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Seed Banks – Community Based or Private?

Seed banks store seeds from different species all over the world. According to various sources there are than 1700 seed banks worldwide and for sure many more small-scale famers seeds banks. They store hundreds of thousands of local domestic seeds, as well as wild relatives of crops. Most of this varieties of seeds are no longer used, because seed markets use a low diversity of plant species. This is why the safe-guarding of biodiversity is crucial to combat the increasing pressure of climate change, which is already putting food production at risk on a global scale, even more so in Global South countries that are particularly vulnerable to these phenomena. For most of agricultural history, regionally adapted seeds have been freely (re)produced and exchanged by farmers. The seeds were owned by peasants who sowed, bred, saved and exchanged them. Sadly, the arrival of commercial seed industries changed the whole picture. Theses Multinational Corporations have successfully taken away the ownership of seeds from the hands of the farmers in the form of patents. At present, seeds are largely controlled by industrial giants like the big three in the agrochemical industry; Bayer-Monsanto, Corteva (Dow-DuPont) and Syngenta-ChemChina. Three conglomerates dominate more than 60 percent of the market for commercial seed and agricultural chemicals. They also collect seeds and try to “develop” new hybrids in private seed banks.

More information about the merges and the power of the agri-food industry you can find here:
Growing Power: Mega Merges and the fight for our food system (2018)
AGRIFOOD ATLAS – Facts and figures about the corporations that control what we eat (2017)

Private seed banks

The motivation behind the private seed banks is to gather gene sequences and match them with phenotypes, environmental, and geographic information in order to develop what they consider better adapted hybrid plants. This procedure can be very useful in changing climatic conditions. “This will make plant breeding faster, more efficient, and cheaper … The biodiversity stored in gene banks fuels advances in plant breeding, generates billions of dollars in profits, and saves many lives.“ wrote Susan McCouch in the Nature magazine article “Feeding the Future”. That may sound appealing but in reality, farmers end up being enslaved by the big biotech companies. With the patented high-yield hybrid varieties, which can not be reproduced locally and have to be purchased year after year, farmers are driven into long-term dependence. The seed producer often also sell pesticides which are adapted to their hybrid or GMO plants. On the one hand this business model destroys sustainable small-scale agriculture and on the other it enables high profits for corporations and shareholders. The main goal of multinational agribusiness is not providing healthy food produced by happy farmers. The main goal is providing more dividends for happy shareholders, everything else is secondary. Private seed banks are a powerful tool against independent small-scale farms fighting for food sovereignty. It appears more and more that the future of food security and agribusiness rests in the hands of few global corporations who will decide who is fed and who will starve. 

“Wild Relatives” – ASEED movie screening and discussion about “the Doomsday Vault”

This month at ASEED we had an online movie screening followed by a discussion round, where we analyzed the documentary “Wild Relatives”, which portrays the functioning of Svalbard and the relationship created between the vault and farmers in Syria. The documentary leaves us with some question marks and provides space for reflection – and some of the points discussed during our session, and that were also mentioned in an article by GRAIN (“Faults in the Vault: Not Everyone is Celebrating Svalbard”) were:

  • The Global Crop Diversity Trust has connections with companies and foundations whose vision of “food security” includes monocrops, increased use of fertilizers,pesticides and GMOs;
  • The vault works like this: countries and crop research institutions send their seed collections to the Vault, and sign a contract with NordGen(genetic resource center of the Nordic countries);
  • It is in theory a noble vision – seed saving, biodiversity preserved and the world has a backup system in case of a disaster. In reality, the Vault is contributing to greater seed access for biotech companies who contact the seed banks directly or through the institutions they fund to then come up with patented crops. That’s why it matters who supports the operation of the seed vault.
  • Furthermore, the local collectors have little chance to understand what happens to their seed banks, which is something that has to be resolved through revisions in the Agreement;
  • The trail of investments lead to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has ties with Monsanto and AGRA(Alliance for a Green Revolution In Africa), which is criticized for promoting GMOs in Africa under the deceptive banner of “sustainable agricultural growth based on smallholder farmers.” Other known investors are the Rockefeller Foundation, the Syngenta Foundation, and DuPont/Pioneer HiBred;
  • This “ultimate safety net” for the biodiversity that world farming depends on is sadly just the latest move in a wider strategy to make ex situ (off site) storage in seed banks dominant;
  • The deeper problem with the single focus on ex situ seed storage, that the Svalbard Vault reinforces, is that it is fundamentally unjust – It takes seeds of unique plant varieties away from the farmers and communities and makes them inaccessible; 
  • The whole ex situ strategy caters to the needs of scientists, not farmers;
  • The system operates under the assumption that once the farmers’ seeds enter a storage facility, they belong to someone else and negotiating intellectual property and other rights over them is the business of governments and the seed industry itself.

Community Seed Banks

The structure and functioning of community seed banks:

Traditionally, seed banks were created to fulfill one main purpose: save and exchange local seeds. Today’s community seed banks have varied purposes: they can be more focused on multiplication, conservation, availability and access, and awareness-raising, as well as seed and food sovereignty. In locally organized seed banks it is still possible to research and share the knowledge about the seeds and their specificities. The motivation is not to be as profitable as possible, but to grow resilient and reliable crops – and the farmers, the consumers, and the environment benefit from this process. There is variation in the management and governance of community seed banks. Some are quite basic without formal governance key elements (as in Bolivia and Rwanda); some are managed as a seed network which is based on membership and is governed by a board of volunteers (as in Honduras, Mexico, Trinidad and Brazil); there are some which are managed by an elected committee, guided by regulatory frameworks (which is the case of Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Nepal and Nicaragua); in some cases they are controlled by the state (which is the case in Bhutan and China); and cases where they are governed by the ideology of seed sovereignty, open source and free access (as in India and Canada).

Community seed banks and the preservation of agricultural biodiversity:

Many people’s livelihood and food security depend, to a great extent, on the management of biological resources which are important for agriculture. Agrobiodiversity includes harvested crop varieties, fish species, livestock breed, tree products, non-harvested species that support food provision (e.g. pollinators), and non-harvested species that support the food production ecosystems. Thrupp (1997) puts forth the idea that agrobiodiversity can stabilize farming systems more easily and make them more sustainable, preserve the soil and increase its health and fertility, contribute to better disease and pest management, reduce agricultural pressure on fragile areas, diversify income opportunities, and reduce the dependence on external inputs, among others. Therefore, the conclusion we can derive from these facts is quite clear: without the support of community seed banks and their work in preserving agrobiodiversity, we will have systems which are more fragile and insecure over time – not to mention the huge loss of biodiversity.

Examples of Seed Banks

The private Bayer seedbank in Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Beyer seedbank in Enkhuizen focuses on the processing, packaging and shipping of vegetable seeds. From there, many packages travel all over the world. The seeds are sold in about 160 countries. Bayer expects that in developing countries in Asia and Africa substantial sales growth is possible by also marketing crops and varieties that are suitable for small local growers. The goal would be to overtake the local seed markets. Further they want to copy the genetic information of the seeds in storage. Effectively, this allows them to take out patents on the genetic information collected, resulting in biopiracy through seed patents. A move as old as giant agribusiness.

In 2010 some ASEED activists showed, at then still named Monsanto, in Enkhuizen what they want: Food System Change, Not Climate Change.

The case in the Kolli Hills in Tamil Nadu

An incredible variety of wild and cultivated crops can be found in India – which has two of eighteen biodiversity hotspots in the world (the Western Ghats and the Himalayas) in its territory. The focus of Indian agriculture shifted away from biodiversity to ever-increasing yields after the Green Revolution – genetic diversity started to get lost with the modernization of agriculture. As a result, traditional seed varieties face extinction nowadays. In contrast the Malayali Gounders, a tribal group of people inhabiting this area in South India, was responsible for maintaining intra- and interspecific millet diversity through practices based on the local social and environmental conditions. The availability of seeds of traditional cultivars of millet was deeply affected after the introduction of high-yielding varieties and commercial crops. This decrease in the diversity of options eventually led to repercussions for the nutritional and food security of people. The community-based seed bank networks strengthened access to and availability of traditional seed varieties, a vital contribution to local farmers, and eventually supported the livelihoods and resilience of local communities. Additionally, they halted the erosion of indigenous crop diversity. By identifying the seed keepers and knowledge holders, the network between farmers was strengthened, and the community seed bank was established as a common resource.

Report: Community Seed Banks and Empowering Tribal Communities in the Kolli Hills.

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