Essay

The World Revolving Around Seeds / Shuji Hisano [Contribution Text for Nelisiwe Xaba]

Photo by Candida Merwe Photo by Candida Merwe

Plant seeds are the lifeline of agriculture, the root of our diet, and thus the basis of all life. Here lies the reason for the saying, that those who master the seed master the world, and since the 1980’s with the rapid development of life science and genetic engineering, that those who master genetics master the world.

Not that all seeds are in the formal market as products, however, concerns about oligopoly are becoming stronger. At the centre of this are the agrochemical corporations that have succeeded in developing GM crop products, who are now serially acquiring seed companies and technology development companies all over the world, promoting their enclosure of genetic resources of major crops and breeding technology. Since the 2000’s, Monsanto Company, Syngenta AG, Bayer AG, Dow Chemical Company, DuPont and BASF, the so-called “Big Six”, had had the lead, but as of 2016–18, mergers between Dow and DuPont, Bayer and Monsanto, ChemChina and Syngenta, resulted in four corporations, these three groups and BASF (acquiring part of Bayer’s seed business), account for over 80% of the world’s agrochemical market, and 60% of the world’s seed market. Though at first there were many empty dreams regarding GM crops as promoted by the public relations strategies of these major corporations, the consolidation of the global seed and agrochemical industries has led to the rise in seed prices and increase in agrochemical usage – GM crops are not developed to satisfy the stomachs and nutrition of people facing food insecurities in any case.

The major corporations not only acquire existing seed companies and further their oligopoly in the
existing seed market, but they also have been promoting the reduction and privatisation of public seed programmes that had been providing diverse breeding materials and inexpensive high-quality seeds. Moves to restrict and illegalise farming practices such as seed saving and seed exchange (informal market) which in its long history had created diverse local varieties that cater to the diverse ecosystems all over the world and diverse dietary cultures based on this, and to forcefully create a formal market have been becoming stronger; the influence of these corporations can be seen here also.

Such enclosures of genetic resources and knowledge regarding them, may bring prosperity to the seed business and short-term profit to corporations, however, in the mid and long-term, they bring about concerns of retrogressing against the implementation of sustainable agriculture and food security. Even with the use of the latest technology, such as genome editing, big data and AI, it is not possible to control the complex and dynamic agro-ecosystem. Reducing seeds and genetic resources to DNAs (genetic codes) does not mean that it is possible to control their exposure in the ecosystem. The limitations of such reductionism agricultural development models are already clear. It is more efficient to utilise the complex balance of the agro-ecosystem to secure sustainability, and to think of a way to increase resilience towards the changing climate.

Such knowledge and methods have fortunately been passed down as tradition and local cultures. It
is crucial to restore agriculture based on agroecology, meaning to merge local knowledge with new scientific knowledge on the agro-ecosystem for diverse farming practices. Diverse farming practices require the securement of diversity of seed varieties. The diversity of seed varieties is secured with the diversity in agriculture. In order to support these farming practices, we need the restoration and reinforcement of public seed programmes as part of public policies. And in order to implement such policies, there is a need for politics that accept economic diversity and social diversity.

Currently, the voices and movements for bringing seeds back into the hands of farmers and citizens are beginning to spread across the world. It is only natural for social movements for food sovereignty both at the global and the local levels, to focus on problems regarding seeds. The state of seeds, the source of life, reflects the state of society. So, by reconsidering the seed, it brings about an opportunity to think about the state of our society. Art is expected to play an important role also, by giving us the awareness, imagination and creativity.


Shuji Hisano
Professor of International Political Economy of Agriculture and Food at the Graduate School of Economics, Kyoto University. Ph.D. (Agriculture, Hokkaido University). Previous positions include Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Agriculture, Hokkaido University; Visiting Researcher at Wageningen University & Research.

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