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Defending Seeds – The Via Campesina’s 20-Year Legacy

« A seed is miraculous. A seed has life – you sow one and you reap hundreds.” – Nandini Jairam, La Vía Campesina member, India

Seeds have been a key issue of concern for the Via Campesina since its inception in 1993. As an autonomous, independent movement uniting 250 million small-scale farmers and producers from 70 countries from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, the Via has now become a major player in the seed, food, agriculture, trade and climate debates, and is listened to by international institutions such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Human Rights Council.

At any given moment around the world, the Via and its member organizations are leading efforts to save seed diversity and stop the corporate takeover of this most vital building block of human existence. The Via and many of its member organizations receive funding and support from Grassroots International.

The Via has focused its seed defense efforts on three major strategies: encouraging peasants around the world to save their own seeds and organize themselves to select and safeguard them; challenging laws that are stripping peasants of their rights regarding seeds; and stopping the production and dissemination of GM crops (genetically modified crops—famously known as ‘Frankenfoods’—which are produced by powerful multinational conglomerates).  

Over the last few decades, there has been a massive consolidation of the control, production and distribution of seeds into the hands of just a few global corporations.  Only six corporations now control two-thirds of the world’s seed production, 70 percent of pesticide production, and three quarters of all private agricultural research budgets, far outpacing any government’s resources. The biggest among them is Monsanto.

These corporations need farmers to buy industrially created seeds—as well as the fertilizer and pesticides necessary to grow them. So a key piece of their business model is to prevent peasants from continuing to save and exchange their own seeds. Monsanto’s legacy of developing and distributing patent-protected seeds, and then aggressively suing family farmers to protect those patents is among the most nefarious examples of the underside of this business model.

The largest half dozen agribusiness companies in the world focus on crops that will bring the greatest return. As a result « they are putting the future of the world’s food supply into 12 crops. That’s no way to ensure the future, » says Pat Mooney of ETC Group, a technology monitoring group.

Agribusiness corporations are also heavily investing in and promoting GMO crops—a direct threat to small-scale farmers.  Ninety percent of GMO crops are maize, soya, canola and cotton, destined for textiles, animal feed and agrofuels, says Henk Hobbelink of GRAIN, a reseacrh and advocacy organization.  As a result, Hobbelink notes, « GMOs don’t feed the world, they throw farmers off their land. » 

Seeds have been a high priority for the Via from the beginning.  After launching their first campaign to rally farmers around the world around agrarian reform, and Food Sovereignty, the Via then turned its attention to mounting a seeds campaign.  It was a reflection of the crucial importance that seeds have to not only farmers but entire nations’ control of their own food supply.  A key goal in the campaign was to recognize and elevate the leadership of women in the saving of seeds, a role which women have held throughout history—sometimes in creative ways.

Francisca Rodriguez, one of the Via’s founding members, recalls learning about women’s unusual approaches to seed saving during the Green Revolution in her native Chile.  When the husbands of women farmers pressured them to cultivate new hybrid seeds promoted by extension workers –influenced as they were by industrial agriculture techniques – the women often hid their traditional seed varieties in their skirts and planted them alongside the new ones. 

During the anti-WTO movement in the late nineties, stopping corporate take-over of seeds was a key demand. These early impetuses have given birth to an expanding array of campaigns and efforts for ‘seed sovereignty.’

For example, a delegation from the  Via Campesina-Brazil has been travelling to Haiti for several years now.  They help Haitian peasant movements build local sustainable agriculture practices including seed saving techniques, as well as bring agro-ecological seeds from Brazil to share with local farmers. Via member organizations such the Movement of Small Farmers (MPA) in Brazil, the Union of Autonomous Regional Peasant Organizations (UNORCA) in Mexico, the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) and many others around the globe are developing seed banks and promoting the saving of native seeds varieties. 

This year, the National Farmers Union of Mozambique (UNAC) organized a conference on land and seeds in that nation, and last November half way across the globe in Surin, Thailand, Via member groups from around the world met for the First Global Encounter on Agroecology and Seeds.