Locally cultivated seed is a key factor in preserving biodiversity and thus for the future of our agriculture and food. But it is under increasing pressure from the seed industry.

Over thousands of years, farmers have created an incredible range of varieties that guarantee food security, health and long-term adaptability in times of climate change. In the past 100 years, however, over 75 percent of all varieties have been lost. Seed companies use patents to privatise genetic resources, and countries adopt restrictive seed and variety protection laws. Countermeasures can be taken in the form of farmers' seed banks, seed networks, the development of new local varieties and the safeguarding of seed quality through Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS).

Introduce a right on seeds

Small-scale farmers must be able to multiply, exchange, save and sell seeds. The involvement of these traditional actors and the valorization of their traditional knowledge are crucial for the preservation and sustainable use of seed diversity and genetic resources. International regulations such as the FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) and the UNDROP Peasants Rights Declaration guarantee farmers’ rights to seeds. SWISSAID is committed to making these instruments better known, used and implemented.

Many countries are violating the rights advocated by these declarations. In the South, pressure from industrialized countries and seed companies is often applied. Strict laws that drive local seeds out of the trade are approved. Patents or radical variety protection, such as the UPOV91 system, are used to maintain a monopoly on seeds and to deny families free access to this essential product. As a member of the “Swiss Coalition for the Right to Seed”, SWISSAID is campaigning for Switzerland to waive the requirement for plant variety protection according to UPOV91 in free trade agreements.

Seed systems and UPOV91:

Reinforcement of traditional seed systems

The importance of farmers’ seed systems as the source of all seed diversity and guarantors of food sovereignty is often misunderstood and the necessary support is lacking. SWISSAID brings together seed holders and networks them in order to counter these shortcomings. Varieties are identified, sorted and stored in village seed banks. Participatory guarantee systems are used to improve the quality of the farmers’ seeds and thus increase yields. The sale of seeds through the seed banks provides additional income for farming families. The selection of new varieties gives young people prospects for the future in the countryside.

Agroecology rather than genetic engineering

In agriculture, genetic engineering, whether old or new methods such as genome editing and gene manipulation, relies on expensive seeds and synthetic inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. Over time, the best yields run out of steam and costs become too high. Small farming families then become dependent on large industries. Local seeds are contaminated with genetically modified seeds. Until now, genetic engineering has contributed little to the production of food for the people. The focus is on maize and rapeseed for agrofuels, cotton for textiles and soybeans for animal feed. SWISSAID focuses instead on agroecological systems to fight hunger and provides information on the risks and effects of genetic engineering techniques.

Gene drive on video: