GM agriculture is not the answer to seed diversity – It’s part of the problem

We need policies and practices that ensure farmers’ seed-saving knowledge is passed down to future generations

Article by Gaia’s Teresa Anderson published online in The Guardian.

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For thousands of years, farmers across the globe have skilfully observed, saved and bred a wealth of seed diversity, cultivating ever more crop varieties to deal with the challenges of farming. The need to save, exchange and pass seed on is so important to farming that it is embedded into cultural practices around the world to ensure future generations can have the seed diversity and complex farming knowledge they need to continue to grow food and develop crops.

But recent decades have seen a dramatic decrease in global seed diversity, for the first time in history. Since the introduction of the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s, alongside laws that restrict farmers’ rights (pdf) to save and exchange seed, agribusiness corporations have steadily increased sales of hybrid and GM crops. Genetic diversity and farmers’ knowledge are the basis of farming; but as corporate seed and chemicals increasingly replace farmers’ own ingenuity, they are now seen as mere customers. What was onceagriculture is increasingly becoming agribusiness.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 75% of the world’s crop diversity has been lost through this profound transformation of global food production. But as Christine Campeau, of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, and fellow author of a reportpublished on Wednesday by EAA, the Gaia Foundation and the African Biodiversity Network, says: “Too many farmers grow the same one or two varieties of purchased seed. But if the rains come too early or too late, too much or not at all, the entire crop may fail. As climate changeincreasingly hits agriculture, farmers are realising that the seed varieties that they grew, saved but then abandoned decades ago are the very varieties that they now need.”

In its recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns of the catastrophic impact that climate change will have on food production. It is clear that the effects of climate change will be as unpredictable as they will be widespread. While it may be possible to predict particular events with some probability (eg saltwater flooding in Bangladesh and southern India, drought in the Horn of Africa, and hurricanes in the Philippines) it is also likely that regions will suffer from more than one type of extreme weather pattern. For example, Kenya in recent years has experienced a wide spectrum of extremes ranging from drought, heavy rains and unprecedented cold in concurrent seasons.

It is important to note that the global industrial food system contributes an estimated 44-57% of global greenhouse gases to climate change. In contrast, the world’s small-scale farmers – the ones keeping agricultural diversity alive – provide 70% of all food eaten globally, using just 30% of the world’s agricultural land.

Given the range of challenges that food systems will face in coming years, it is time for us to think seriously about how farmers will be able to keep growing food to feed the world. Not just to feed ourselves, but for the generations to come.

Policymakers such as the UK environment minister Owen Paterson believe GM corporations can deliver the world from hunger and malnutrition. But Paterson’s recent promotion of GM “golden rice” as the answer to Vitamin A deficiency ignores the fact that $100m (£62m) has been spent on a technology still not proven to work (contrast this with simpler strategies that have been proven to work – such as simply growing and eating vegetables).

Farmers today and in the future will need to grow a wide diversity of crop varieties to spread their risk and deal with variable amounts of rain, changing temperatures, saline conditions, emerging pests and diseases, as well as a diversity of nutritional and medicinal needs. Imagine each seed variety taking millions of dollars and many years before corporations bring it to market, where it would need to be planted in huge monocultures to recoup the enormous investment. The inevitable outcome of this vision will be the disappearance of global crop diversity, while farmers struggle to access the seed that they – and the communities they feed – urgently need.

It is time for us to recognise that corporate and GM agriculture is part of the problem, and cannot be part of the solution. Instead, we need policies and practices that actively support the revival of seed diversityand seed-saving knowledge in farmers’ hands, and that ensure this is passed on to the generations to come.

It should shock us all to think of the wealth of crop diversity our generation has inherited from our farming ancestors, and how we have carelessly squandered this incalculable gift. We know that climate change is only going to get worse. If we do not take action to revive seed diversity and seed-saving knowledge in farmers’ hands, we will be leaving a disastrously narrow gene pool from which future generations will struggle to farm and eat.