The question of who, if anyone, should own the seeds that grow into vital sustenance for the world’s expanding population is a highly contentious one.
In Argentina, Congress is debating a seed law that would stregthen intellectual property rights for agricultural producers. Meanwhile, a movement that seeks free access to, and sharing of, traditional knowledge is growing.
Bioleft is a new initiative that launched with the symbolic exchange of a variety of clover. The project encourages the transfer of seeds under an “open source” license – meaning they are free to use and develop, but that resulting innovations may not be copyrighted. It also offers a web platform that records the characteristics of the seeds transferred, which other producers may then use.
“It is an initiative that aims to protect germplasm from the patent system,” says Anabel Marín, a project leader and researcher at the Research Centre for Transformation (Cenit-Conicet) in the capital Buenos Aires.
According to the organisation’s website, it promotes food sovereignty, technological autonomy and social, economic and ecological diversity.
The project borrows from computing, where mega-corporations developed rights-protected programmes that enabled them to dominate the industry. Open source software emerged as a response. Under the terms of open source licences, programmers can freely copy, develop and improve programs.
For seeds, “improvements” are key. The challenge is to develop varieties that are compatible with certain soils and meteorological conditions. Historically, growers made improvements using traditional methods – crossing seed varieties and managing the hybrids – rather than with genetic modification in a laboratory.
Bioleft challenges multinationals’ seed packages that use ever increasing quantities of agrochemicals, with often dire health and environemntal consequences.
According to Marín, Bioleft is the opposite of the patent system, which “blocks and jeopardises seed innovation”.
The idea of a participatory platform that recorded seed exchanges emerged as the group contacted interested parties. The project had initial funding from the Steps Centre, based at the University of Sussex in the UK.
Many breeders began to see that they could gather information on how seeds perform with different uses. Marín says this is normally very difficult without the large testing infrastructure that commercial companies have.
Gustavo Schrauf, from the Universtity of Buenos Aires’ faculty of agronomy, also became involved in the project:
“There is a global phenomenon of concentration [of resources] that is brutal,” he says, adding that only a small cluster of companies – the now merged Bayer and Monsanto, Dow and Dupont, Nidera and Syngenta – own 60% of the world’s seeds. Some environmentalists claim the proportion is even higher.
State-owned ChemChina acquired Swiss biotechnology company in 2016 for US$43 billion, the largest aqusition ever by a Chinese firm. Syngenta had a number of assets in Argentina and neighbouring Brazil.
“If Argentina liberalises seed production with a change in the law, it will take away its [right to] use for the producer and it will give more power to the seed companies,” Schrauf says. This means they will then make all the decisions of what, how and when to sow.
“We seek to be a counter-initiative. Bioleft is an alternative for the flow of genetic materials, so as not to stop the improvement of materials,” he says.
Still in the prototype phase, Bioleft’s potential has aroused interest from Argentina’s science secretariat. A number of organic movements, family run and biodynamic farms are already on board.
“It uses a logic that we indigenous peoples have been proposing for a long time,” says Jorge Ñancucheo, a member of the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Argentina (ONPIA).
According to Ñancucheo: “Knowledge is ancestral and therefore it should not be patented. The great variety of corn throughout the Americas is countless, from Honduras and El Salvador to Mexico, from the north of Argentina to Bolivia and Peru. Nobody registered it because we believe it is logical for everyone to have varied food.”
Speaking to Diálogo Chino on the phone from Tucumán province in northern Argentina, which is seeing high growth in the production of cayote (a type of gourd), corn and squash, Ñancucheo says: “Now, multinationals have appropriated the knowledge and genes of seeds.”
Ñancucheo expressed his support for Bioleft on behalf of the 650 communities that make up ONPIA and which oppose the new seed law. Ñancucheo participated in a national meeting in September in San Pedro de Colalao, Tucuman. There was representation from agricultrual producers from almost all the provinces in which Bioleft is seeking to work.
“It is a step towards food sovereignty,” he enthuses.
Edgardo González, chair of agrarian law at the National University of La Plata, says Bioleft has its benefits but is nothing groundbreaking.
“It’s interesting, what it does is comply with the current seed law. It does not offer a new one,” he says.
According to González, the current 1973 seed law (known as law 20,247) is ineffective because the biotechnology and agriclture industry regularly flouts it. Article 27, for example, notes the exchange of seeds without paying for use, and without patent rights, which big corporations often demand. “This project is good, it is interesting, but the problem is that it sells smoke and mirrors,” he says, referring to Bioleft’s purported challenge to existing laws.
“The current seed law is not modified because it already does what it wants, intellectual property payment contracts are signed, companies carry out advertising for something illegal,” he says. “Sometimes they need the regulatory framework, but sometimes they do not.”
Gonzàlez agrees that a variety of seeds should be promoted, something that has not been carried out under the current law. Nor do many producers have storage banks for seeds, owing to the practicality and costs.
“It would be interesting to recover that culture [to store seeds for subsequent plantings]. Today the producer goes to the consignee who is the one who tells him which seed suits him and the producer does not know what he is planting, except in some cases,” he says.
Monica Witthaus, a lawyer who specialises in intellectual property says: “The comparison with creative commons and open source software sounds good. Somehow they [Bioleft] fill a gap between the laws of intellectual property and the illegal. Is it legally viable to put into practice? It depends on how the contracts are implemented and verified.”
While there are the legal intricacies, the bigger debate about the power of the agriculture multinationals versus small producers and the long-term sustainability wages on. For the latter, the fight is for food sovereignty in the face of monopolies that commercialise seed and push food prices up.
State agricultural agencies, biotechnology companies and seed and producer associations contacted by Diálogo Chino declined to comment, or did not respond to requests to contribute to this story.