The struggle over the control of seed stocks did not start with the advent of modern agriculture at mid-20th C. The Romans built granaries from rough-hewn granite and guarded their wheat, rye, barley, and seed stores for a reason (Rickman 1971). The Colhua Mexica raided the seed dispensaries of Azcapotzalco after burning the codices in the libraries of the tyrant Maxtla when they first achieved independence from their Tecpanec oppressors in a revolt led by Tlacaélel (León-Portillo 1963 ). Today, a handful of global biotechnology corporations and their philanthrocapitalist allies are seeking an oligopolistic level of global control over seed stocks. This is once again pushing the frontiers of the struggle over seed into an extraordinary period of conflict that will redefine the nature of our collective future relationship with the Earth, its ecosystems, and fellow organisms.
At its heart, this is a conflict over how best to define and accomplish the end goal of conservation of agricultural biodiversity or ‘agrobiodiversity’. There are two principal schools of thought and policy on this issue. Both involve the collection and sharing of various forms of germplasm mostly but not just seeds as some of the latest technologies make use of plant embryogenic tissue cultures. That is where the similarities end. The two schools are the in situ (In-Place) and ex situ (Out-of-Place) models.
Also, as part of the discourse surrounding the proposed USDA policy of coexistence for GMO, non-GMO, organic, biodynamic, and other farming systems it is important for the public to understand the implications posed by the various paths to conservation of agrobiodiversity. This report is an introductory historical and political ecological account of the two principal schools of agrobiodiversity conservation to inform and enlarge the scope of an important public policy discussion.
Ex situ | Centralized; displaced; commoditized; transgenic
The dominant and better-funded school of conservation insists that efforts to create highly centralized depositories managed by scientific experts and funded by global powers is the safest insurance against catastrophic scenarios in which vital seed stocks are irreversibly lost. Their discourse obscures how the precipitation of biodiversity losses actually happens precisely because of the role played by these very same global actors and the fact they have made food a political weapon of foreign policy and empire building in the name of Western capitalism. Our scientific colleagues in molecular biology need to understand that they are participating in the imposition of a truly evil Empire
The recent case of the Abu Ghraib wheat vaults illustrates this deeper irony but most mainstream press accounts of that sad episode accept the line that Iraqi ‘looting’ was the chief force that destroyed most of these rare and invaluable wheat stores. They conveniently overlook the fact that this occurred under the watchful eye of the US military; there are indications U.S. Special Forces were among the first of the so-called looters. Don’t be surprised if some Iraqi landrace wheat varieties end up on ice at Svalbard or as part of some future Monsanto transgenic ‘event’ (cf. Engdahl 2005; and more recently Cummins 2008). Some may yet emerge in the fields of the rightful heirs – traditional Iraqi farmers themselves.
But I digress. In the ex situ model the key feature is that experts in lab white function not as farmer-breeders but as seed preservation technicians managing the collection of seeds by endlessly classifying and placing germplasm in super-cooled dry storage. This also means granting access to the exclusive members of the vault to the classified germplasm. The seed managers use bioinformatics – farmers can do that also by the way – and combine this ‘genome mapping’ with cryogenic technologies to preserve the genetic code of the known [sic] cultivars.
This form of seed preservation is really not a form of conservation of agrobiodiversity for two principal reasons – the first scientific and the second one political: First, the ex situ technology requires total isolation of the germplasm from gene-environment interactions and their associated epigenetic changes that produce the diversity of land race lines as a result of an important path in plant evolution and development.
It appears, for example, that practices at the Svalbard cryo-vaults inhibit gene-environment interactions in favor of a paradigm that uses the germplasm as genetic code. This renders the seed not as something you replant in the soil to continue the ever-divergent pathways of plant evolution but as a mere partial blueprint and coded input for the development of transgenic, biological control, and nanotechnology products. The leading edge work in this area involves the use not of seed but of embryogenic plant tissues, whose DNA can then be synthesized and recombined with other biological materials.
The second problem is that this technological choice reveals a specific social ethics and politics. The Svalbard ex situ program posits the seed as a design element from nature that is preserved for one purpose and that is to optimize immediate and sustained access to genetic information – obviously at the molecular level so that recombinant DNA (rDNA) and similar techniques can then be deployed to produce new transgenic crops and other biotechnology products i.e. insecticidal proteins based on RNAi techniques that make use of the vaulted germplasm.
This is the essential raison d’être of the ex situ school of conservation: Serve capitalist domination of the application of science and technology by a handful of corporate oligarchs so they can accumulate wealth by hooking the world’s growers and farmers on the consumption of an endless chain of biochemical products based – for now – on the stacked-traits transgenic treadmill all the while feigning a commitment to solving world hunger and eliminating dangerous chemicals from humanity’s food chains and ecosystems.
The grandest models of the ex situ school have always involved centralized hubs run by experts. These include the USDA’s original seed bank in Ft. Collins, Colorado, what is today known as the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation(NCGRP). This prestigious center was originally established as the National Seed Storage Laboratory (NSSL) and built in 1958 to consolidate plant collections from various sources including staff at research stations, extension service agents, unregulated private plant collectors, and publicly-funded breeders. The germplasm was collected into “a single facility using state-of-art practices to maintain viability and data associated with sample provenance.” It was NSSL that pioneered the use of liquid nitrogen to store seed and other germplasm in 1977 (Sachs 2009). I am personally interested in knowing more about the unregulated private plant collectors – were they among the early bio-prospectors?
At one point NSSL was celebrated as the largest gene bank in the world with more than 232,000 catalogued seed samples. NPR even ran a story on the so-called Fort Knox for the World’s Seeds. However, in my 1994 print copy of the Navdanya book Sustaining Diversity, Vandana Shiva and her colleagues reported that the Fort Collins seed bank was actually more of a “morgue”. Of all the samples collected and tested in 1969 survey, only 28 percent were viable, which is an extraordinary failure rate that at the time affected two-thirds of the entire collection. Viability has long been the most intractable and bedeviling problem for the labs that specialize in centralized ex situ operations. It could be that Ft. Collins is now learning from some of those mistakes.
The fate of the hybrid and parent (land race) seed collections of the so-called CGIAR centers created by Norman Borlaug as part of the Green Revolution in Mexico, the Philippines, India, and other locales present a more complicated but no less troubling legacy. There are now a few agroecologists and anthropologists on staff at these centers and in the affiliated extension networks. They form part of an emerging agroecology scientific network seeking to work as active participants in community-based collaborations with indigenous and small farmers.
In Mexico, the work of a coalition of scientists, legal minds, indigenous communities, and civil society groups to overturn the longstanding primacy of NAFTA-CEC and get the courts to assert a commitment to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) has started to turn the tide against Monsanto and other GMO purveyors. Recent court victories against Monsanto involving GMO maize and soybean are based on court recognition of the sovereignty principle that indigenous people may under certain conditions exercise veto power over practices or technologies deemed a threat to their maize and related land race lines inside the Mesoamerican Vavilov Center. GMOs are not allowed to trump the value and biosafety of such an important part of the world’s natural and cultural heritage.
Now comes the most grandiose of all seed banks. The Mother of the Mother of Seed Banks: The futuristic “Doomsday Seed Vault” in Svalbard, Norway (Engdahl 2007). This mass collection of frozen samples, established in 2007, is funded by a consortium known as the Global Crop Diversity Trust that consists of the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations and their private sector biotechnology corporate partners including Monsanto, Syngenta, and Bayer CropScience.
The Norwegian operation is officially known as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault but the pop-culture appellation ‘Doomsday’ is totally appropriate, albeit for reasons I am sure its advocates will view with disdain. From a food justice perspective, the ultimate doomsday scenario is a world in which a mere handful of Gene Giant corporations and self-anointed philanthrocapitalists and gene pioneers control the future seed supply through an exclusive vault – which in many ways looks like and is managed as if filled with liquidity or gold reserves in the form of ‘frozen’ DNA code. Recent reports indicate that there are now 774,601 specimen samples deposited at Svalbard by 53 gene banks as depicted in Map 1 below (Westengen, Jepson, and Guarino 2013). The CGIAR centers are among the gene banks providing the original samples to Svalbard and the biogeographical locales correspond roughly to Vavilov’s Centers of Origin.
Seed savers and plant-breeding farmers are justified if they view this type of centralized bureaucratic and corporate control of seed diversity with a skeptical eye because it seems intrinsically anti-democratic and reflects an arrogant presumption that privileges top-down, expert-driven, and elitist policy as superior to all other models of agrobiodiversity conservation.
We beg to differ. The Svalbard project pits hierarchical and concentrated commercial and philanthropic forces in direct conflict with the true multitude of sources of agrobiodiversity including especially those farming communities that protect the habitat and variety of wild relatives of known cultivars inside their respective Vavilov centers of origin. These are the tens and hundreds of thousands of unheralded place-based multi generational farmers, seed savers, and plant breeders who produce a evolving dynamic and adaptive range of crop varieties and alleles over the extended Vavilov centers of the world. There are alternatives that can be strengthened by supporting and protecting the grassroots seed-exchange networks of indigenous and traditional farmers, horticulturalists, orchardists, and other producers of agrobiodiversity.
In Situ | Grassroots; place-based; agroecological; native
Seed saving farmers produce agrobiodiversity everyday on the ground and this means they are the true stewards of living conservation of adaptability as distinct from the Svalbard gene bank’s reductionist focus on preserving genes in a static state of suspended animation. How can the ‘moderns’ keep claiming ‘traditional’ farmers are resistant to change? This is hilarious as a teachable de-colonial moment. [More on that later.]
The creation and sustenance of agrobiodiversity conservation from the bottom-up can only proceed as it has for millennia as part of an evolving set of materials and practices in the context of actual biological, physical, spiritual, and cultural webs of life. To avoid enclosure and biopiracy many of us feel we must preserve, Zapatista values of autonomy and seed saving, plant breeding, and germplasm exchanges are part of the social fields of relations involving lively communities of farmers, home kitchen gardeners, members of mutual aid and common property societies, authorized collectors and native gatherers, cooks, and consumers who share a desire for consilience in changing times and under newly emergent environmental and economic conditions. Here, traditional means change-oriented with an eye toward optimum diversity of agroecosystems for the fine-tuning of adaptive qualities in place.
The movement to protect seeds by protecting the autonomy and networks of farmer-breeders and seed savers represents the second school and is known as the in situ (In-Place) or in vivo (Living) model. This school champions protected conservation status for seed savers and plant breeders who are always renewing the seed stocks, tubers, rootstocks, and scions within the biogeographical boundaries of the centers of origin of the diversity of food, fodder, and medicinal cultivars and their wild relatives.
Consistent with food justice principles, the in situ/in vivo school champions the cause of protecting seed by protecting the farmers, who are after all the living embodiment of a seed-saving and plant-breeding network in place. The in situ/in vivo school envisions conservation through the holistic lens of agroecology and therefore includes the protection of crop habitat and the land base of the traditional place-based first peoples who continue to produce the greatest sources of our biological world heritage in the form of agrobiodiversity. This is also largely represents a shift toward recognizing how on the ground it is actually mostly women horticulturalists and farmers on small plots and common lands who are the agents of this seed conservation networking practice.
The in vivo model recognizes that the preservation of our crop biodiversity grows from the ground up as part of what Vandana Shiva calls Earth Democracy. This model threatens the hegemony sought by Gates, Rockefeller, Monsanto, and other transnational corporate interests. Our prospects for an end to hunger depend on our ability to prevent any given elite cabal from controlling the future of our diversity and access to seeds. Let’s be clear, the Svalbard Vault is expert-driven and managed as a resource to be exploited by biotechnologists in the form of parental biomaterials of use to transgenics, RNAi, and other emergent bio- and nanotechnologies. It is, as the NPR has intoned, their Fort Knox and they appear to have the same lack of spiritual regard for actual plant life that gold miners exhibit toward the mined Earth removed as overburden waste [sic].
The alternative to this top-down managerialist, alienated, and commercialized approach to agrobiodiversity is the indigenous path many of us recognize and value as the Navdanya Principles established and followed by Vandana Shiva and her colleagues and protégés at a biodynamic farm located in Dehra Dun, India. The Navdanya Principles embody the concept that resilience is a property emerging from both structural and species diversity and the propagation of diversity in agroecosystems works best through the conservation of the optimum diversity of locally-adapted alleles in native land race lines and their wild relatives and companion plants, including the often overlooked ‘pulses’. However, this can only occur in the context of the unique agroecosystemic conditions that farmers responded to in giving rise to the land race allele lines in the first place. This is the meaning of farmer autonomy, the true basis of food sovereignty.
The past as prologue?
There was a reason the Romans invested so much effort and coin in granaries built from the hardest stone blocks. This was not to keep the rodents out so much as to prevent invading armies and barbarians from too easily making off with or destroying Roman seed and grain. The Centurions well understood the tactic since they had deployed it so many times themselves in acts of war and pillage: Burn the granaries to the ground; smash all seed-bearing clay vessels; ravage the groves; plunder the fields; hunger destroys your enemy. The control over sources of food and seed is so important that every major violent conflict at the point of contact between native and settler-invader societies inevitably includes the raiding and destruction of the natives’ stores. Hunger can destroy the invaded nation while the bioinvasion unfolds.
Kit Carson, the so-called ‘Indian Killer’, burned the peach and apricot orchards and corn gardens at Cañon de Chelly, a few miles upstream from Spider-Rock, before forcing the Diné on the deathly Long March and decades of exile. The Boer’s own 100 Years War (1799-1878) was a long effort at primitive accumulation and the dispossession of South Africa’s native peoples meant that they eventually lost the ability to feed themselves as they were forcibly estranged from a direct relationship to land and place. This is an overlooked force that helped to create the conditions that eventually led to the rise of the apartheid system.
In fact, the Dutch Boers repeatedly destroyed the orchards and grain fields of the Cape District Xhosa before setting fire to the shrub and grasslands the Khoi San had used for centuries as pasture for fat-tailed sheep and longhorn cattle herds. The Xhosa were agro-pastoralists and occupied a niche best characterized as semi-nomadic and horticultural in that they made equal use of farm and rangeland as well as forest and woodland. They were consummate generalists and played a role in the domestication and diversification of grains like the ubiquitous pearl millet and sorghum and tubers from the white yam (Dioscorea rotundata) and yellow yam (Dioscorea cayenensis) families.
What is seldom noted in most historical accounts of the Boer wars of dispossession is how in Xhosa imizi (homesteads) women were in charge of agriculture and wildcrafting and men held sway over the pastoral management of herds and hunting. Women were the principal cultivators and therefore plant breeders, seed savers, and teachers of the principles of Xhosa agroecology. Historians erase this aspect of the native cultures beset by the expansion of Western settler states with their constant obsession on collecting and destroying seeds while displacing the rightful seed keepers.
Borlaug’s Green Revolution technicians did the same thing by displacing women from agriculture. In their first expansive steps beyond the labs they cajoled sponsor and host states to make massive investments in public sector infrastructure to support the newfangled super-sized agricultural economies of scale of the Green Revolution that needed enlarged capacity for irrigation, energy, transport, storage and processing. Only then could the industrialized and highly mechanized modern third-world growers make use of high yield and high input hybrid crop varieties the professional plant breeders had developed in the controlled labs for use in combination with the high-input regime of fossil fuel-based pesticides and fertilizers. The struggle for the control of seeds truly heated up again in this environment. And for a time Borlaug’s green machine did result in higher yields but then the pesticide treadmill kicked in and yields declined as soil was exhausted despite fertilizer amendments while the cumulative costs in damage to ecosystems and organisms began to impose constraints on productivity and social equity gains.
This is why biotechnological control over seeds is the latest phase of bio-colonialism and is the leading obsession of the capitalists promoting the second so-called “Gene Revolution” – one based ultimately on a purely ideological and unscientific belief that the best way to advance health, nutrition, and environmental protection is to allow a handful of corporations to control the world’s germplasm in the market for privileged access to the vault. Many of these advocates believe in the doctrine that, once patented, these products will mystically hold the key for the market to deliver humanity from hunger by means of some magical mystery tour on the road to global commodity food chains that in the end fail because of a blind disregard for thermodynamic limits and the political ecological contradictions of capitalist agriculture. A more dangerous delusion is impossible.
Nikolai Vavilov was among those who understood the importance of seed and cultural practice in place, establishing the world’s first seed bank in 1926 at Pavlovsk. In his book about Vavliov, Where does our food come from?, Gary Paul Nabhan shows how the Russian scientist traveled the world collecting seeds and plants from varieties native to the original zones of domestication. He envisioned the Pavlovsk Station seed collection as an investment in the protection of plant diversity that could be used to breed new varieties, especially and above all in the hands of the farmers themselves. This was of course way too radical for the Stalinist apparatchik and the Lysenko ideologues.
John Vidal, writing for The Guardian a few years ago recounts the heroic efforts of Vavilov’s protégé scientists to defend the seed collection at Pavlovsk during the Nazi siege of Leningrad: “…12 scientists chose to starve while protecting the diversity amassed by Vavilov, even though the seeds of rice, peas, corn and wheat that they were protecting could have sustained them. Vavilov died of malnutrition in prison in 1943, having criticized the anti-genetic concepts of…Lysenko.”
Today’s Lysenkoists are the biotechnologist servants of power at Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, Bayer, and their enablers inside the USDA. They are the ones playing the role of recalcitrant and arrogant top-down scientist entrepreneurs – and new faithful apparatchiks of blind and animated pursuit of profit through the promotion of the tyranny of GMOs all the while insisting this is happy co-existence. But as they say in South Africa and Chile: There can be no reconciliation without justice first; No justice without full accountability; and No accountability until we have coeval relations.
In closing this missive, I note this as one reason for my opposition to the co-existence policy under review at the USDA: The scientific truth of gene flow means transgenic crops are a threat to agrobiodiversity in the sense I have just described as a dynamic and evolving place-based multi generational adaptation of crops to changing environmental conditions. Transgenes represent a contamination threat to that adaptive practice tradition. Will the creation of GMO-free land race cultivation zones inside the US suffice as an acceptable solution to this dilemma?
In the last instance, Svalbard represents yet another colonial venture to service the appetites of corporate investors and financiers. Realistically, its management imposes restrictions through prohibitive costs and other provisions that constrain public access to the seed vaults.
The Zapatista Madre de Semilla organizational experiences, as seen in the caracoles of Mexico and the US, teach us that seed libraries (not banks) are emerging across the globe in spaces of autonomy that sprout from the rhizomes of the multitude and indigenous people. Our seeds are not going to be collected by CGIAR researchers or anyone else tied to the Svalbard gene bank. Our evolving native seeds and seed keepers will either perish with whatever hyper-object catastrophe is next or we will endure by remaining simultaneously grounded in place yet dynamically capable of circulating with the endless multitude in reiterative networks of subaltern seed savers and exchangers. Wild; uncollected; always connected.
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