One of the wonders of travel and of food is the vast varieties of plants that beautify our world.
Many have medicinal and nutritional qualities and have been used for food or healing for thousands of years. Others are new hybrids that beautify the plate and add colour to our meal. They all have ancient roots as a perennial.
A perennial plant easily adapts to its environment and will change its output according to the environment it is in. The concept in farming was to cultivate the plant and create varieties that had a high level of production with the help of fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides. The result has been the breeding out of adaptive characteristics in exchange for volume, appearance, or taste.
To create this high-output plant, there has been single trait selection, genetic modification, and in recent decades seed patenting. The result is the majority of commercial seed varieties is owned by a few companies and the depletion of adaptable plants from which to harvest a diversity of seeds.
At last seed count, more than 95 per cent of vegetable seed varieties had been lost in the 20th century. Did you know that in North America there were once 544 varieties of cabbage and there are now 28? That there were 158 varieties of cauliflower and now nine; or 288 types of beets and now 17; or 46 asparagus varieties and now one; 55 types of kohlrabi and now three?
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In addition, it is estimated that 93 per cent of carrot, 91 per cent of eggplant, 90 per cent of pepper, 96 per cent of corn, 98 per cent of celery, 94 per cent of onion and radish and cucumber varieties have been lost.
It all adds up to a lack of seed diversity that will prove to be problematic in the very near future as farmers and gardeners strive to plant seeds that are fertile, strong, and productive. Today, the use of GM crops and the control of the seed has dominated sectors such as soybeans, corn, and cotton. The patent on a life form altered or unaltered equates to a loss of genomic liberty. For farmers, this is a debt trap.
In India, 11.6 million hectares are in GE cotton and farmer suicide is near pandemic levels. Debt has repeatedly been found to be the main factor in these deaths, particularly debt incurred to buy seed and chemicals. In this country, where there is a restriction on landownership and a farmer makes $1,000 a year, they need low-input and adaptable crops from which they can keep the seed. Producing more has not solved the issue of market access nor the lack of community industry that can add value to the primary crop. Selling GM seed to the poor only ensures these communities cannot grow much-needed secondary industries that support agriculture.
Daily we are offered seeds of deception. Global warming has been identified as the culprit for the increase in malaria and mosquito-borne diseases, but the hard truth is that a non-indigenous and recently introduced GM crop, corn, produces a large amount of pollen that mosquitoes love. The production of corn in regions such as Africa, where other sources of food life were common has contributed to malaria and yet the scientific discussion of the day is to counter the problem with a GM mosquito.
When Bayer purchased Monsanto, the world’s dominant chemical producer converged with the world’s largest creator of GM seed and owner of seed patents. To ensure future success, hundreds of private seed companies were purchased. The future of our world is now in the hands of a few, with six companies controlling more than 70 per cent of the world’s seed. In Canada, 25 per cent of the arable land is in GM crops, mainly canola, soy, corn, and sugar beets.
Let us not be fooled by the rhetoric of our responsibility as farmers to feed the world. We already are feeding the world. It is up to global trade companies and governments to ensure we are paid for it and to deliver this food.
And let us not be led into a value-based discussion with corporate interests. The definition of ‘shared values’ was defined in one tweet about Bayer/Monsanto as “a management strategy in which companies find business opportunities in social problems.” I would argue that the loss of seed diversification is a shared social problem that these companies promoted and from which they will now profit.
I am not arguing the characteristics of seed, which may be bred or modified to be advantageous, but am deeply troubled by the ownership of such seed. Seed is an organic universal property that was not created by man and the perennial foundations cannot be replicated. These diverse roots belong to mankind to build upon. Protecting any form of the wild or perennial ancestor of plant life and encouraging seed diversity is essential for the future.
Farmers should have an informed right to choose, as should consumers. Choice is an international human right. The dignity of choice is also written in as a right in international and national food security policy. We have global and national statutes on which to lean on and create future change.