Three companies which will be free to decide prices, varieties, conditions of growth and increase their already strong lobbying power over governments and public institutions with a huge effect on regulations, laws and treaties. Something that is of concern everywhere but even more in those regions where food security is still a challenge, as in most African countries.
Phil Howard, associate professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University and member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, has long been warning the research community and the international institutions to the perils of a consolidated seed industry. «Seeds and animal breeds have been an open access, common resource for millennia, developed and improved through the efforts of countless generations of people.» states Howard in his recent book, «Concentration and power in the food system, 2016» (Bloomsbury, 2016).
Focusing particularly on the US, Phil Howard has nonetheless carefully collected data on the global seed market for more than 20 years now. We have used Howard’s data, with the addition of more recent information, to visually represent the process of consolidation. It shows there is an unambiguous trend of merging and consolidation of the seed sector.
Reached over Skype in his Michigan State University office, Howard helps us to depict a likely future scenario. He is adamant: we are likely to end up with one or two companies controlling the entire market. «With two companies you have the appearance of competition but being so close together they keep their prices high and control the entire sector,» he says. «Corporations have been big for several decades now and they have been able to grow by buying up smaller competitors and increasing their sales. But now they are struggling to increase sales. As a result, the only way to increase their market share is to buy it.»
Phil Howard is concerned about the consequences of this skewed market for smaller farmers and consumers: seed prices are skyrocketing, seed saving practices are discouraged, and diversity is hampered. To quote just one example from Howard’s book: the seed company Seminis, dropped 2,500 fruit and vegetable varieties, more than one-third of their entire seed catalogue, as a cost saving measure before being purchased by Monsanto.
20 years of mergers and acquisitions
Over the past 20 years, the seed market has been animated by several waves of company mergers and acquisitions. This interactive data visualisation shows the consolidation trend from a database of +300 companies (top multinationals as well as numerous local companies). From 1996 to 2016 the concentration process is increasingly evident. This process has been facilitated by a legal framework geared more towards protection of intellectual property rights and less inclined to consider small farmers and the sale of local and traditional varieties. You can click the arrows on either side to proceed and see the changes year by year or play the button to display the animated data viz of full data from 1994 to 2016.
Seeds have been an open access, common resource for millennia, developed and improved through the efforts of countless generations of people.
– Phil Howard
This does not only worry a small niche of concerned scientists and activists; it has major implications for food security. Diversity in agricultural production is one of the main weapons we have to counteract the effects of climate change, asserts the FAO, that has highlighted in a recent report how climate change is making the task of feeding over 9 billion people by 2050 more challenging. The world’s small family farmers — who produce most of our food, above 80% of the total food produced worldwide — are hardest hit by higher temperatures, droughts, and disasters. But for
But for them the solution is not relying only on a small number of highly selected seeds and crops, expensive as well as demanding in terms of chemical and technological inputs. They certainly need innovation but not one that should necessarily go in the direction of an industrial model.
There’s a lot of resilience within farmer seed systems.
– Mariam Mayet
Just until recently it was normal and perfectly legal for farmers to produce and sell their seeds. Seed exchange has been the pillar and the key of agricultural development for centuries. But with the advent of industrial development in agricultural, the focus has been increasingly shifted on specialisation and market share.
Public institutions, on the other hand, have reduced their investment in research leaving it to private players. And the legislative framework has been shaped to reflect and to enforce these specialisations, as it is shown in the timeline above. Farmer organisations fear that there might be no space left for small farmers and breeders to enter the market.
As it is, the actual complex European legislative system is not completely satisfactory even for the companies. We were in Bruxelles to meet Szonja Csorgo, a Hungarian lawyer and the Director of Intellectual Property and legal affairs of the European Seed Association (ESA) that operates from the European capital. The organisation has over 70 direct company members and includes 35 national member associations from EU member states, such as the Italian Assosementi or the Spanish APROSE.
We need policy that is, coherent and participatory, which should give value to local varieties, for their conservation, reproduction, and sale.
– Maria Carrascosa
The effort to change the law with a new package in 2013 saw no political agreement and the proposal was withdrawn by the Commission in 2014. At the moment in Europe there are no more talks of reforming the seed law, although many stakeholders call for a reorganisation of the entire regulation.
Red de Semillas, in Spain, for instance, has been campaigning for a long time to promote a legislation more favourable to local varieties. «In Europe, there is a space to sell local varieties, within the Registrar of Conservation varieties» explains Maria Carrascosa, agronomist and coordinator of the Red Andaluza de Semillas, as well as chairwoman of the Spanish Seed Network. «However this is not at all part of an integrated policy. We need policy that is, coherent and participatory, which should give value to local varieties, for their conservation, reproduction, and sale. The space to sell local varieties in Europe is a very small space that has limited value.»
The leeway given to European small-scale farmers to save seed is not given to African farmers. While there is debate on how European seed laws should change, seed laws in Africa are being influenced by these contested European models.
Mariam Mayet is the founder of the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), in South Africa. «There is the formal seed system, and what we like to call the ‘farmer-managed seed system’ controlled by smallholder farmers.» We visit Mariam at her house in Johannesburg, one evening in June. She is a passionate activist. «We support farmer-managed seed systems campaigning for food sovereignty within a broader movement in Africa.» The formal system, adds Mayet, is regulated by a set of laws and conventions, both in Europe and in many African countries, including South Africa.
South Africa is one of the few African countries that is party to the 1978 International Union for Protection of Plant Varieties (UPOV) – an intergovernmental organisation that was established to reward breeders for their new plant varieties by granting intellectual property rights. AcBio argues that it is inappropriate to have plant variety protection regimes in developing countries, where small farmers often own and work over less than one hectare of land. It is too centralised, undermines sovereign rights of Member States, undermines farmers’ rights, and undermines the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
The rationalisation of seed certification was one of the important factors which led to the establishment of the South African National Seed Organization (SANSOR) in 1989 into which most big role players in the seed industry were gradually incorporated. We speak to Wynand van der Walt, PhD Genetics, who worked for SANSOR as a representative from the side of industry. His focal areas of interest are modern biotechnology, the seed industry, plant breeding, intellectual property rights, and biodiversity.
We ask him if it is illegal for small farmers to save seeds. «Smallholders can retain seeds or plant material not protected under any intellectual property rights convention,» says Van der Walt. Most modern varieties are protected the UPOV Convention. There is a clause that allows farmers to reuse harvested seeds for planting on their own farm for their own use, subject to certain constraints. The commercial problem for seed companies is not smallholders but large commercial farmers and this is now being discussed between farmers and seed traders.»
It is important to be able to exchange and even commercialise seeds and plant genetic resources on a small scale.
– Bela Bartha
South Africa’s Portfolio Committee on Agriculture held public hearings on two Bills that protect and regulate the commercial seed industry; the Plant Breeders Rights (PBR) Bill and the Plant Improvement Bill. The PBR Bill aims to stimulate innovation in plant breeding by awarding strong intellectual property rights to breeders and the Plant Improvement Bill allows only certified seed to be sold on the commercial market.
Sean Freeman shared a draft of the new South African seed law with us. This draft contains a loophole explicitly created for small seed companies such as his. The loophole allows trade in unlisted varieties and in small amounts of seed. The new Plant Improvement Bill (published in Government Gazette of 23 January 2015) provides for several types of plant business to be regulated. According to an expert in the
According to an expert in the field, who asked to remain anonymous, plant Improvement legislation primarily serves to provide standards for propagating material to ensure (food) production. This protects the user, which is the farmer or gardener. «The exemption Sean Freeman refers to lies in the allowance to import and sell seed of unlisted varieties which are open-pollinated, old (including heirloom) and in small amounts,» says the source.
This exemption, mentioned by Sean, is similar to those asked for by many European farmers’ associations. Beside the already mentioned Red de Semillas in Spain, many other organisations have been campaigning in recent years to be granted that same exemption. At the moment, such an exemption is left undefined. Bela Bartha, biologist and Director of the Swiss association Pro Specie Rara, an NGO that has been promoting diversity as a key in the use of plant genetic resources to farmers and consumers for the last 25 years, is very pragmatic. Bartha explains that their goal is exactly that of obtaining, «a free space; an exemption up to certain volumes of sale.
We are not against the idea of having a list of varieties. However, it is important to be able to exchange and even commercialise seeds and plant genetic resources on a small scale.» Bartha does not see a contradiction between this small scale production at a farm level and the extent of collaborating with companies, particularly the traditional and small or medium size ones. «I think that we have to find a way to collaborate with companies boasting long-standing experience, knowledge and important collections. The exchange of practices could be beneficial to all. We need a niche where exchange and commercialisation are possible.»
SEEDcontrol is a project born from the partnership between formicablu, an Italian science communication agency, and Oxpeckers, a South African Center for Investigative Environmental Journalism. Specifically, the project has been designed by Elisabetta Tola and Fiona Macleod.
SEEDcontrol has been developed thanks to the “The Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme” of the European Journalism Center (EJC) – journalismgrants.org and with the co-funding of formicablu.