Farmers, save your seeds!

by GRAIN | 30 Jul 1990

GRAIN

A loud battle cry has rung into the French countryside, and it is not to storm the Bastille. It is to defend the right of the farmer to re-use certified seed for successive sowing. This right, called the farmer's privilege, is enshrined in plant breeders ' rights legislation in most developed countries. In recent months it has come under virulent attack in France and the UK, as seed companies try to squeeze out more "research" money from farmers by making them pay royalties on successive generations of improved seed, produced through the harvest.

The violence in France over this seed war has grown considerably over the past year. An arbitrary political decision was taken last July to restrict the farmer's privilege to private seed cleaning on the individual's farm. As most farmers cannot afford seed-cleaning materials and have traditionally used the services of cooperatives, they were thus thrown to the total mercy of the seed market. This has clenched off a series of farmer demonstrations, judicial court battles, high administrative resignations and more. In a most recent move, the French Farmers Confederation -- the largest of the so-called "minority" groups -- has launched a massive campaign to encourage farmers to save their seed and have it cleaned by cooperatives for further sowing in total defiance of the breeding sector. Their rationale for this mass campaign focuses on the need to keep both farmers and the food supply out of the grips of monopoly control and dependency on the industry.

To support their campaign they are disseminating practical information to farmers about how best to harvest, clean and prepare seed. The confederaton recommends not buying more than 5% of the seed needed for a crop and combining it with previous material. Of course, as seed is re-used it loses its vigour and other qualities, but the margin can economically be stretched a couple of seasons, bringing farmers savings of over $50 per hectare for wheat or $180 per hectare for peas, for example. These amounts can make an appreciable difference on production costs due to low profit margins. But more importantly, this semi "seed boycott" should send a strong message to the breeding industry about their clients -- our food producers -- not wanting to be pushed around.

Industry's argument has been that "lost royalty money" deprives them of costly research resources. This raises two very fundamental concerns. First, it is well known that the private seed industry is extremely dependent on public research, especially in a country like France, which still has a strong (and excellent) public plant genetics research base. Who pays for that research? Taxpayers, including the farmers. Industry now complains that that is not enough and farmers (and eventually consumers) should pay even more, when no farmer or public citizen has any say whatsoever on deciding what kind of research the firms should be doing to service what kind of farming or food system.

Secondly, this twisted argument raises grave doubts about how viable and competent seed firms are as economic actors. Through this new pressure campaign they are basically asking for a welfare handout as if they simply could not manage their resources correctly. Seed companies are already subsidised through the plant breeders ' rights system. They draw heavily from publically funded R&D. They enjoy all sorts of direct governmental and intergovernmental research support programmes. Are these enterprises so unhealthy that on top of that they need to impose fiscal demands on farmers?

The French farmers ' campaign should be supported, and spread to other countries. It is not aimed at undermining the industry, it is not trying to foreclose innovation, but it is a brave attempt to preserve some balance of rights among farmers and industrialists who are, together, responsible for our food supply.

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For further information please contact: La Confédération Paysanne, 17 Place de l 'Argonne, F-75019 Paris, France. Telephone: (33) (1) 40.35.17.25.

Author: GRAIN