unaware?
It is this aspect of biodiversity which make the actions of the multinational seed companies such a threat to the vegetables we eat and grow. Commercial growers earlier this century were breeding vegetables which were suitable for local conditions, which had good flavour and long cropping and which took account of the relationships between the habitat, the pollinators of the plant and the seed dispersers. Both farmers and gardeners benefited from years of specialist knowledge.
This has all changed. In European countries today only registered seed can be sold for garden use. Many of the old varieties of vegetables have never been registered and are very unlikely to be. To be registered a variety must be proved to be distinct, uniform and stable. This means that the inherent variability of some landrace cultivars, the one characteristic which makes them so wonderfully adaptable to local conditions, disqualifies them from being registered. The cost of registration is also prohibitive for the old-style small breeders and enthusiasts. As a result of this legislation, genetic resources of vegetable seeds have diminished throughout Europe, many of the best seeds for local garden use disappearing at an alarming rate. Although there are signs that this legislation may be changed, many of these unique varieties have already been lost forever.
One of the biggest losses of diversity occurred on 30 June 1980 when the national seed lists from EC member countries were amalgamated into one common list. Suddenly over 1,500 plant varieties were deleted because the seed companies claimed they were duplicates of other varieties. This has been disputed by the Henry Doubleday Research Association, one of the first English environmental organisations, who said that only 38% of these seeds were duplicates. The rest tended to be non-hybrid varieties, seeds which were owned by nobody, seeds on which little money could be made. This trend is likely to continue with the increase in patenting of seeds. Patented seeds give extra profit, as anyone who sells this seed has to give a percentage to the owner of the patent. Because of this they are more expensive. It is also becoming increasingly common for royalties to be payable on any patented seed which is saved for use the following year.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 75% of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops around the world have been lost since the beginning of this century. Most of the old family-owned seed companies with their local knowledge and breeding programmes have now been bought out by multinational corporations. These corporations are not interested in local conditions and are steadily replacing the carefully bred strains of flowers and vegetables with their own hybrids and patented varieties. Hybrids in particular are suitable for mechanised farming, being vigorous plants which ripen within days of each other and have good storing qualities. Hybrids, however, do not produce viable seed and the seed from a variety which has been patented cannot be collected and used but has to be bought afresh every year. This is good for profits but not good for farmers and gardeners, particularly in the poorer parts of the world where seed collection is the only way of ensuring next year's crop.
Until now there have still been many crops from which seed could be collected. Not all grains and vegetables are hybrids, and patents do not make a seed non-viable. However, new research in the United States has produced crops which are just that. In March 1998 the US Department of Agriculture and the Delta and Pine Land Company, a Mississippi seed firm, patented a genetic engineering technique which causes seeds to become sterile as they mature. This procedure can be used on most agricultural crops and will end the saving of seeds altogether. Seed companies have come to see the saving and replanting of seeds they have developed as theft, and this technique will prevent once and for all the unauthorised saving of agricultural seeds. This 'terminator' technology is expected to be fully adopted within the next five years. More money for the multinationals, less food for the poor. And a further decrease in biodiversity as the big companies dictate what will be grown. Companies such as Monsanto, the second largest pesticide company and fourth largest seed company in the world, the corporation which is testing genetically modified sugar beet here in Ireland. The company which has bought the patent to the terminator technology.
So our incredible heritage of seed saving is being lost in just a few decades. A process begun by our Stone Age ancestors who saved seed from plants which grew well and tasted good, a process continued by peasants and farmers for thousands of years, is about to end. The resistances to local diseases and adaptations to local conditions developed by seeds grown in the same region for many years is being lost as the multinational corporations tighten their grip. Biodiversity is threatened not only in the rainforests but in our own fields and gardens.
Click here for what Seed Savers are doing to preserve heritage varieties.