Through trade agreements, countries in the South are forced by industrialized countries to apply strict intellectual property rights to seeds. This means that farmers are no longer allowed to grow, exchange or sell patented seeds themselves, but must buy them anew every year.
Are Swiss famers also prohibited from exchanging and breeding seeds?
Simon Degelo: In Switzerland, for many crops, such as cereals or potatoes, it is permitted to exchange the seeds without paying license fees. Although Switzerland would also be obliged to prohibit this under the UPOV 91 agreement, but resistance from farmers has persuaded Parliament to only partially implement the requirements.
Since Switzerland’s implementation of the agreement is patchy, it is even more shocking that it is forcing partner countries to implement these requirements verbatim in bilateral trade agreements, because for small farmers in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, the possibility to grow, exchange and sell their own seeds is existential. In addition, many of the partner countries do not have the democratic structures that enable farmers’ organizations, as in the case of Switzerland, to prevent the implementation of harmful laws.
Since Switzerland’s implementation of the agreement is patchy, it is even more shocking that it is forcing partner countries to implement these requirements verbatim in bilateral trade agreements.
Simon Degelo, the responsible officer for food sovereignty and seed policy at SWISSAID
How can we change this situation?
Simon Degelo: The problem is that very few people know about this issue. If we want to get the Swiss government to rethink, we need a broad public discussion and people who stand up and are committed to change. This is the goal of our current seed campaign “Let’s sow change”.
Farmers increasingly use industrial seeds instead of their own local seeds. Does that have an impact on what ends up on our plates?
Simon Degelo: Yes, the companies that breed these seeds focus largely on a few crops: wheat, corn, soybeans, rice and some vegetables. Their goal is to mass sell these varieties all over the world. As a result, local varieties that are well adapted to local conditions, require little fertilizer and surprise us with their unique tastes are disappearing. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 75% of the local varieties have been lost in the past century.
How does the use of industrial seeds affect biodiversity?
Simon Degelo: These seeds rely heavily on the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Since the large seed companies are also the main suppliers of pesticides, they have little interest in breeding frugal plants. The result is large-scale monocultures in which all weeds and pests have been killed off. In the short term, large yields can be obtained. However, pesticides and overfertilization cause herbs, insects, vertebrates and soil organisms to also disappear. This means that in the longer term, yields also decline because the soil loses fertility and pests multiply as they become resistant to pesticides and lack defence against their natural enemies.