Smaller than nails, with the power of life within them; seeds have always been the pivot of humankind survival and development. Being the first economic asset, even before livestock and land property, seeds could be considered the solid equivalent of water. It is perfectly understandable why humanity, foreseeing potential planetary catastrophes, has decided to ensure its future by storing and protecting hundreds of millions of seeds varieties in gigantic deposits or “banks” throughout the world. The aim of such initiative is to ensure the survival of biodiversity and food sovereignty in specialized, highly protected and isolated places. 

Seeds ensure foodstuff; thus the management and preservation of this resource must be traced back to a transnational and multilateral protocol, similarly to what happens with mineral deposits exploitation in the Arctic regions. Said arrangement is not yet fully a reality, but a scheme of cooperation among governments has been put in place. There are several international “seed banks” located in different parts of the world, out of which the most important is located in the Svalbard archipelago, in the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. In this sealed and highly protected structure more than 10.000 varieties of seeds are enclosed, protected by infrastructures conceived to withstand a nuclear war, plane crashes and other catastrophies. This iconic bank with a sci-fi appearance called Svalbard Global Seed Vault, is the outcome of a fructuous process of cooperation between the government of Norway, leading the Nordic nations gathered under the aegis of the Nordic Council; the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international organization related to FAO,  and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center. Contrary to what its history may suggest, the raison d’être of this initiative goes far beyond the conservation of biodiversity in the Nordic region of Europe. The declared aim of this bank is to guarantee, fist and foremost, the fiduciary deposit of the 21 main crops of humanity, such as rice, corn, wheat, manioc, coconuts, apples and potatoes. In 2006 with the laying of the first stone, the then President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, defined the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as a “hibernating Eden, where life can be maintained forever”

This collaborative and multilateral scheme of cooperation, however, does not apply when it comes to the everyday behaviour of the seed market. Moving the matter to the daily exchange of goods and commodities; we must understand how seeds have gone from being an unlimitedly replicable asset to a commodity subjected to (monopolistic) private property. This economic and normative tendency, which features will be analised in the following lines; entails a set of consequences that could jeopardise an already eroded genetic biodiversity and food sovereignty. Stepping back a moment: we have already mentioned how seeds have been commodified by men, distorting the very nature of the seed which is the ability to replicate itself without any kind of human intervention; as have the preparation of the land and the administration of water. The constant standardization of seeds has caused the loss of 75% of the genetic biodiversity between 1900-2000, as stated by FAO, the food and agricultural organization of the UN. Notwithstanding this trend has been developing since the beginning of the last century. Until the 90’s  seeds remained a substantially free good, not subjected to any regime of intellectual property, free to be replicated and exchanged. With the introduction of normative protections for bioengineered and genetically modified seeds in the early 90’s, the regime of intellectual property caused the polarization of seed production and storing ended up in the hands of big agribusiness corporations. This lead to progressive penalisation of small and independent farmers, being kept from developing and cultivate new varieties of seeds.

By virtue of this phenomenon, the availability of a genetically variegated set of seeds has been relying more and more on big corporations. Not only this; but the growth of these corporations has granted them control over how the seeds are marketed globally, being able to deliberately act on prices and quantity in circulation. As the World Trade Organization requires for member States to adopt legislations to protect plant varieties, more and more governments around the world are signing up to the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plant (UPOV), which imposes specific limits to the production, exchange and sale of seeds. According to some observers, this course is lowering the degree of seed biodiversity, effectively increasing the vulnerability of it, especially considering the new concerns arising hand in hand with climate change.

Today’s data indicates that between 63% and 66% of the global amount of seeds is held by three agribusiness companies: Bayer/Monsanto, Syngenta/ChemChina and Dupont/Dowchemical. By adding other companies to this list, like Corteva, the share percentage is further increased. These companies, mostly generated by fusions of preexisting enterprises, are the dominus of the seed global market; they maneuver the entire supply chain and make small companies and farmers dependant on them. Furthermore, these three companies hold 75% of crops protection products globally.

This monopolistic scheme has not only unleashed numerous protests, but also a sort of “organised resistance” followed by the birth of different movements for the delivery of food sovereignty. These movements, such as the “Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture”  in India, the “Third World Network” in South-East Asia or the “Let’s Liberate Diversity!” in Europe aim to create a sort of seeds network which would allow small enterprises and farmers to bypass the control of big corporations to manage seeds themselves. 

The status quo of few multinational corporations owning the majority of the global seeds, thus owning de facto the world’s agriculture, is often justified and also upheld by the thesis of the need to feed the world. Such concentration of these resources in few hands is however, increasingly seen as an arbitrary and unsustainable leverage of power. This makes sense, especially given the urge for a biological agriculture, internationally professed, for example by the new European Green Deal. The demand for a greater market opening, the protection and fostering of genetic diversity of seeds is on the table. We will have to wait and see how governments and international institutions respond.

Edited by Silvia Zarzuela Martín

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