Who Owns the World's Seeds?
It might seem like a strange concept for people to ‘own’ seeds. In the wild, plants produce seeds, which are dispersed (spread) in many different ways, such as by animals, or on the wind. No one thinks about owning these seeds, they simply allow the plants to carry on!
However, since the 1930s, it has been possible for companies to ‘patent’ seeds that they have developed, meaning that they own the rights to the seeds and can charge others for using them. Now, many plants used for food, fuels and animal fodder have been grown from seeds that have been carefully bred to ensure that they are strong and will yield a good crop. Many of them have been genetically modified in some way to improve their changes of being disease free or to increase their resistance to pesticides. Genetically Modified (GM) or F1 hybrid seeds, which have been cross bred between particular types of plants can often not be saved, in any case, because they are genetically unstable.
Farmers who use these seeds have to pay the breeders and the companies that have bought the rights to own the seeds. If they save seeds and plant them another year, they must pay again for the use of these ‘Farm Saved Seeds’. Sometimes, it is illegal to save seeds from GM or F1 crops altogether and farmers found to be doing so can face big fines. It’s also illegal for farmers to give any surplus seed that they have saved to another farm for free. In the UK, some of the money from the sale of the seeds is used by the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) to fund further research into breeding methods, creating stronger plants, more suited to being grown on a mass scale.
Photo: Pam Brophy
Farmers are not allowed to sell any crops such as wheat, barley or oats without first having had their crop certified by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). If they try to sell any seed that is not correctly registered, they face legal action. The same applies for any crops such as field peas or yellow pins grown for sale as animal food. These regulations mean that farmers are obliged to use only seeds sold by the big companies recognised by APHA. They are also often obliged to buy and use the correct type of pesticide to suit the crop - a pesticide that has been produced by the same company selling the seed!
BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, ChemChina-Syngenta, and Corteva Agriscience are the four big corporations that currently own the rights to over two thirds of the world’s seed and pesticide sales. These sales generate huge profits for the companies and they have been accused of ‘biopiracy’ by activist Pat Mooney of the ETC Group for eco-justice, who claims that the companies take the work and genetic material developed by small farmers, often in the Global South, and use them to make money. Mooney accuses the companies of “decimating the innovative contribution of public sector researchers and threatening the 12,000-year-old right of peasants to breed, save, and exchange their seeds.”