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Op-Ed: Germplasm: The Centralization of Seed and Efforts to Conserve Seed Diversity
L. Acuna Sandoval
Seed and germplasm are a reservoir of genetic information that at times seem so small and, to some, unimportant. Seed contains vast information about a plant’s history and evolution. It is difficult to describe how vital this is. This year, I am growing seed for a conservation farm; it is seed that used to be in Thomas Jefferson’s collection. It is not going well. I know nothing of the history of the seed except that its yield has declined. I grow many varieties of peppers every season including landrace peppers that have been in areas of New Mexico for hundreds of years. The seed I am growing for the conservation farm is slow to germinate, is not vigorous and grows very slowly. Other peppers planted later pass it by. I am doting on it, but I do not think it is going to make it. Without knowing how the previous grower cultivated it or how big the population was from which the seed was collected, I am working blindly. Exponentially multiply this experience, and in the future there is a very real possibility of not having access to viable seed to grow enough food to meet the needs of our expanding population of people and animals.
Seed is so important and valuable that multinational seed companies have centralized its ownership and control. A handful of the world’s biotech companies now control a major percentage of the seed that we humans depend on. The “Big Six,” as they are known, seem more like Darth Vader characters, rolling around the universe in big steel balls that have, in the last few decades, insidiously and systematically taken control of the world’s seed. Some now even own smaller organic seed companies, perhaps as an attempt to buy legitimacy.
The question is, how do the few biotech seed companies controlling seed impact nature—and us? How is it impacting farmers? Here is a science fiction-like metaphor I think is fitting regarding the pollen from genetically engineered (GE) seed: What if a few huge industries controlled oxygen and only allowed others to breathe if they pay for it? Those who pay are given a little oxygen but are required to sign a contract that bars the use of the company’s oxygen to create their own; instead, they must return each year to fill their tank and cannot get oxygen from anywhere else. If others try to produce and supply oxygen, their labs are contaminated with the company’s altered oxygen, which is floating around, so now your clean oxygen may have unknown chemicals in it that may be harmful to breathe. And then the company comes back, and, if you happen to have some of the company’s altered oxygen mixed into yours, the company will claim you stole it and will do everything in its power to destroy you, even take your lab away so you cannot breathe. Anything that interferes with the company’s oxygen—even bees or plants—will also be destroyed and sprayed, so all that remains is the industries’ oxygen. This example may seem surreal, but it is closer to the truth than you may imagine.
Recently, I was contacted by someone from an institution that was originally established to help farmers. This individual wanted to buy some of the landrace pepper seed I have in my collection, ostensibly for a demonstration garden. I have been conserving and saving this seed for more than 10 years, using organic methods to improve and stabilize the seed bank. This specific variety of pepper has been grown in one field since Abraham Lincoln was in office. This seed is so rare that it contains genetically diverse information that hybrids or recently bred peppers do not have. This genetic information is invaluable because, if anything changes in the environment, the peppers, through many years of hard-won evolution, have the memory to withstand stress—such as drought conditions, disease, or low fertility—and still produce high yields.
So it was curious to me that this person was asking me to donate this rare seed and congratulating me for maintaining seed banks. Why was this person attempting to collect our seed? After a few weeks of research, I discovered that some previously published conservation work I had done on northern New Mexico landrace peppers with area farmers was now being researched as well by this institution. There is no law against using others’ published ideas. If you are continuing their work, that is perfectly acceptable. But important ethical issues must be considered.
When I read this institution’s publicly funded study, I realized the information it was supposed to publish and all the lofty commitments it made to assist farmer stakeholders had not been done in the few years after the grant had closed, except for a few lectures. Most of its effort was concentrated on ranking the seed banks and presenting this information to plant breeders, both inside and outside of the United States. This institution’s newsletter included a lot of self-congratulation, highlighting its efforts to “save” the landrace peppers. There was no bulletin, no information, no workshops, no boards created with farmers as specified in its grant to conserve this specific seed material. Ranking seed by traits is basically an inventory to understand the outstanding qualities that they may possess. For example, the seed may have genetic information on how to manufacture large quantities of antioxidants or a disease resistance that other seeds may no longer possess because their genes have been manipulated too much. With current, cutting-edge quantitative trait locus (QTL) mapping, scientists can locate exactly where traits are located within germplasm.
Why is this important? If I wanted to find out if a specific seed bank was valuable, I would want to understand how it is unique. If I could pull out these qualities and patent them, then no one could use these traits without paying me—similar to my example about not allowing people to breathe if they don’t pay. It is that simple.
If you are doing almost exactly the same research as someone else, you would want to know about them. But this person/institution asking me for the seed did not want to work with us; they just wanted our seed. Incidentally, their grant was awarded while mine was still actively collecting data.
As soon as unprotected seed crosses another’s threshold, especially if potentially funded by a biotech company, they own the seed, free and clear. So I decided I was not going to sell the seed to an institution with this many unknowns of where the seed would end up. I then fought a losing battle just trying to access the information that was generated from this institution’s publicly funded grant. The battle finally ended, but not before one of its lawyers told me, after I questioned the similar ideas contained in both grants, “We might not have the light bulb if researchers were not free to build upon the ideas of others, since British researchers began working on and writing about the idea long before Thomas Edison’s invention.” I do not see that as an appropriate analogy for our time.
A second request to obtain the information the institution’s grant was supposed to provide to help us conserve the northern New Mexico landrace peppers and assist farmers yielded this answer from its lawyer: “Until published, this is considered proprietary research not subject to disclosure. This is to protect… copyright and claim of ownership to this written material.” Information on this study published in this institution’s bulletin may yet become publicly available in the coming months, but the institution was under no obligation to answer the questions I was asking about its publicly funded research.
Rather than continuing to engage in pointless arguments, become marginalized by government institutions and have doors slammed in my face, I went in another direction.
A program started a couple of years ago, called the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI, http://osseeds.org), is an effort to free seed of patents. OSSI has created a cooperative of plant breeders who have pledged that their seed-breeding work and varieties be made available exclusively under the OSSI Pledge: “You have the freedom to use these OSSI-pledged seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means, and to include this pledge with any transfer of these seeds or their derivatives.” The pledge warrants this commitment to keep seed free, follows the seed with any distribution and includes new varieties bred from it. OSSI then proactively conserves “any exchange of plant germplasm for breeding purposes and guarantees the rights of farmers and gardeners to save and replant seed.”
What an experience this was for me! I lost trust in institutions that were formed to help me as a farmer. But I was also encouraged when I realized that a whole new philosophy and initiatives exist out there to decentralize seed. The best organic plant breeders and geneticists in the country are trying to counter someone exclusively owning our seed. Varieties that I have collected and conserved are going to be submitted to OSSI. The Cañoncito Field 7 landrace pepper has already been accepted into the program. I’m hopeful that this will deter others wanting to covet seed and will support the current rebirth of farmer-led research in agriculture and plant breeding not funded by biotech.
As I told the individual who wanted the seed for an institutional “demonstration garden,” this seed does not belong to them, and they are not entitled to it. It belongs to the landrace pepper farmers who nurtured it generation after generation and cared for it all these years; it belongs to people, not institutions. As Gary Nabhan so simply put it, “Institutions do not save seed. Humans with hearts do.” I will continue to protect this seed as if it were my own flesh and blood. And I will keep breathing my own oxygen.
Reference information: https://msu.edu/~howardp/seedindustry.html
Howard, Philip H. 2009. Visualizing Consolidation in the Global Seed Industry: 1996–2008. Sustainability, 1(4), 1266-1287.
L. Acuna Sandoval is a seed conservationist and organic farmer based in Dixon, New Mexico. She also supports families that use northern New Mexico acequias in Cañoncito by donating seed historically grown that is conserved in seed banks, including corn, peppers, melons and other locally adapted varieties.
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