Buying a packet of seeds and planting them in the ground may seem like a fairly mundane act. But corporate control of seeds is one of the most important political, social, and environmental issues facing humanity. In many ways, the attempts of corporations to copyright, patent and otherwise own seeds is a new forms of the enclosure of the commons. For several thousand years, growing, saving, and sowing seeds was a normal, everyday practice. Seeds were sometimes bought and sold in markets but mostly they were saved and shared by families, villages, and communities. Seeds were collectively owned – no one could copyright a seed…until the rise of the Industrial Agriculture system. Now seeds are not only copyrighted by multinational corporations but most are hybrid varieties that produce a great crop in the first year but can’t be saved. The most prominent cash crops are sometimes genetically modified and, very often, infused with neonicotinoid pesticides. Neonicotinoid pesticides are systemic and persistent pesticides that have been shown to have negative effects on pollinators, aquatic animals, and birds. Farmers can no longer save and share most commercial seeds because hybrid seeds don’t produce a reliable second generation of plants and because saving seeds often violates the agreement they have with corporate seed companies.
Corporate control over seeds is an attempt to take seeds out of the commons – ending long-standing practices that build community resiliency and collective knowledge and innovation. Corporate control of seeds also means the proliferation of pesticides in our environment – before the recent partial ban, neonicotinoids were used on 90% of corn seeds and 50-60% of soy crops in Ontario. Even the seeds bought in nurseries for home gardens can be coated with fungicides and other chemicals and are often owned by multi-national corporations.
The funny thing about seeds, though, is that they are produced by nature in abundance. And humans have been breeding certain varieties and strains of seeds to suit our needs for about 12 ooo years. Sure, a genetically-modified, neonicotinoid-saoked corn seed might never appear outside of a scientific lab but the vast majority of seed varieties and breeds are part of the collective wealth of humanity. The idea that corporations can own seeds is an illusion.
It is very hard for conventional farmers to break out of the system of corporate control over seeds – to do so would require a huge cultural shift to small-scale organic agriculture. This will not happen without government support which will not happen without pressure from social movements. I hope that happens. However, there are things that small-scale farmers and gardeners can do to break the corporate control of seeds in their own practices.
One, is to buy heirloom, organic, and open-pollinated seeds from small seed companies. These seeds will not be infused with chemicals and will be able to produce abundant future generations. Open-pollinated seeds – as opposed to hybrids – tend to contain more nectar and pollen for pollinators. Because they are organic, the pollen and nectar they produce will not harm pollinators.
The second thing you can do is save seeds. When you save seeds, you are tapping into the collective wisdom of generations of farmers and gardeners. It is an invaluable skill – and one you can share with others. Saving the seeds of the plants you grow is also a great thing to do for birds and bees – it means you must let some of your plants flower, fruit, and seed.
Saving seeds also means that you will eventually have an abundance which you can then share. You can support or set up seed libraries in your community. Public libraries are often very enthusiastic about setting up seed libraries especially when they have support from the community. You can also set up a little seed library in your neighbourhood or workplace. Sharing is something that has sustained humanity for most of our existence but under consumer capitalism it seems strange to many people. But persevere! Sharing the abundance of nature is an important way to build connected, healthy communities.
Recently, I read book as part of my PhD studies in which the author pointed out that in pre-capitalist societies no one starved unless the whole community starved. For all the inequalities and exploitation that may have existed in some of those societies, rationing or sharing food to make sure everyone had enough to eat was just a part of living in a human society. Now, when more food than ever is being produced, many people are chronically malnourished and sometimes starve to death. Obviously, there are more systemic issues at play, but learning how to share with friends, neighbours, and complete strangers is an important act of human solidarity that needs to endure.
Lastly, become a food activist! Corporate control over seeds will not end because we all buy, save, and share organic heirloom seeds. We also need to try to change this system that seeks to commodify all aspects of life. Support movements to ban neonicotinoid pesticides. Support the movement to label GM foods – not because there is great evidence of harm to humans but because GM seeds are part of corporate copyright and control over life. Support struggles of small-scale organic farmers not just close to home but globally. La Via Campesina is one the most active and political groups advocating for peasant rights. Find out about their struggles and campaigns.
When you hold a seed in your hand this year (you can start seeds indoors in my part of the world in a few weeks) think of the collective wisdom and innovation that went into creating that seed. Think of how that particular variety might have been saved and shared over decades or even centuries. In that little seed, you hold a piece of the commons. Plant it , nurture it, share it and, most importantly, cherish it.