Promoting Seed Sovereignty

Fighting for the Right to Seeds

Chavannes Jean-Baptiste of Haiti’s Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) muses, “In the old days, Haitian peasants never sold seeds; seeds were for sharing and exchanging.”

Today the old ways have been pushed aside. Seeds have become big business.

This assault on the basic human right to food commercializes and commodifies one of life’s most essential assets. It jeopardizes human health, threatens the global food supply and steals away the livelihoods of small farmers around the world.

That’s because today’s most powerful seed producers aren’t farmers at all and they aren’t just selling seeds. They’re agrochemical giants selling an entire system of food production based on genetically modified and hybridized seeds that require a host of toxic inputs. And it’s a system built on petroleum power, rather than people power, meaning that it simultaneously contributes to climate change and global poverty.

Farmers around the world are fighting back. Many, including Grassroots International’s partners, are organizing to reclaim the right to seeds, to biological diversity, to land, and to a dignified way of life.

Sowing Seeds of Independence

“There’s no national sovereignty without seed sovereignty,” says Abu Saif, program director for the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC). Grassroots International supports UAWC’s seed bank, the first one in the Middle East.

Seed Sovereignty is an idea echoed by Grassroots partners worldwide, who understand this: Whoever controls food production wields enormous power. Additionally, a diversity of seeds allows farmers to adapt to different climates and soil conditions, and protect future food stores. For those reasons, the invasion of genetically modified seeds and single-crop fields foisted by agrochemical companies like Monsanto threaten not only small farmers but the entire food system.

In Haiti, resisting the cycle of dependency that accompanies large-scale industrial agriculture is a vital part of securing authentic independence and self-sufficiency. That struggle advances daily thanks to partnerships between Grassroots International and local groups like the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP), who play a key role in halting the invasion of GMOs by safeguarding – and cultivating – native seeds.

Likewise, for more than 20 years, Grassroots’ partner La Via Campesina has been at the forefront of promoting seed sovereignty for its member organizations, comprised of more than 250 million small-scale producers around the globe.

La Via’s approach, at work in every corner of the globe, is threefold: protect native seeds, challenge laws that threaten the rights to seeds, and halt the spread of GMOs.

Growing Resilience
Despite the worst drought conditions in 50 years, cashews, berries, passion fruit and limes are growing in abundance on a farmer settlement in the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhao.

The secret? Local seeds, coupled with sustainable farming methods. “The secret is using agricultural practices that are in harmony with the local environment, not at war with it like industrial agriculture,” says Edileu, a farmer at the settlement.

Such efforts are key to maintaining the critical biodiversity that agribusinesses are systematically–and alarmingly–eroding.

As they restore knowledge and self-sufficiency, the promotion of local seeds and the teaching of sustainable farming techniques empower communities. These forces also build strength and resilience in the face of increasing climatic challenges.

As Iowa farmer and noted food sovereignty expert George Naylor warns, “We farmers are canaries in the mineshaft. The rest of the world had better start listening.”

This article appears in the Winter 2014 edition of Grassroots International's newsletter, Insights.