Three-quarters of the world’s food is generated from 12 plants and 5 animal species. Agrobiodiversity gets less attention than animal biodiversity, but it’s nonetheless threatened by major corporations that have built economic monopolies in the seed market.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 75% of the genetic diversity of cultivated plants has been lost since the beginning of the 20th century. The reason? Farmers have gradually abandoned local varieties and traditional cultivars (species selected for crops) and switched to high-yield, hybrid, sterile and unvarying seeds.
Out of the 7000 species that have been cultivated in the course of human history, only three – rice, corn and wheat – generate nearly 60% of the plant-based calories consumed worldwide. In Europe, the homogenization of crops has been encouraged by a 1981 law that, until recently, forbade farmers from selling seeds that weren’t listed in an official record.
The Seed Monopoly podium
This situation is very profitable for the three corporations that own nearly 60% of the seed world market: Monsanto-Bayer, Dupont-Dow and Syngenta-ChemChina. Through company mergers and acquisitions and by patenting seeds, these three giants have built a world monopoly on seeds, with little to no respect for farming communities, as proven by the green revolution of the 1960s in India, or its more recent African version. With little to no respect for the laws opposing biopiracy either: attempts were made by an American company to patent Basmati rice in 1997, genetically modified vegetables were produced from Indian indigenous varieties by Monsanto in 2011…
These few examples of seed company practices explain in part the mistrust expressed towards the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a world reserve in Norway where 6000 seed species are kept. This reserve is supposed to resist the worst disasters and allow for the rebuilding of crops in case of a world catastrophe. It is largely financed by the giants of the seed industry.
Danger on food security
Patenting life is one of the strategies used by corporations to privatize food, and this poses a major threat to world food security. According to these corporations, their high-yield, optimized seeds will oversee the end of world hunger – and this promise serves to impose these seeds to developing countries, with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
After having severely hurt Burkina Faso’s cotton industry, the American company Monsanto aims to handle the issue of food in sub-Saharan Africa, by breeding its own genetically altered sorghum and bean. African NGO INADES fears a “stranglehold of biotechnologies on food cultures that are essential to millions of people.”
The loss in biodiversity caused by these privatizations impacts people’s health and even provokes diet-related chronic diseases. In 2011, the FAO explained how devastating the homogenization of diets induced by seed company monopolies can be. As globalization standardizes the ways we live, indigenous food disappears very quickly, and with it, the diets that guaranteed a good health.
You reap what you sow (alternatively)
The promises to end world hunger thanks to modified seeds have been proven wrong: GMOs will not save the agriculture and food industry of developing countries. In 2014, family farms produced 80% of the food consumed in the world: they are much more efficient than industrial farming. Having different types of seeds within a crop creates a natural barrier against pests and diseases – the productivity of agroecological farms, free of GMOs, proves this to be true every day.
Numerous voices are raised against the companies that hybridize, sterilize, patent and privatize seeds. Activism against GMOs, distribution of patent-free seeds to Indian peasants and trials for biopiracy are at the heart of Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva’s life – a life dedicated to the protection of her country’s agrobiodiversity.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.