grand botanical chess game
All over the
debates on the future of food and agriculture are dominated by one
supreme subject: the seed. Its importance cannot possibly be
overstated. Seed is, after all, the beginning of the human food
chain. In the words of University of Wisconsin professor Jack R.
Kloppenburg: "As both food and means of production, seed sits at
a critical nexus where contemporary struggles over the technical,
social and environmental conditions of production and consumption
converge and are made manifest."
Current debates on
center around its appropriation and privatization through
intellectual property laws and treaties, and around the growing power
of corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta, which are bent on
creating virtual monopolies over all seed germplasm. As we'll see,
attempts to take over the seed are not new at all.
Throughout all of
history, nations and empires have always had their agricultural
programs. And in order to be viable, these programs have always
depended on the acquisition of seed varieties from all over the
world. As far back as 2,800 BC, Chinese emperor Shen Nung sent plant
collectors to distant regions in search of specimens of agricultural
or medicinal value, and already by the XVI century there were
botanical gardens in France, England, Switzerland, the Netherlands,
and present day Germany and Italy. Apart from their aesthetic
function, these gardens were established to receive and systematize
seed and plant samples of great economic value for the colonial
University professor Michael Dorsey, botanical gardens "and
their associated networks, including botanists and herborists moved
species- to the Old World as well as in between the nascent colonies…
"The king of
and other European monarchs, retained botanists and pharmacists to
identify, collect, formulate and identify plant medicines for the
royal family. The desire to expand personal pharmacopoeias
legitimized financing for early exploration projects, especially
those to the New World. According to Schultes and Reis, the King of
Spain sent his personal physician to live with the Aztecs and study
their medicines, less than fifty years after Columbus' first voyages.
Indeed it was rare that any ship to or from the New World- or
anywhere outside of Europe in the Age of Exploration- did not have a
person knowledgeable about plants and potentially capable of
exploiting their medicinal properties."
That's how the
originally from Southeast Asia, ended up in Africa and the Caribbean.
Cocoa, a native of Brazil, traveled in the opposite direction,
towards the fields of Africa and Southeast Asia. Coffee is from
Ethiopia, and nowadays its production is extremely important for the
economies of Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia's southeast.
Cotton hails from Peru and Mexico, and the colonizers brought it to
Africa and India, and in both places it is a crop of the highest
economic importance for small farmers. Pineapple and rubber are both
from Brazil and both were taken to Africa and Asia. Sugar cane, a
crop associated with slavery and obscene profits for plantation
owners in the Caribbean, came from Southeast Asia. Canadian theorist
and visionary Pat Mooney, who won the 1985 Right Livelihood Prize for
his historical and social research on seed, described this global
movement of seed as an imperial botanical chess game.
returned from this first voyage to the Americas with corn seeds,
something never before seen in Europe. It can be said that the seeds
brought by the European colonizers from the Americas were a bigger
treasure than the mountains of gold and silver that they took. After
all, minerals and precious stones can only be taken once, but a seed
gives birth to a plant that then produces seed, one season after
another. This appropriated germplasm provided the basis for the great
chemical, pharmaceutical, textile, lumber, food and biotechnology
industries of today.
The arrival of
potato had a profound impact on Europe. Both provide more calories
per hectare than any other crop planted in Europe. The ruling classes
used these crops to feed their impoverished peasants and the growing
industrial proletariat that lived in the urban slums. It has been
said, perhaps as something of an exaggeration, that without the
potato Germany's industrialization would not have been possible, but
"new crops from the Americas certainly played an important role
in feeding a European population that nearly doubled between 1750 and
1850″, according to Kloppenburg.
empires developed their respective seed acquisition programs, which
they jealously guarded. The Dutch, for example, cut down all nutmeg
and clove trees in the Molucca (Maluku) islands, except in three
isles where they had their plantations, of course with considerable
military protection. The French made the export of indigo seed from
the Caribbean island of Antigua a capital offense. And Germany's
Kaiser ordered the collection of seeds from the country's colonies in
Africa and the Pacific, and to store the specimens he established a
modern agricultural station in Gatersleben, which went on to become
one of the world's premiere seed deposits.
Today the seed is
important than in previous centuries. "Commercial seeds, the
first link in the agroindustrial food chain, are the starting place
for crop-based feedstocks that will be used to produce not just food,
feed and fibre, but also energy, high-value chemical and consumer
products (e.g., plastics, pharmaceuticals)," informs the ETC
Group, a research and advocacy organization founded by Mooney. "Major
seed/pesticide enterprises are already hopping on the bioeconomy
bandwagon. Monsanto, Dow and Dupont are among those partnering with
companies to develop new technology platforms to manufacture
bio-based agroindustrial products."
According to the
Group, ten corporations control 74 percent of all commercial seed
sales worldwide, a $27.4 billion business. Only three of them-
Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta- have over half the global seed
business. Monsanto alone has a 27 percent market share, plus 80
percent of the genetically engineered seed market.
But times are
Today there are new social actors and a critical consciousness that
was not widespread even twenty years ago. In the Social Fora, Occupy
and indignados movements, in the practice of food sovereignty,
agroecological projects and within newly formed organizations,
alternative visions are being brewed, and collective actions are
being launched to protect farm seeds from those who would appropriate
and privatize them.
We quote from a
of the Seed Campaign of the Latin American Coordinating Committee
(CLOC) of Via Campesina:
We affirm that the seed is so much more than a
productive resource, that they are simultaneously the foundation and
product of cultures and societies throughout history. Seeds
incorporate values, affections, visions and ways of living that tie
them to the realm of the sacred. Without them the peoples' livelihood
and sovereignty are impossible… Therefore, seeds and the knowledge
associated to them are a fundamental and irreplaceable part of
people's food sovereignty. Seeds are not a heritage of humanity, but
rather our heritage, of the peasant and indigenous peoples, who
created, diversified and protected them through time and put them at
the service of humanity… Seeds cannot be appropriated. They must in
every moment maintain their character of collective heritage… The
campaign, therefore, opposes intellectual property and any form of
appropriation of life.
Now the great
not alone in the table. The diverse peoples and social movements of
the world, armed with centuries of experience, intend to change the
grand botanical chess game in a decisive way.
Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican author, investigative journalist,
environmental educator, a Research Associate of the Institute for
Social Ecology, and director of the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety
(http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/search/label/en). He has a MA in
Social Ecology from Goddard College and is also a fellow of the
Oakland Institute and a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership
Program. His Twitter feed is: carmeloruiz.