GRAIN In January 1993, GRAIN staffers and Seedling co-editors Henk Hobbelink and Renée Vellvé sat down with Pat Mooney of RAFI to look back together over the first decade of Seedling. From a sporadic two-page telex written by Pat for 30 close collaborators in 1982, Seedling has become an internationally recognised platform for NGO networking on plant genetic resources and biotechnology. Since Pat was the first publisher of Seedling, before it was passed on to Henk in 1984, it was only appropriate for us to review together the history of the journal, the history of the issues it reflects, and the history of the NGO struggle it has served. The oldest issue of Seedling on file at the GRAIN office is a barely legible, two-page carbon-copy memo dated June 1982. It was written by Pat Mooney, a Canadian researcher and NGO activist who was then with the Seeds Campaign of the International Coalition for Development Action (ICDA). Nobody really remembers, but it is probably not the first issue of Seedling. It's merely the oldest relic that has survived -- on this side of the Atlantic -- the moving of the Seeds Campaign headquarters from Pat's portable house in the prairies of Brandon, Manitoba (Canada), to a tiny NGO office in the youthful funk of Amsterdam (1984), before settling down in the curves and grooves of a newly awakening Barcelona (1985). As Pat recalls, Seedling has gone through an enormous development. The initial issues were basically an internal memo distributed discretely to a few individuals who were alarmed about the erosion of genetic resources, the North-South political debate over seeds that was emerging at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the corporate lobby to establish plant breeders ' rights laws -- a soft monopoly system to control seed markets -- in the OECD countries. When Pat left ICDA to join the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) in 1984, and Henk took up the Seeds Campaign work in Amsterdam in his suit, Seedling went public, grew in size and changed function, mainly because NGO interest in the issues was growing and needed a broader networking tool. Today, Seedling is pursuing its growth. While the earlier issues mainly reported on governmental debates over who owns the world's plant genetic resources and the corporate push for plant breeders ' rights (PBR), Seedling now covers a breadth of issues surrounding plant genetic resources management and agricultural biotechnology. Before, the official debates mainly took place at FAO. Now they have spread to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the European Parliament, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and other fora. Before, the push for corporate monopoly rights on seeds was limited to plant breeders ' rights legislation in the OECD. Now, the companies are fighting for full-fledged patent rights on plants, animals, and even parts of the human genome, all over the world. Before, NGO criticism of conservation strategies was largely focused on genebanks and their political and technical weaknesses. Now, while we still lament the failings of the genebank system our attention is much more focused on the struggle to develop grassroots alternatives, starting with the farmers. Perhaps the growth of NGO work in the field of genetic resources -- our information exchange, lobby work and support to increasing practical initiatives -- should be seen against the stagnation of the formal sector. Ten years ago, the "informal" sector was unheard of, inexistent -- a band of radicals hiding in the corridor at FAO fomenting "seed wars" and a anonymous mass of people saving genetic diversity from its demise on their fields, in their gardens and throughout the forests. Today, the work of grassroots organisations is increasingly considered vital, relevant and in desperate need of financial, technical and political support. On the other side, the far more visible and institutionally-supported genebanks, public research institutes and International Agricultural Research Centres are all struggling with dwindling finances which clearly translate uncertain priorities and the dangerously declining role of the public sector in agricultural research. The early years Renée: What do you remember about publishing the first issues of Seedling? Pat: Very little. Well I do remember doing it. In the work I had been involved with before ICDA, I had done a publication in a similar style called The DEAP Newsletter, for Development Education Animateur Programme. It wasn 't related to seeds. But it was only logical for me to do something similar with the seeds work when we founded ICDA's Seeds Campaign. So I started to type things up just to keep a very small group of people informed as to what was going on. I think the initial copies were mostly done with carbon paper and sent to ten or twenty people. Literally. Maybe not even that many. There was not a whole lot of interest in "seeds" and "genetic resources" then, like there is now. Henk: The first Seedling we have is from 1982 and talks about plant breeders ' rights (PBR) battles in Australia, Canada and India. Then an article about the CGIAR. Pat: You 're kidding! What does it say? Henk: "The Consultative Group met in Rome to talk about PBR." Pat: That's funny. Ten years later they met in Istanbul to talk about patents! Henk: Looking back at the old Seedling articles, they 're heavily biased either towards a discussion on plant breeders ' rights or what went on at FAO. Those are the two major topics which from 1982 way down to 1985 almost dominated Seedling. Pat: Well you know we weren 't looking much at the seed saving side of it. At least I wasn 't. In fact I don 't even think I thought about farmers saving their own seeds until I was in Austria doing a speaking tour in 1982 and I met the hill farmers. And I remember the guys at the plant breeding station in Linz saying how the hill farmers were better breeders than professional plant breeders were. But until then it never occurred to me particularly. I mean we knew there was the Seed Savers Exchange and stuff like that, but it never really entered my thinking that it was part of the whole thing. The real issues then were fighting plant breeders ' rights all over the world and trying to get some basic provisions established for germplasm in FAO. The corporate challenge Renée: How did the industry react to the early issues of Seedling and the campaign against plant breeders ' rights? Pat: One issue I clearly remember is the one on pesticides and seeds, "The Chemical Connection" or whatever it was called. I remember that because there was quite a strong reaction from Shell. Shell Oil went around trying to stop Seedling. They went to ICDA funders in England, trying to cut off the funding. Two ICDA donors had a visitor, an elderly person, saying he was from Shell Oil. He was upset about the funding for Seedling and he wanted to have it cut off. And there were rumours of the same thing happening in Germany, with the Bishop of the Protestant Church in southern Germany also being upset about it -- maybe because his brother was Hegey of Hegey Seed Company -- and in Canada the same thing. The seed companies were complaining to ICDA's Canadian donors about Seedling and "Seeds of the Earth" and the whole thing. Henk: Back in those days, the companies did things like that. But now we 're actually talking to the multinationals. Things like Shell or any other company trying to stop our funding or breaking into our office would at this point seem rather ridiculous. Pat: It wouldn 't have been hard to break into our office back then because at that point ICDA headquarters in London didn 't even have a door in the office. It was propped in the hallway. I don 't think there were any break-ins, it was more like companies going around saying this is an upstart thing and should be stopped. But you 're right. They would be crazy to try it today. However, I suspect that if someone from one of the major companies had a way of stopping Seedling they 'd still probably like to. If they could see it disappear off the face of the earth they 'd be glad but they wouldn 't be stupid enough to try. Henk: In those times, it looked like such a simple thing of "they", the industry, against "us", the NGOs. Now it seems much more complicated. Now we talk openly about our contentions and everything seems more reasonable. What's the difference? Did we change the issues? Pat: No. I think it's still "they" against "us". At that stage, ten years ago, the seed industry was what it was: there were a lot of companies trying to be merged, wanting to be bought, thinking that they were the one thing in the world that was pure, clean, environmentally friendly, honest and decent. And, on the other side there was a bunch of upstarts, the NGOs, saying that they weren 't and that in fact the companies were ripping off the Third World, monopolising seeds, causing genetic erosion and breeding plant to suit chemical sales. All of a sudden, this was a big, political problem. So the companies got worried about what might happen to them, whether the market might drop. They didn 't know. It was absolutely new to them. It was like suddenly being accused of something you never thought you could possibly do yourself. And there was a lot of personal outrage. A lot of the individuals in the companies were individually outraged. And others were scared, corporately scared. That's why they took it badly. Now they 're much more sophisticated. They 're not individuals afraid of losing their fiefdoms or their little companies or not being able to hold the marketplace. That has changed. Now they 're used to having us around. Henk: Is this because the issues changed, the companies changed, or we changed? Pat: Undoubtedly all of us have changed to some degree. What we always want to say is no, we haven 't changed, we 're exactly as we were and the rest of the world has changed. That would be exaggerating. But I don 't think it's that far off from that. Again, when you look at who it is we 're talking to, the companies have changed. Dramatically. There's a whole new generation almost. We 're not dealing with the patriarchs who ran small family seed companies, we 're dealing with multinationals, we 're dealing with the corporate reality. Second, they 've been dealing with the issues now for a dozen years -- ten years through Seedling -- and they 're used to the idea, in fact they understand now that there are political implications to germplasm control and germplasm flows, that patents are contentious and all these things have been manifested very clearly to them now. And I think without exception they would say "Yes, we 've changed, we understand these implications." They would also want to say the we have changed and we 've become more reasonable and all that kind of stuff. But I can 't think of any position that we took before which has moderated. I don 't think there is one. I think we use language perhaps more carefully now, but I don 't think our positions have changed and I don 't think they 're perceived to have changed. Henk: Could we say that the world around us has changed so much that our "punchiness", our criticism, doesn 't harm that much any more and thus makes it less relevant and less harmful to the guys we want to hit? Pat: No. I think you could even put it the other way around: that our punchiness and our criticism ten years ago were pretty harmless. The most it did was worry a few small seed companies; it didn 't particularly worry the governments, it just sort of irritated them. But I don 't think we 've been particularly effective. What we 've been doing is building an educational base so that people understand the issues. On the other side, the issues have moved along. Biotechnology has been born in the minds of people and the practical grassroots work has surfaced. The companies have done all the things we feared they would. If you look back at the early Seedlings or "Seeds of the Earth" and the fears that were there about the future, they either have happened already or are imminently likely to happen, almost indisputably. Genetic erosion has accelerated, corporate consolidation is there as well as the new technologies, and much tougher, much more dangerous intellectual property systems are spreading in the world. On the other side, the world knows these issues are there, things are happening. And there is some remote possibility both at the level of the community and at the level of the international governments -- the global governments -- that something might happen, the course of things might become constructive at some stage. That's the best you can say now. I mean Seedling is not a full-grown plant; it's still got a long way to go. The growth of Seedling Henk: But then, what do you think if you look at Seedling in the old days, 1983-1986. Pat: Boring and unreadable. Renée: Do you read Seedling? Pat: Yes! But not all the time. I don 't read anything all the time. I haven 't even read my own book "Shattering" yet. Henk: That's because you wrote it. Pat: Perhaps, but in general. I don 't read anything systematically, except for maybe biotechnology journals. But I 'd say the scope of Seedling is obviously much, much wider than it was then. If it wasn 't wider, you should be ashamed of yourselves. And it's certainly better written, vastly more attractive, and most importantly, it's actually being read. What's the mailing list of Seedling now? Henk: 1,200 I think. Pat: And it goes to how many countries? Renée: 95. Pat: Well that's an incredible difference. In 1982 there were probably about a hundred people, two hundred people, on the planet who knew something about plant genetic resources. And that includes the scientific community. And everybody at FAO. And now there are 1,200 people in nearly 100 countries who subscribe to Seedling. And it gets quoted endlessly -- everybody refers to Seedling, it comes up constantly in conversation. I don 't mean constantly in everyone's conversation but in agriculture it's well-known. And that's a sign of increasing sophistication. The issue which was once "the seeds issue", which is now the biodiversity or the biodiversity-biotech issue, is at least in its 20s. It's past its teenage years but it's not exactly a fully mature operation. But it certainly is as sophisticated, I would think, as any campaign the NGO community has ever put together. In some ways much more sophisticated, I would argue. And that is manifested in Seedling. Some of the other NGO campaigns have tended to be very rifle-shot campaigns. But this issue has succeeded in addressing such a sphere of elements, from IPRs to biotechnology to seed conservation at the community level to looking at the implications from seeds to the wider agricultural biodiversity. This is a much wider range than has been covered by any other campaign. The fact that it has managed to expand to that scope and still be comprehensible -- still have specific targets and strategies -- is impressive. And I think Seedling has played probably the major role in taming and building that support. It certainly hasn 't been the books that any of us have written, frankly. Short things like Seedling get read -- and used. Henk: Give me two or three points of how you would improve Seedling. Pat: I personally think it could be bigger. I would like to see more on biotech in it, more updated sort of stuff. So I 'd like more detail in Seedling, rather than less. I know that it can 't be a lot more but I 'd like to see more briefs on what's happening on the biotech side especially. And perhaps here or there more additional articles on specific areas or adventuring into one thing in every issue of Seedling that goes into the wider climate of the issue, one step beyond. A guest editorial or a guest essay from some related aspect. Also I think what we 're all missing is something that gets out fast and breaks news. The thing about the earlier Seedlings was, and I remember this rule well, was not to take more than a day to produce it: it should be started in the morning and in the mail at the end of the day. But it serves a very good purpose the way it is and it would be dangerous to play with it too much. So I would be cautious about my advice if I were you. Henk: What we don 't find in the earlier Seedlings, and what is increasingly important in our activities, is information about what's going on at the grassroots level. That's completely absent, I think, in our earlier works. Pat: Absolutely. We had no idea what was going on at the grassroots level. Not the remotest idea. And the thing is, there were things going on at the grassroots level then, of course. It's just that no one had a name for it and, by and large, no one thought it was important. At the same time, to be fair, because of things like Seedling a lot more is going on. A lot more has been stimulated. I mean there has been a major explosion of knowledge about the issue -- that is certainly true. And it's certainly also true that if it hadn 't been for NGOs, there would not have been that explosion of knowledge. There would still be Trevor Williams directing IBPGR, nothing happening at FAO, very little activity by Third World governments, no knowledge about NGOs and probably many more genebanks in deterioration. So it's not a bad record, after ten years. It really isn 't.