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One Empire Over Seed: Control Over the World’s Seed Banks

Since the onset of the Neolithic Revolution some 10.000 years ago, farmers and communities have worked to improve yield, taste, nutritional and other qualities of seeds. They have expanded and passed on knowledge about health impacts and healing properties of plants as well as about the peculiar growing habits of plants and interaction with other plants and animals, soil and water. The free exchange of seed among farmers has been the basis to maintaining biodiversity and food security.

A great seed and biodiversity piracy is underway, not just by corporations — which through mergers are becoming fewer and larger— but also by super rich billionaires whose wealth and power open doors to their every whim. Leading the way is Microsoft mogul, Bill Gates.

When the Green Revolution was brought into India and Mexico, farmers’ seeds were “rounded-up” from their fields and locked in international institutions, to be used to breed green revolution varieties engineered to respond to chemical inputs.1

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), were the first to roundup the diversity from farmers’ fields and replace it with chemical monocultures of rice, wheat, and corn. Others quickly followed.

This hijacking of farmers’ seeds is best highlighted with the shameful removal of India’s pre-eminent rice research scientist Dr. R.H. Richaria, as the head of India’s Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI) in Cuttack, Orissa, which housed the largest collection of rice diversity in the world, for refusing to allow the IRRI in the Philippines to pirate the collection out of India. With his removal at the behest of the World Bank, Indian peasant intellectual property was hijacked to the IRRI in the Philippines which later became part of the newly created Consultative Group of International Agriculture Research (CGIAR).2

Farmers’ seed heritage was held in the private seed banks of CGIAR, a consortium of 15 international agricultural research centers, controlled by the World Bank, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, as well as of course the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), which since 2003, has poured more than $720 million into the CGIAR centres. CGIAR gene banks presently manage 768,576 accessions of farmer’ seeds. Taken together, CGIAR gene banks represent the largest and most widely used collections of crop diversity in the world.3

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation operates a bit like the World Bank, using its financial power and prowess to take control of agriculture and influence government and institutional agricultural policies. By far the largest funder of the CGIAR, Gates has successfully accelerated the transfer of research and seeds from scientific research institutions to commodity-based corporations, centralizing and facilitating the pirating of intellectual property and seed monopolies through intellectual property laws and seed regulations.

The urgency with which this restructuring of CGIAR and centralization of control is being done is reflected in the IPES Food open letter of 21 July 2020 as follows: “The process now underway to reform the CGIAR is therefore imperative and of major public interest. The ‘One CGIAR’ process seeks to merge the CGIAR’s 15 legally independent but cooperating centres, headquartered in 15 countries, into one legal entity. The impetus has come from some of its biggest funders, notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, and the US and UK governments.”4

The aim of “One CGIAR”, overseen by “One CGIAR Common Board’ is to merge it to become part of “One Agriculture”, aka “Gates Ag One” – Gates’ latest move in controlling the world’s seed supply.5 Gates has indicated he will more than double the CGIAR present budget, from $850 million to $2 billion a year.

Despite the long-recognized failure of the Green Revolution in India and Mexico, in 2006 Gates launched AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. The folly of imposing this failed technology in Africa is well documented in the two following articles by Nicoletta Dentico and Tim Wise.

The Seed Freedom movement has been calling for the CGIAR gene banks to return these stolen farmers varieties back to the farmers. The lessons of the Green Revolution since the 1960’s have shown us that the chemical path of monocultures has undermined Earth’s capacity to support life and food production by destroying biodiversity, soil and water67 as well as contributing to climate change.8 It has dispossessed small farmers through debt for external inputs. And it has undermined food and nutritional security.9 The experience of the last half century has made clear that Seed Sovereignty, Food Sovereignty and Knowledge Sovereignty is the only viable future of food and farming.

Besides taking control of the seeds of farmers in the CGIAR seed banks, Gates (along with the Rockefeller Foundation) is investing heavily in collecting seeds from across the world and storing them in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic archipelago – aka the Doomsday Vault – created to collect and hold a global collection of the world’s seeds. It is in association with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the Crop Trust.10

The Crop Trust, based in Germany, funds and coordinates the Svalbard Seed Vault. In addition to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, its funders include the Poison Cartel adherents CropLife Dupont/ Pioneer Hi-bred, KWS SAAT AG, and Syngent AG.

The largest numbers of accessions stored in the Seed Vault are varieties of rice, wheat, and barley crops; more than 150,000 samples of wheat and rice, and close to 80,000 samples of Barley. Other well represented crops are sorghum, phaseolus bean species, maize, cowpea, soybean, kikuyu grass and chickpea.

Crops such as potatoes, peanuts, cajanus beans, oats and rye, alfalfa, the cereal hybrid Triticosecale and Brassica’s are represented by between 10,000 and 20,000 seed samples.11

CROP TRUST DONORS

DONORS RECEIVED US$
Australia 20,165,706
Bundesverband Deutscher Planzenzuechter 25,735
CropLife International 43,726
Czech Republic 40,000
Dupont/ Pioneer  Hi-bred 2,000,000
Egypt 25,000
Ethiopia 25,000
Gates Foundation/UN Foundation 8,003,118
Germany 50,726,348
India 456,391
International Seed Federation 80,785
Ireland 4,144,250
KWS SAAT AG 35,589
Norway 31,491,161
Netherlands 489,000
New Zealand 1,453,800
Republic of Korea 442,556
Slovak Republic 20,000
Spain 2,629,650
Sweden 11,886,620
Switzerland 10,992,704
Syngenta AG 1,000,000
United Kingdom 19,468,582
United States – before Farm Bill 42,825,073
United States – US Farm Bill* 11,585,120
Sub Total 220,055,915
Concessional Loan ** 59,055,611
Sub Total 59,055,611
Grand Total 279,105,526

Source: ‘Our Donors’. Crop Trust, https://www.croptrust.org/about-us/donors/.

It should come as no surprise that Gates is also funding Diversity Seek (DivSeek), a global project launched in 2015 to map the genetic data of the peasant diversity of seeds held in gene banks to then take patents on these seeds through genomic mapping.12 Seven million crop accessions are in public seed banks.

Biopiracy is carried out through the convergence of information technology and biotechnology where patents are taken on seeds through “mapping” their genomes and genome sequences.

While living seed needs to evolve “in situ”, patents on seed genomes can be taken from seed “ex situ. DivSeek is designed to “mine” and extract the data in the seed to “censor” out the commons. In effect it robs the peasants of their seeds and knowledge, it robs the seed of its integrity and diversity, it erases evolutionary history and the seed’s link to the soil, reducing it to a simple “code”. This ‘genetic colonialism’ is an enclosure of the genetic commons.13

The participating institutions in DivSeek are the CGIAR nodes and ‘public’ universities like Cornell and Iowa State, which are being increasingly privatized by the biotechnology industry as well as the Gates Foundation. BMGF funds Cornell’s Alliance for Science, the corporate worlds’ pseudo-science propaganda outlet while Iowa State is the institution promoting the unethical human feeding trials of GMO bananas. Other Gates-funded DivSeek partners are the African Agricultural Technology Foundation and Africa-Brazil Agricultural Innovation Marketplace developed by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa).14

Through a new ‘front’ corporation, Editas Medicine,15 BMGF is investing in a one-year-old experimental genetic engineering tool for gene editing, CRISPR-Cas9. Though the technology itself is immature and inaccurate, it has become a gold rush for new patents. The language of “gene editing” and “educated guesses” is creeping into scientific discourse.

Piracy of common genomic data of millions of plants bred by peasants is termed “big data”. Big data however is not knowledge, it is not even information. It is ‘privateered’ data, pirated and privatised.

Seeds are not just germplasm. They are living, self-organizing entities, subjects of evolution, history, culture, and relationships.

In the 1980s, Monsanto led the push for GMOs and patents on seed and life. Today the flag bearer is Bill Gates. In a nutshell: one billionaire given free access to use his wealth to bypass all international treaties and multilateral governance structures to help global corporations highjack the biodiversity and wealth of peasants by financing unscientific and undemocratic processes such as DivSeek, and to unleash untested technologies such as the CRISPR technology on humanity.

Over the last two decades, thousands of concerned citizens and organizations have taken action and written laws to protect the biodiversity of the planet and the rights of farmers to seed, and the rights of consumers to safety, among them, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol to the CBD; and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources Treaty for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).

This article is extracted from Navdanya International Global Citizens’ Report “Gates to a Global Empire“, which was presented on October 14th, 2020, through an online event with the authors. The report gathers evidence and throws light on the dangers of philanthrocapitalism, which is boosting the corporate takeover of our seed, agriculture, food, knowledge and global health systems, manipulating information and eroding our democracies. Contributors to the Seed and Biopiracy sections  outline how Bill Gates and his foundation routinely undermine international treaties created to protect biodiversity, farmers rights, and the sovereignty of countries and communities of their seed and biodiversity wealth.


1 Shiva, V. (1991). The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology, and Politics. Other India Press. https://books.google.it/books?id=jPNRPgAACAAJ

2 Alvares, Claude. “The Great Gene Robbery.” Vijayvaani.Com, January 13, 2012. https://www.vijayvaani.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?aid=2137

3 “CGIAR Genebank Platform.” CGIAR. https://www.cgiar.org/the-genebank-platform/

4 IPES food. “OPEN LETTER | ‘One CGIAR’ with Two Tiers of Influence?”, July 21, 2020. http://www.ipes-food.org/pages/OneGGIAR

5 Shiva, V., Anilkumar, P., & Ahluwalia, U. (2020). Ag one: Recolonisation of agriculture. Navdanya/RFSTE. https://navdanyainternational.org/publications/ag-one-recolonisation-of-agriculture/

6 IPBES. “UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating.’” UN | Sustainable Development, May 6, 2019. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report

7 FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. “The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture 2019,” 2019. http://www.fao.org/state-of-biodiversity-for-food-agriculture/en

8 “Land Is a Critical Resource, IPCC Report Says”. IPCC, August 8, 2019. https://www.ipcc.ch/2019/08/08/land-is-a-critical-resource_srccl/

9 El Hage Scialabba, Nadia. “Feeding the Word: Delusion, False Promises and Attacks of Industrial Agriculture.” Navdanya International, December 7, 2019. https://navdanyainternational.org/publications/feeding-the-word-delusion-false-promises-and-attacks-of-industrial-agriculture/

10 “India Deposit to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.” Crop Trust, May 15, 2014. https://www.croptrust.org/blog/india-deposit-svalbard-global-seed-vault/

11 Mooney, Chris. “Why the World Is Storing so Many Seeds in a ‘Doomsday’ Vault.” Washington Post, April 15, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/04/15/why-the-world-is-spending-half-a-billion-dollars-to-protect-humble-seeds/

12 “Two contributions to an integrated, global, accession-level information system for ex situ conservation” | Input Paper to the ITPGRFA Consultation on the Global Information System on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (COGIS-PGRFA) Provided by: The Global Crop Diversity Trust. January 2015. IT/COGIS-1/15/Inf.4.a5. http://www.fao.org/3/a-be678e.pdf

13 “‘DivSeek Initiative’ Loses Support of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.” International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC), February 28, 2017. https://www.foodsovereignty.org/divseek-initiative-loses-support-international-treaty-plant-genetic-resources-food-agriculture/

14 Shiva, V., & Shiva, K. (2020). Oneness Vs. The 1 Percent: Shattering Illusions, Seeding Freedom. CHELSEA GREEN PUB. https://books.google.it/books?id=4TmTzQEACAAJ

15 Herper, Matthew. “Bill Gates And 13 Other Investors Pour $120 Million Into Revolutionary Gene-Editing Startup.” Forbes, August 10, 2015. Accessed September 8, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2015/08/10/bill-gates-and-13-other-investors-pour-120-million-into-revolutionary-gene-editing-startup/

Seeds of Change in Times of Crisis

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations in the U.S. and Latin America that save, produce and sell seeds have seen a significant increase in the demand for native seeds. This new interest in seeds comes with great opportunities, but also some challenges.

Motivated to learn more about this phenomenon, Valeria García López, a researcher in agroecology in Colombia and Mexico, and David Greenwood-Sánchez, a political scientist specializing in GMO regulation in Latin America, set out to do some research.

Both López and Greenwood-Sánchez are independent researchers who in recent years have been part of different movements in defense of seeds in Latin America and the U.S. Both believe that this new interest in seeds, in the context of the current economic, food and health crisis, highlights the challenges local seed systems are facing in a post-pandemic scenario.

We recently spoke with López and Greenwood-Sánchez to learn more about their work, their love for seeds and biocultural diversity, as well as the motivations for their research.

Seeds and biocultural diversity: a love story

Greenwood-Sánchez is a native of Minnesota but his mother is Peruvian. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and a Master’s Degree in Public Policy. During his studies, he had to do an internship and decided to do it in Peru, looking for his roots.

Over the course of his research, Greenwood-Sánchez found out that Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes, had declared itself a GMO-free region, thanks to a push by potato growers and the existing moratorium on GMOs in Peru. Curious to know more, Greenwood-Sánchez ended up doing an internship at the Parque de la Papa (Potatoe’s Park), an association of five indigenous communities that manages more than 1000 varieties of potatoes and works on issues related to biodiversity, intellectual property and biocultural records. There, he discovered agrobiodiversity and its link to culture and traditions, and how people can promote agrobiodiversity through their culture and day-to-day life. He then decided to pursue a Doctorate in Public Policy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

David Greenwood-Sánchez planting potatoes in Minnesota

Greenwood-Sánchez’s research has focused on the construction of systems that regulate GMOs in Latin America, using Mexico and Peru as case studies. In Mexico, certain GM crops can be planted, while in Peru, there is a moratorium on GMOs. His research focuses on the different groups that come together for the defense of biodiversity, on how the state, society and global markets join their efforts to demand policies that regulate the use of GMOs. This is closely related to the identity of each country, its people and how that identity is connected to their biodiversity, for example corn in Mexico, or potatoes in Peru.

García López is Colombian, but has been living in Mexico for five years. For the past six years she’s worked with networks of seed keepers, mainly in Antioquia, where she is originally from. She studied biology and then did her internship on agrobiodiversity and orchards in southern Colombia, near the border with Ecuador. There she discovered the wonders of agrobiodiversity. Being in love with the High Andean region, she went to Ecuador, where she did a Master’s Degree in conservation of the páramo ecosystem and its relationship with climate change.

Back in Colombia, García López discovered the Colombian Free Seeds Network (RSLC). But in Antioquia, her native region, there was no local seed network, so she and other people were assigned to work to create a division of the network RSLC. Since the end of 2014, she worked to support the creation of community seed houses that would represent the first steps to create a Participatory Seed Guarantee System (GSP). That system would allow a certification of agroecological seeds under criteria internally established by the territories themselves, by indigenous and small farmers’ organizations—not by external entities, whether private or public.

This process has also allowed for progress toward the declaration of GMO-free territories. By taking advantage of protected indigenous reserves, which are exempt from complying with the Free Treaties Trade, García López and others were able to ban GMOs from the indigenouse reserves, and create a program to promote the conservation of native seeds.

García López recently completed her PhD in Ecology and Rural Development at the Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), Mexico. The topic of her research was how seed guardian networks use different strategies to defend seeds. She studied cases both in Mexico and Colombia after observing that in both countries, the defense of native and creole seeds has intensified and how seed networks have come together to face threats. In fact, seed initiatives that had already existed but worked in isolation are now joining forces around a common goal.

Valeria García López holding a huge and beautiful squash she just harvested.

COVID-19 as catalyst for the agroecological movement

The pandemic of 2020 has exposed the fragility of the conventional food system, with its agribusiness corporations and long supply chains. Food supply problems, especially in urban centers, as well as an increase in prices and speculation have only been symptoms of this fragility.

Today, it is the small farmers who in many places keep local supplies going. In Brazil, for example, farmers from the Landless Workers Movement (MST for its Portuguese acronym) are donating food to people living in the cities. Organized movements in the countryside are mobilizing a lot of food, showing the capacity of alternative movements to respond.

The relationship between food and health is another topic spotlighted by the pandemic. People with chronic diseases linked to bad eating habits—diseases such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension and high cholesterol caused by bad eating habits—are more vulnerable to the virus. In fact, the strength or weakness of the immune system is greatly determined by our diet.

Hippocrates, father of modern medicine, said it more than 2,500 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” This is why many people today are paying more attention to the food on their plates, its origin, how it was cultivated. People are more interested than ever in healthy eating, planting and having home gardens, and buying local food directly from the producers.

The pandemic has been shown the need to promote local agro-ecological food systems, which have proven to be more resilient than agribusiness systems. In this context, local and resilient seed systems become especially relevant, as they are the foundation upon which food sovereignty is built.

Pandemic times: Panic or hope? Looking for the seeds of change

García López and Greenwood-Sánchez are motivated to show there is hope despite the current global health and economic crisis. They decided to look beyond the mass media’s panic-inducing narrative about food insecurity, and investigate for themselves what was happening with producers. In particular, they wanted to know more about the initiatives related to the defense, reproduction, exchange and commercialization of native seeds, with the aim of learning and preserving traditional knowledge and practices in times where resilient and regenerative systems are much needed.

 To carry on their research, they followed up on the news, and they conducted a series of surveys and personal interviews (though not face-to-face, to comply with current social distancing). More than 25 initiatives from six countries in the Americas participated in the research: U.S., Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Peru. Medium-sized and family owned companies and individual, community, rural and urban initiatives gave their insights.

Here are some of the conclusions they drew from their research:

  • People are going back to appreciating what’s essential, the common goods, what sustains life. The crisis highlights the need to know where our food comes from, the importance of soil, water, and food justice.
  • More people are realizing the importance of growing their own food. Many people and organizations are now more aware of the importance of growing food for self-consumption. Many are starting their own gardens for the first time.
  • There’s a greater appreciation for the work seedkeepers do. The pandemic has generated greater awareness regarding the importance of food and farmers, as well as the role of seedkeepers who have preserved agrobiodiversity in a traditional way and who also have the knowledge on how to cultivate and care for seeds.
  • There’s renewed interest in seeds and food exchanges. Many traditional practices from indigenous people, such as Ayni in the Andean region, are becoming even more valuable today and inspire new forms of collaboration through networks of trust, support and solidarity.
  • People are realizing the need to be more creative to meet the rising demand for seeds. Many seed initiatives and ventures have been overwhelmed by the growing demand, exceeding their capacity to respond, and have had to creatively restructure their work in order to cope with the explosion of orders.

Collective planting. Photograph by Valeria García López.

 Who is behind the growing demand for seeds?

García López and Greenwood-Sánchez have found that it is not so much the institutions, companies or the government but the people and the communities who have been organizing themselves to acquire seeds and plant them. People are very interested in finding solutions and helping other people, out of pure solidarity.

Greenwood-Sánchez mentions, for example, an initiative that he promoted together with a group of friends, which today brings together about 700 people. The “Twin Cities Front Yard Organic Gardeners Club” encourages people to grow food on their front yard. Traditionally, in U.S. cities, people would have their vegetable gardens in the backyard, a custom that was especially adopted after the Second World War (Victory Gardens). In general, in the front yard there is just grass. But this is changing with the growing movement to replace grass with food. 

Front yard being turned into a vegetable garden. Photo by David Greenwood-Sánchez

Another example in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where Greenwood-Sánchez lives, is the “Outplant the Outbreak” campaign, which consists of making seed packets and putting them inside boxes where books are normally put, for public use and for free.

Envelopes with seeds for free. Photo by David Greenwood-Sánchez

In Peru, the government has started a campaign called “Hay que papear” to address the crisis by promoting potato consumption, as a complete, nutritious and cheap local food, and also to counter the general tendency to devalue this crop and to make its producers more invisible.

With growing interest come new challenges

While interest in seeds and growing food has spiked during the pandemic, the uptick in  interest has revealed new challenges. As part of their research, García López and Greenwood-Sánchez identified some of these challenges and potential solutions, including:

  • The greater demand for open-pollinated seeds requires a necessary increase in supply, which poses challenges in the organizational, technical, training, economic and legislative areas. Structural changes are needed to facilitate the growth and development of this sector.
  • Current seed laws and international treaties favor transnational seed companies and the promotion of GMOs. These laws threaten local seed systems, which are the basis of food sovereignty. Some examples are UPOV 91, the Seed Production, Certification and Commercialization Law or the Reforms to the Federal Law of Plant Varieties, in Mexico. To strengthen people’s food sovereignty, the first step should be to curb these treaties and laws and promote those that strengthen local seed systems, which have proven to be much more resilient against supply chain outages and the climate crisis. Fortunately, the greater awareness of the importance of agriculture and food, as well as the greater interest in growing your own food, is also bringing to the table the importance of these seed laws and treaties.
  • There need to be efforts to create public policies and laws that stimulate and strengthen local seed systems, including structural reforms at the market level to allow commercialization and seed exchange initiatives that cannot be subject to the same certification criteria as large transnational corporations.
  • One of the main arguments against the creation of seed laws that regulate and control the production of native and creole seeds is that the production of these seeds is not stable, unique or homogeneous. The main value of native and creole open-pollinated seeds is their genetic diversity, which gives them enormous capacity to respond and adapt to new geographic and climatic conditions. In Colombia, over a period of three years, several workshops and forums were held at the local and national level in order to identify the most important principles for seed guardians. The Participatory Guarantee Systems (SPG) has put together its own criteria, based on seven principles. It should be noted that one of the criteria of the Network of Free Seeds of Colombia regarding the sale of seeds specifies that in fact seeds themselves are not sold. What is sold is all the work behind the seeds, and what makes their existence possible. This is great progress, since it recognizes seeds as a common good which cannot be commercialized.
  • It is necessary to promote and protect the autonomy of the communities that have been practicing agriculture and that have cared for, selected and multiplied seeds for thousands of years. They do not need external validation, because these are practices that they have done for a long time. The challenge, rather than imposing external rules, is to ask ourselves how we can support them, how we can be useful for their work to prosper.
  • As more and more people start to grow their own food for the first time, it is essential to generate and promote educational spaces or gardens where these people can learn how to plant and maintain their gardens. It is important to understand the seeds should be planted, not saved and accumulated. Using them, multiplying them, exchanging them, donating them is the way to go.

 Next steps

Once García López and Greenwood-Sánchez complete the analysis of their research, they will share the results with all those who participated. They will also create a report, using plain language so it is suitable for the general public, to highlight the challenges that local seed systems face with this growing interest for native and native seeds.

Would you like to know more about the work Valeria and David do?

Write them a message: vagarcialopez@gmail.com, davidgreenwoodsanchez@gmail.com

Claudia Flisfisch Cortés is an agroecology specialist who is part of the commission of seeds and the articulating commission of RIHE (Chilean Network of Educational Gardens).To keep up with Regeneration International news, sign up for our newsletter.

Semillas de cambio en tiempos de crisis

Por Claudia Flisfisch Cortés

En el contexto de la pandemia de COVID-19, muchas organizaciones de Estados Unidos y Latinoamérica que trabajan en la conservación, producción y comercialización de semillas han percibido importantes cambios en la demanda de semillas criollas y nativas. Esta situación está originando diferentes reacciones y desafíos.

Motivados por conocer más acerca de este fenómeno, Valeria García López, investigadora en agroecología en Colombia y México y David Greenwood-Sánchez, politólogo especializado en el trasfondo político de la regulación de los transgénicos en Latinoamérica, iniciaron un pequeño proceso de investigación.  Ambos son investigadores autónomos y durante los últimos años han acompañado diferentes procesos organizativos en defensa de las semillas en Latinoamérica y Estados Unidos de América.  Ambos creen que este fenómeno, en el contexto de la actual crisis económica, alimentaria y sanitaria, entrega muchas luces respecto a los desafíos que enfrentan los sistemas locales de semillas en un contexto post pandemia.

Para conocer más de su trabajo, su amor por las semillas y la diversidad biocultural, así como las motivaciones para hacer esta investigación, nos reunimos a conversar con ellos.

Una historia de amor hacia las Semillas y la Diversidad Biocultural

David es originario de Minnesota y de madre peruana. Hizo un bachillerato en economía y luego una maestría en políticas públicas. Durante sus estudios tenía que hacer una pasantía y decidió hacerla en Perú, buscando sus raíces.  Investigando, descubrió que Cusco se había declarado una región libre de transgénicos, gracias a un impulso hecho por los productores de papa y que en Perú se había hecho una moratoria contra los transgénicos. Curioso por saber más, se puso a investigar y terminó haciendo la pasantía en el Parque de la Papa, una asociación de 5 comunidades indígenas que maneja más de 1000 variedades de papa, donde además se realiza una importante labor en temas relacionados con la biodiversidad, propiedad intelectual y registros bioculturales.  Ahí descubre la agrobiodiversidad y su vínculo con la cultura, las tradiciones, y cómo a través de su cultura y su vida cotidiana las personas promueven esta gran agrobiodiversidad.  Luego decidió iniciar un doctorado en políticas públicas en la Universidad de Wisconsin, Madison.  Su investigación ha sido sobre la construcción de los sistemas que regulan los transgénicos en América Latina, usando México y Perú como casos de estudio. En México se pueden sembrar ciertos cultivos transgénicos y en Perú hay una moratoria a los transgénicos. Su investigación se centra en los distintos grupos que se reúnen por la defensa de la biodiversidad, en cómo el estado, la sociedad y los mercados globales establecen de manera conjunta ciertas dinámicas que se cristalizan en políticas para regular el uso de los transgénicos.  Esto está íntimamente relacionado con la identidad de los países, de las personas que los habitan y de qué manera esa identidad está conectada con su biodiversidad, como es el caso del maíz, en México o la papa, en Perú.

David sembrando papas en Minnesota

David sembrando papas en Minnesota

Valeria es colombiana y vive hace 5 años en México. Desde hace 6 años trabaja con redes de guardianes de semillas, principalmente en Antioquia, su región de origen. Estudió biología y luego hizo su práctica en temas de agrobiodiversidad y huertos en el sur de Colombia, cerca de la frontera con Ecuador. Ahí descubre la maravilla del mundo de la agrobiodiversidad y la enorme riqueza de las distintas facetas de la Agroecología. Enamorada de la región Alto Andina, se va a Ecuador, donde hace una maestría en conservación del páramo y su relación con el cambio climático. Una vez de regreso en Colombia descubre la Red de Semillas Libres de Colombia (RSLC).  Como en Antioquia, su región natal, no había una red local, fue convocada junto a otras personas para trabajar para la conformación de un nodo de la red ahí. Fue así como, desde fines del 2014, trabajó apoyando la creación de casas comunitarias de semillas y dando los primeros pasos para la creación de un Sistema Participativo de Garantía de Semillas (SPG), que permitiera una certificación de las semillas agroecológicas bajo criterios establecidos internamente por los propios territorios, por las organizaciones indígenas y campesinas y no por entidades externas, sean privadas o estatales. Al conversar con ella, destaca lo original de este proceso, que también ha avanzado en la declaración de Territorios Libres de Transgénicos, aprovechando los resguardos indígenas, que, al ser sitios protegidos, se eximen de cumplir con las obligaciones instaladas por los Tratados de Libre Comercio, generando una grieta para prohibir el uso de transgénicos y favorecer la conservación de las semillas nativas.  Valeria acaba de terminar su Doctorado en Ecología y Desarrollo Rural en el Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), México. El tema de su investigación fueron las distintas estrategias por la defensa de las semillas de las redes de guardianes de semillas, con estudios de casos en México y Colombia, observando que tanto en el caso de Colombia, como el de México, la defensa de las semillas nativas y criollas se ha intensificado y aglutinado ante las amenazas, que han actuado como verdaderos catalizadores, haciendo que procesos que ya existían y trabajaban de manera aislada y anónima, unieran fuerzas y se visibilizaran en torno a un objetivo común.

Valeria y su asombro ante la belleza de la cosecha

El COVID-19 como un gran catalizador del movimiento agroecológico

La pandemia que atravesamos ha dejado en evidencia la fragilidad del sistema agroalimentario convencional, basado en la agroindustria y en largas cadenas de abastecimiento, tanto de los alimentos como de los insumos externos en que se basa la agricultura convencional.  Problemas de abastecimiento de alimentos, sobre todo en los centros urbanos, así como un aumento en sus precios y la especulación han sido parte de los síntomas de esta fragilidad.  Hoy son los pequeños agricultores, las y los campesinos, los que en muchos lugares están manteniendo el abastecimiento local. En Brasil, por ejemplo, los campesinos del MST están donando alimentos a las ciudades.  Los movimientos organizados del campo están movilizando mucho alimento, mediante lazos comunitarios, evidenciando la capacidad de respuesta de los movimientos alternativos al estado o al sistema económico.

La relación entre la alimentación y la salud ha sido otro de los grandes temas que han salido a la luz en el contexto de la pandemia. Las personas con enfermedades crónicas, como diabetes, obesidad, hipertensión y colesterol alto, relacionadas con los hábitos alimenticios, son una población más vulnerable en el actual escenario. A su vez, la fortaleza o debilidad del sistema inmunológico, tiene una íntima relación con nuestra alimentación.  Hipócrates, padre de la medicina moderna, ya lo dijo hace más de 2.500 años: “Que tu alimento sea tu medicina, y tu medicina tu alimento”. Es así como hoy muchas personas han comenzado a poner más atención a sus alimentos.  Hoy, saber de dónde viene el alimento que comemos es una garantía de salud, lo que se ha visto reflejado en un aumento de interés por la alimentación sana, por tener huertos, por sembrar, por comprar alimentos de proximidad, directamente a las y los productores.

La pandemia ha servido como un catalizador, acelerando reflexiones sobre la necesidad de promover sistemas agroalimentarios locales, que han demostrado ser más resilientes y cómo la agroecología ofrece un camino lleno de propuestas y soluciones ante los vacíos que la agroindustria ha evidenciado.  Dentro de esta reflexión, los sistemas locales y resilientes de semillas cobran una importante relevancia, pues son el primer eslabón y base fundamental desde donde se construye la Soberanía Alimentaria.

Ante la Pandemia, ¿Pánico o Esperanza?: Buscando las Semillas de Cambio

Motivados por mostrar una faceta más esperanzadora de la crisis actual, más allá de la sensación de inseguridad que promueven los medios de comunicación masiva, mediante noticias alarmistas que generan pánico, Valeria y David quisieron indagar, de primera mano, acerca de qué era lo que estaba pasando con las y los productores, en particular las iniciativas relacionadas con la defensa, reproducción, intercambio y comercialización de semillas nativas, con el ánimo de rescatar reflexiones y aprendizajes en tiempos marcados por la necesidad de creatividad para impulsar cambios hacia sistemas de vida más resilientes y regenerativos.

Para concretar su investigación, realizaron un seguimiento de noticias, así como una serie de encuestas y entrevistas personales, en el formato no presencial que imponen los tiempos que corren. Participaron más de 25 iniciativas, de 6 países de América: EE.UU., México, Colombia, Chile, Argentina y Perú. Empresas medianas y familiares, iniciativas individuales, comunitarias, rurales y urbanas, tomaron la palabra.

Hallazgos

A continuación, les compartimos algunas de los hallazgos que salieron a la luz.

  • Importancia de volver a valorar lo esencial, los bienes comunes, aquello que sostiene la vida. La crisis pone en evidencia la necesidad de saber de dónde vienen nuestros alimentos, la importancia del suelo, del agua, la justicia alimentaria. Nos hace volver a lo esencial, a replantearnos lo que es verdaderamente importante: qué es lo que sostiene la vida.
  • Mayor interés por sembrar los propios alimentos. Muchas personas y organizaciones se están animando a comenzar por primera vez sus propias huertas para el autoconsumo, pues han sido concientizados respecto a la importancia de sembrar los propios alimentos en este momento.
  • Mayor valorización de la labor de guardianes y guardianas de semillas. Este escenario ha generado mayor conciencia respecto a la importancia de los alimentos, lo que hay detrás de ellos.  Se ha puesto en evidencia la importancia de las y los campesinos, así como el rol de las y los guardianes de semillas que han conservado la agrobiodiversidad de manera tradicional y que, en estos momentos de crisis, además de las semillas, también tienen los conocimientos sobre sus usos y cultivo.
  • Revitalización del intercambio o trueque por semillas y alimentos.  Muchas prácticas que pueblos originarios han practicado desde siempre, como el Ayni en el mundo andino, hoy cobran más sentido e inspiran nuevas formas de colaboración, mediante redes de confianza y de apoyo solidario.
  • Necesidad de desplegar la creatividad ante el alza de la demanda. Muchas iniciativas y emprendimientos se han visto sobre demandados, superando su capacidad de respuesta y han tenido que reestructurar sus labores de manera creativa para poder atender la explosión de pedidos.

Siembra colectiva, fotografía de Valeria García López

¿Quiénes son los que están detrás de esta alza en la demanda en las semillas?

Más que instituciones, empresas o el estado, lo que Valeria y David han visto es que son las mismas personas, las mismas comunidades las que se han estado auto organizando para acceder a las semillas y sembrar.  Rescatan iniciativas creativas de grupos y personas que tienen mucho interés por buscar soluciones y ayudar a otras personas, con buena voluntad.

David comparte, por ejemplo, una iniciativa que impulsaron junto a un grupo de amig@s, que hoy reúne a cerca de 700 personas, “Twin Cities Front Yard Organic Gardeners Club” que consiste en plantar alimentos en el frontis de las casas. Lo tradicional en las ciudades de Estados Unidos, fue siempre hacer las huertas en el patio trasero, costumbre que se instaló aún con más fuerza luego de la segunda guerra (Victory Gardens). Por lo general el frontis de la casa tiene que ser perfecto, de sólo pasto y este movimiento está cambiando esta idea para reemplazar el pasto por alimentos.

Frontis de una casa siendo transformado en huerta. Foto de David Greenwood-Sánchez

 

Otro ejemplo de Saint Paul Minnesota, donde vive, es la campaña “Outplant the Outbreak”, impulsada por una mujer, que consiste hacer paquetes de semillas y ponerlos gratis dentro de cajas donde normalmente se ponen libros, de uso público. Hoy ponen semillas y es totalmente auto gestionado de manera creativa.

Sobres con semillas como ofrenda, foto de David Greenwood-Sánchez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

En Perú, frente a la crisis, el gobierno está impulsando una campaña llamada “Hay que papear”, con el objetivo de impulsar el consumo de la papa, como un alimento completo y nutritivo, barato, que las y los peruanos deben comer, porque la tendencia es a desvalorizar ese cultivo e invisibilizar a sus productores.

Algunos desafíos identificados

  • Aumentar la Oferta de Semillas Nativas y Criollas. La mayor demanda de semillas de polinización abierta exige un necesario aumento de la oferta, lo cual plantea desafíos de carácter organizacional, cambios estructurales que faciliten el crecimiento y desarrollo de este sector, junto a desafíos de carácter técnico, formativo, económicos y legislativos.
  • Parar las leyes y tratados que amenazan a las semillas nativas y criollas. En este momento hay leyes de semillas y tratados internacionales que favorecen a las transnacionales semilleras y la promoción de los transgénicos, amenazando los sistemas locales de semillas, que son la base de la Soberanía Alimentaria. Algunos ejemplos son la UPOV 91, la Ley de Producción, Certificación y Comercialización de Semillas o las Reformas a la Ley Federal de Variedades Vegetales, en México. Para fortalecer la Soberanía Alimentaria de los pueblos, el primer paso debería ser frenar estos tratados y leyes y promover aquellos que fortalezcan los sistemas locales de semillas, que han demostrado ser mucho más resilientes ante los cortes de las cadenas de abastecimiento y la crisis climática.  Afortunadamente, la mayor toma de conciencia respecto a la importancia de la agricultura y la alimentación que ha despertado la pandemia, así como el mayor interés por sembrar los propios alimentos, aunque sea en un par de macetas, contribuyen a despertar una reflexión respecto a la importancia de estas leyes y tratados de semillas, pues son las que estructuran todas estas dinámicas de mercado.
  • Fomentar la creación de políticas públicas y leyes que estimulen y fortalezcan los sistemas locales de semillas. Impulsar reformas estructurales a nivel de mercado para dar un espacio a estas iniciativas de comercialización – intercambio de semillas que no pueden someterse a los mismos criterios de certificación que las grandes transnacionales.
  • Generar alternativas a la certificación externa de semillas, ya sean estatales o empresas privadas, mediante modelos participativos.  Uno de los grandes argumentos del Estado y leyes de semillas para regular y la fiscalizar la producción de semillas nativas y criollas ha sido que éstas no son ni estables, ni únicas, ni homogéneas.  Los Sistemas Participativos de Garantía (SPG) buscan rescatar criterios propios. En el caso de las semillas nativas y criollas, de polinización abierta, justamente su valor y riqueza radica en su diversidad genética, que les da una enorme capacidad de respuesta y adaptación a nuevas condiciones geográficas y climáticas.  En el caso de Colombia, a lo largo de un período de 3 años, se levantaron varios talleres, foros y protocolos a nivel local y nacional, de manera de identificar cuáles eran los principios que eran importantes para las y los guardianes y guardianas de semillas, hasta llegar a un total de 7 principios.  Cabe destacar que uno de los criterios para la venta de semillas dentro de la Red de Semillas Libres de Colombia es que no se venden las semillas, sino todo el trabajo que hay detrás de ellas y que hace posible su existencia; el conocimiento, la trazabilidad, la diversidad. Eso es lo que se paga, no la semilla en sí. Eso es un gran avance, pues reconoce las semillas como un bien común, que no puede ser mercantilizado.
  • Respetar los procesos autónomos. Es necesario promover y proteger la autonomía de las comunidades que llevan practicando por miles de años la agricultura, el cuidado, selección y multiplicación de las semillas. Ellos y ellas no necesitan una validación externa, porque son prácticas que han hecho desde hace mucho tiempo.  El desafío, más que imponer reglas externas, es preguntarnos cómo los podemos apoyar, cómo podemos ser útiles para que su labor prospere.
  • Huertas Educativas. Como hay muchas personas que se animan a sembrar sus alimentos por primera vez, es fundamental generar y promover espacios educativos, huertas educativas, donde se enseñe cómo se siembra, en qué cantidades y cuáles son los cuidados necesarios para los cultivos.  Más vale comenzar por pocos cultivos y hacerlo bien, antes de integrar nuevas especies y variedades.  Las semillas son para sembrarlas, no para acumularlas. Usarlas, multiplicarla, intercambiarlas, donarlas es el camino.

Próximos pasos

Una vez terminado el análisis de los datos, Valeria y David harán una devolución de los resultados y reflexiones obtenidas a todas las personas que participaron de la investigación. También harán una nota libre de términos académicos, cercana a todo público, para evidenciar los desafíos que enfrentan los sistemas locales de semillas frente a este creciente interés que se ha despertado por las semillas nativas y criollas.

¿Te gustaría saber más acerca del trabajo que realizan Valeria y David?

Escríbeles un mensaje: vagarcialopez@gmail.com, davidgreenwoodsanchez@gmail.com

 

Claudia Flisfisch es técnica en agroecología y forma parte de la comisión de semillas y la comisión articuladora de la RIHE (Red Chilena de Huertas Educativas). Para mantenerse al día con las noticias de Regeneration International, suscríbase a nuestro boletín.

As Climate Change Threatens Food Supplies, Seed Saving Is an Ancient Act of Resilience

Author: Sarah van Gelder | Published: June 25, 2017 

On Feb. 26, 2008, a $9-million underground seed vault began operating deep in the permafrost on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, just 810 miles from the North Pole. This high-tech Noah’s Ark for the world’s food varieties was intended to assure that, even in a worst-case scenario, our irreplaceable heritage of food seeds would remain safely frozen.

Less than 10 years after it opened, the facility flooded. The seeds are safe; the water only entered a passageway. Still, as vast areas of permafrost melt, the breach raises serious questions about the security of the seeds, and whether a centralized seed bank is really the best way to safeguard the world’s food supply.

Meanwhile, a much older approach to saving the world’s heritage of food varieties is making a comeback.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a group of volunteers in the northern Montana city of Great Falls met in the local library to package seeds for their newly formed seed exchange, and to share their passion for gardening and food security.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to our climate in the future,” said Alice Kestler, a library specialist. “Hopefully, as the years go by, we can develop local cultivars that are really suited to the local climate here.”

For millennia, people the world over have selected the best edible plants, saved the seeds, and planted and shared them in sophisticated, locally adapted breeding projects that created the vast array of foods we rely on today. This dance of human intelligence, plant life, pollinators, and animals is key to how human communities became prosperous and took root across the planet.

The Great Falls Library Seed Exchange is continuing that tradition even while a modern agribusiness model works to reduce the genetic diversity of our food stocks and consolidate control over the world’s seeds. Six seed companies now control three quarters of the seed market. In the years between 1903 and 1983, the world lost 93 percent of its food seed varieties, according to a study by the Rural Advancement Foundation International.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that giant agribusiness companies have no interest in the vast varieties and diverse ways people breed plants. It is hard to get rich off of an approach based on the distributed genius of people everywhere. Such a model doesn’t scale or centralize well. It is intensely democratic. Many people contribute to a common pool of knowledge and genetic diversity. Many people share the benefits.

Making big profits requires scarcity, exclusive knowledge, and the power to deny others the benefits. In this case, that means the appropriation of the knowledge built up over generations, coupled with the legal framework to patent seed varieties and punish those who fail to comply.

Especially in a time of climate change, though, genetic diversity is what we need to assure food security and resilience.

The Great Falls Library Seed Exchange is on the second floor of the library, which sits less than a mile from the Missouri River. Climb the brick building’s big, central staircase, and you can’t miss the brightly painted seed catalog. Borrowers are encouraged, but not required, to save some of the seeds and return them to the library for others to plant.

KEEP READING ON TRUTHOUT 

How One Borderland Farm Is Planting the Seeds of Food Justice

Wearing hats to block the midday New Mexico sun, the summer campers crouched in the rows of the 14-acre La Semilla Community Farm would soon break for lunch. In the full kitchen at the nearby La Semilla offices, they made tortillas and cooked recipes with chia, nopales, amaranth, and other fresh vegetables grown on the farm.

“There was a day there was no nopales left,” La Semilla’s Elena Acosta said, laughing. “They ate it all up.”

At the geographic center of the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border sits the Paso del Norte region, a tri-state area where El Paso, Texas; Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; and Las Cruces, New Mexico, meet. It’s here that La Semilla—which means “the seed”—is sowing a healthy, more equitable food system. With a recent $825,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in the coffers, hope grows in Doña Ana County, New Mexico, which La Semilla calls home and where 39 percent of children live in poverty.

Cofounded by Aaron Sharratt, Cristina Dominguez-Eshelman, and Rebecca Wiggins-Reinhard in 2010, the farm grew out of community garden work and the realization that there was a need for an organization dedicated to addressing the challenges of the local food system.

“They took on a task that seems monumental to me because people in our region are so unfamiliar with food justice issues and food systems. It takes a lot of education,” Catherine Yanez, an educator at La Semilla, told Borderzine in 2013.

“Our organization came out of a variety of different backgrounds,” Krysten Aguilar, director of programs and policy, told TakePart, from people “who are really looking at the food system holistically.” Board of directors President Lois Stanford, for example, is an associate professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University; she recently won a national award for her work with La Semilla. “It was really important to look at it through that lens of the whole system,” Aguilar said.

KEEP READING ON TAKEPART

Saving Crop Diversity From Inside a Frozen Mountain

Since 2008, deep inside a mountain on a permafrost-crusted archipelago near the North Pole, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has been open for business, soliciting and accepting sample seed collections from partner seed banks around the globe. Its mission? To preserve as much of the world’s crop diversity as possible, in order to ensure that our agricultural systems remain viable as climate change and other instabilities close in around us. To date, this one-of-a-kind facility—its location chosen partly because of its year-round cold temperatures—has received more than 860,000 seed samples from around the world.

The creation of the Vault was undertaken by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (now The Crop Trust), under the directorship of Cary Fowler, who has been a tireless advocate on behalf of food security for decades. With U.S. climate strides in danger of being unraveled and the future of our agricultural policy uncertain, Fowler discusses his new book about his work on the Vault, Seeds on Ice, what the Vault has managed to accomplish to date, and what work still remains to done.

Seeds on Ice was just published in September. What was the impetus for putting it together now?

There’s been a lot of media attention around the Seed Vault, but at a certain point, it occurred to me that the full story hadn’t been told. Mari Tefre is the only photographer who was there at beginning; she lived [in Svalbard] and covered the building of the Vault from start to finish. I wanted to put her photographs out there so everyone could see breadth of the project.

Would you call the Seed Vault a success” so far?

What we’ve managed to do is collect a significant portion of the diversity, certainly of major crops in terms of cereal grains. As far as humanly possible, we’ve put an end to the extinction of crop diversity with what we have stored there. That’s pretty important.

Is there room to do more?

There will always be diversity we don’t have in the Vault. There are also crops whose diversity can’t be conserved through raising seeds, so there have to be other mechanisms for preserving them, ranging from field collections—having plants in fields that are tended—to tissue culture to the cryopreservation of tissue in liquid nitrogen. Sometimes people say, “Could you do those things at Svalbard?” No, not really. That facility is designed for the sole purpose of conserving seeds.

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