Beth Alaimo

GM Giants VS Seed Saviors: Food security, contested commercial interests and a host of hot button issues are germinating

Genetically modified seeds have been hailed as the key to ending global hunger, reducing pesticide use and transforming underproductive agriculture. But in the developing world, where those benefits are critically needed, smallholder farmers are also losing their livelihoods to huge industrial farms that outcompete them in the global marketplace.

Who wins? The debate is murky, but civil society organizations are helping smallholder farmers fight to preserve their way of life – and reduce hunger – with an unexpected weapon: traditional seeds.

The traditional seed, offering more with less

After Cyclone Aila hit eastern India in 2009, 300,000 acres of soil were left salty after flooding receded. Farmers knew they were in trouble, as the typical high-yielding rice would not thrive in such brackish conditions. Even though traditional seeds had been adapted to the local climate and conditions, most had been replaced by GM seeds and were no longer in use.

Luckily, not all was lost. Debal Deb, the founder of the seed bank Virhi, brought four indigenous, salt-tolerant seed varieties he had collected in 1997 to Sunderban, one of the regions most affected by flooding. Unlike their laboratory-modified counterparts, the traditional seeds Deb reintroduced did not require fertilizers or pesticides.

Today, these traditional seeds are used by 70 farmers, thanks to Deb’s partnership with ENDEV and its founder, Asish Ghosh, who together helped spread the seeds.

“We did not develop these varieties,” Ghosh told PRI. “The farmers did, many many years ago. Some of us simply rediscovered their 100-year-old traditional knowledge, located the seeds and motivated the farmers to start using them again.”

Because traditional seeds like this are so well adapted to local climates, they produce more reliable crops, especially in regions increasingly prone to extreme weather events, like Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Project and a partner seed bank identified varieties that thrive in dry regions. Researchers performed traditional cross-breeding techniques to develop the most drought-tolerant offspring. During trials, the seeds matched or surpassed the yields of commercial seeds with substantial rainfall and proved even more successful under drought conditions, where they increased yields by 30 percent. From its start in 2006, the project has created 153 new varieties of corn that will improve production across 13 countries.

Seed banks have not only been a platform for research, but also have served as a center for saving, exchanging and managing native seeds that are being replaced by GM varieties.

India alone has 110 seed banks and is one of the countries most opposed to GM seeds.The seed activist organization Navdanya opposes the colonization of the agricultural sector by corporations, and states that the ability to save and reuse native seeds is a farmer’s basic right. (Navdanya’s approach has garnered some controversy). Farmers who use GM seeds are restricted from saving the seeds by the supplier, and instead must repurchase them each growing season.

So why are we modifying seeds in the first place?

Modifying traditional seeds is not a completely new technology. For centuries, farmers have selected and cross-bred plants with the most desirable traits in an effort to improve the yield and endurance of future crops.

However, this more traditional technique has evolved into a complex process of artificially modifying plants for new characteristics through combinations of plant, animal, bacterial, or viral genes not found in nature.The most widely known product of the biotech industry is the GM seed.

One of the most common GM traits is tolerance to herbicide, making it easier for farmers to control weeds without damaging crops. Some 80 percent of seeds sold worldwide carry this trait, while other seeds have been developed to resist diseases and pests or have improved nutritional value.

In 1999, enriched Golden Rice, a landmark in GM technologies was invented. In just one bowl, Golden Rice could supply a child with 60 percent of their daily vitamin A requirement. Ongoing research and trials have been funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the International Rice Research Institute. If approved by Asian governments, Golden Rice has the potential to reduce preventable deaths and blindness for hundreds of thousands of children and adults across the continent.

Newer developments include a hybrid banana that is disease resistant and likely to increase yields 30 percent in Tanzania and Uganda. With the two countries’ banana production currently reaching only 9 percent of its potential, the GM crop could have a huge impact on food security.

Yet as with much technology, the benefits of GE seeds come at a cost.

The corporate seed

Corporations including Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta have taken on the role of defending, promoting, and selling GM seeds. They distribute not only the herbicide tolerant seeds, but also the herbicide to be used with them. The GM seed has represented a solution to rural poverty, yet for corporations, pushing industrial agriculture is a business strategy.

“They are chemical companies first, but they are seed companies second,” said environmental editor Jon Vidal, in the documentary Seeds for Freedom. “If you can control the seed, you control the profit from growing food.”

The power of corporations and their model of agriculture has put smallholder farmers in a tough position. Some have made the switch to industrial agriculture, focusing their efforts on cash crops and submitting to dependency on corporations. Regardless of whether they are part of an outgrower scheme or a labourer on a monoculture plantation, farmers are at the mercy of corporations that decide the price of the commodity and thus the portion that will go to farmers.

Those who do not take part in industrial agriculture have lost a sustainable rural livelihood. Many have lost the most fertile land while others can no longer access regional markets.

Corporations are controlling the food system at every step, according to Food and Water Watch. Small- and large-scale farmers have to rely on corporations from seed to sale. Those that are not, can no longer compete.

The problem goes well beyond the GM seed and the corporations but to the industrial model of agriculture they were created for.These farms are large-scale and monoculture, eventually resulting in nutrient deficient soil and seeds that are increasingly dependent on chemicals to produce.

Regardless of whether civil society organizations or smallholder farmers succeed in their vote for traditional seeds, there is a growing distaste for GM products by the public, governments, and farmers around the world. As the difficulty of marketing GM technologies grows, the comeback of the traditional seed may prove to be right on time.

Beth Alaimo is an intern with Global Envision, a blog focused on market solutions to poverty managed by Mercy Corps.

This article was originally published on Global Envision and is reposted with permission.

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