By Javier Carrera
They are essential themes. Why? Well, because from the seed comes something essential for our life: food. In addition to medicines, natural fibers, construction materials, among other necessary resources. Without seeds, we cannot survive.
The subject of the seed is very broad. Let's start with the basics:
WHAT IS THE SEED?
The seed is that which serves to multiply life. That is its essential function, its reason for being.
According to botanists, only the sexual seeds of plants should be called that. But the ancestral definition is much broader: they are seeds, for example, the piece of yucca branch that serves to asexually reproduce said plant, or the animal selected to be reproductive. Everything that reproduces life deserves to be called a seed.
The seeds grown are of many different types. Thousands of plant species have been domesticated in the world, each containing tens to hundreds of different varieties. How did this incredible diversity come to be? Perhaps an example will help us understand it better.
THE ANCESTRAL SELECTION
About 4,500 years ago a new plant arrived in the Andes, coming from Mexico. It was a very primitive corn: a canguil ear (popcorn, canchita) that was less than 10 centimeters long, with just four rows of grains. The farmers of the Andean coast took a liking to it and began to cultivate it.
From time to time plants with slightly larger ears would appear in the corn field. This mutation pleased the farmers, who immediately began to promote it, saving grain only from those plants that had this characteristic and sowing it separately. Thanks to this practice, over time, larger and larger ears made their appearance. Those farmers who understood plants best, and liked seeds, worked patiently through generations; carefully selecting each year, mixing different varieties to see what would happen, discarding what was not worth and replanting in the hope of getting something special, something new. New mutations emerged, and those that seemed useful were promoted. This is how different types of corn were emerging, and this is how it was possible to increase the number of rows, the size of the ear, and the size of the grains.
Merchants, relatives and friends were taking these varieties of maize to the interior valleys, and then to the mountains and the inter-Andean alley. In each small valley, the men and women who loved to work with the seeds were adapting the corn to the characteristics of their area, following different selection criteria, specific to each person and place.
This is how corn traveled, from hand to hand, from Mexico to the Andes, from the coast to the mountains; back to Mexico and from Mexico to North America. When Europeans arrived in the Americas, the corn they found was the most versatile and productive grain created by mankind, with several thousand varieties of shapes, colors, hardnesses, strengths, adaptations, flavors, colors, and sizes.
This work required the contribution of thousands of guardians and guardians of seeds, over hundreds of years.
Each of these people was imprinting their mark on the genetic wealth of corn, and that is what made this plant so versatile and powerful.
It was this same process of patient selection that created, in different parts of the planet, all the crop plants that we have inherited. Millions of seed keepers, working over thousands of years, created the diversity of food that we consume today. Modern science has not been able to domesticate a single new species for the world basket.
Stop now for a moment and think of any crop, some vegetable, grain, root or fruit that you like a lot, and try to imagine the generations of hands, faces, human lives that worked so that this food reaches you like this. .
UNIFORMITY AND DIVERSITY
In nature, plants have a high genetic diversity. This is like having, each plant, a huge library where many possibilities are written for the following generations. Thus, when a plant bears seeds, each of its daughters will be very different from the others. This is an essential part of evolution: the surrounding conditions are continually changing, and it is in living things to be very diverse and to present many different responses to these changing conditions. Populations that are not genetically diverse lose the ability to adapt, and eventually disappear.
But when we want to grow and consume a food product, this great diversity can make the task difficult. Very high genetic diversity can mean that when we sow we are not sure what we will reap. For this reason, a fundamental aspect of the selection has been to reach a compromise with the plant species, where it renounces part of the genetic diversity that makes it resistant in order to be able to faithfully give us the product we expect. In return, we help it spread, and we protect it from bad things that can happen to it because it has diminished its ability to protect itself. Selection for cultivation is always a process of genetic uniformity.
The conflict comes when we standardize excessively. This was understood long ago by those who worked with the seeds. The plant can be transformed so that it increasingly resembles a human ideal, for example shape, size or productivity, but the more uniform the plant is, the closer it is to that ideal, the weaker it will become. The end of this path is the death of the crop, as it cannot evolve and adapt to the environment.
For this reason, the ancestral peasant selection favored a dance, a waltz between uniformity and diversity. I uniformize first, bringing the cultivation towards my vision. Then I diversify, allowing or causing crosses that will give more strength and resistance to the crop. Then I must select again, unifying according to my ideal; and then diversify again. This seed, which we will call peasant or traditional seed, is never genetically very uniform. Thanks to this process, the crop continuously acquires the necessary genetic diversity, and evolves without problems, with adequate production levels in relation to its environment. It is an eternal dance, which must never stop.
THE SELECTION IN THE LABORATORY
From the beginning of agriculture until the 1960s, millions of farmers in the world participated in this selection, improvement and diversification of seeds, without rest, every year. Thanks to this, humanity had a huge selection of robust seeds, very productive, and of great nutritional quality, adapted to the environment. And that was until the seed appeared linked to the technological package of industrial agriculture, and in a few years the majority of the peasantry stopped selecting their seeds. That simple Suddenly that millennial and much-needed process stopped. He braked at bay.
And in the next 50 years, we have lost 70% of the varieties of seeds that we inherited from our ancestors.
In order to expand the technological package of the green revolution, the companies created new seeds adapted to agrochemicals, using a process similar to that of ancestral peasant selection. But with very important differences: instead of occurring in real field conditions, modern selection is carried out in laboratories and test fields with artificial, controlled, "ideal" conditions. Rather than responding to the tastes and needs of a diverse population, this selection responds to the needs of the industry. And instead of being selected by millions of peasants who will cultivate it, this seed is selected by a handful of technicians who will never sow it to survive.
The result of this new form of selection is the industrial seed, and its defects are obvious. Although under artificial conditions it may be more productive for a time, it is very uniform, and therefore weak under real field conditions. It is unable to evolve properly and adapt to changing environmental conditions. Your productivity drops rapidly, in a few years. The products that emerge from it have been designed to withstand abuse during harvesting, handling and transport, and appear to be in good condition when they arrive on the supermarket shelf. They are all very showy and large, with shiny skin, as these are characteristics that interest the industry. But instead they are usually bland, tough and much inferior in nutritional quality. They do not respond to the culture, tastes and needs of the population at the local level, nor to the environmental conditions of each place.
These new seeds are often touted as miracles of modern technology. But in reality, most may have been created in the past by peasants, as the basic techniques are similar; if they did not, it was to avoid the trap of excessive uniformity. That is the wisdom that modern technology ignores, taking industrial seeds to extremes of genetic uniformity that make it truly unsustainable. It is a seed that can only survive thanks to the support of the agrochemical industry, and that even with all that help is productive only for a few years, having to be continuously replaced with new laboratory varieties that the producer is forced to buy. Industry is not bothered by this lack of vital capacity: on the contrary, it represents higher sales volumes, and more dependency on the part of farmers.
WHAT ARE HYBRIDS?
When we talk about hybrids, we generally mean artificial hybridization carried out by research centers and industry. That is the hybrid seed that we buy in agricultural warehouses.
But there is also a natural hybridization. To understand it, we must first remember what species and varieties are: a species is made up of individuals that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Dogs can be crossed, for example, regardless of their differences in color or shape, and therefore all dogs belong to the same species. Differences in shape, color or size within the species define races (in the case of animals) and varieties (in the case of plants).
When two different races or varieties are crossed, hybridization occurs. The more different these varieties are from each other, the stronger the hybridization will be, and the more robust the resulting individual will be, which scientists call F1, or first subsidiary. In the next generation, the F2, traits of the hybrid's parents and grandparents will appear. In natural hybridization this is not a problem, since the parents and grandparents were strong individuals; but in industrial hybridization, parents and grandparents were extremely uniform and weak individuals, and therefore the F2 generation is useless for production. That is to say, it is useless trying to save industrial hybrid seed.
Industrial F1s don't last long on the market either. Coming from very uniform parents they are weak, and it is not long before pests and diseases learn to attack them without being able to defend themselves. After a few years, they are no longer productively viable.
The advantage for the industry is enormous. The hybrids are sold more expensive, and generate a total dependence, because it is useless to save their seed. And they are incapable of subsisting without agrochemicals, so they ensure their commercialization.
WHAT ABOUT GMOs?
Genetically modified, or transgenic organisms, deserve their own article. In short, we can say that they are organisms that have been created through the intrusion of genetic material from a different species. A real example is BT corn: genes from the bacterium Bacilus turingensis, capable of killing insects, have been introduced into it. BT corn has thus become an insecticidal plant.
This type of crossing could never occur in nature or with traditional means of reproduction. It is the result of modern genetic engineering, a branch of science that is curiously out of date. Indeed, since its scientific base is Genetic Determinism, a doctrine that maintains that each trait in the organism is determined by a gene, and each gene determines only one trait; So building genes should be as simple as playing with Lego blocks. Do you want your child to have blue eyes? Well, we introduce a blue-eyed gene into the embryo, and that's it!
But for several decades it has been shown that this idea is wrong, and that the reality is much more complex: several genes participate in determining each trait, and each gene usually participates in the determination of different traits. It is impossible to define or predict the scope of genetic manipulation. There is no scientific evidence that GMOs do not represent a long-term danger to humanity, because there cannot be; and on the contrary, with the passing of the years, evidence has accumulated of the damage they do to health and the environment. Not counting the social, economic and legal effects they have caused. For this reason, more and more people oppose their cultivation and avoid consuming them.
SEEDS AND INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
Today a handful of companies dominate the seed market: Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Limagrain, Bayer. Where have we seen these names? Indeed, in agrochemical products, and in the pharmaceutical industry. It is a closed circle of related interests. For these companies, seeds represent a small percentage of their businesses; most of their money comes from the sale of chemicals. And they want all the seeds sold in the world to need chemicals, in order to sell more.
This trend has been reinforced over time, as seeds have passed from the public to the private domain. During the first stage of industrial agriculture, semi-autonomous research institutes (INIAP, INIA, ICA) played a very important role in creating new industrial varieties in each country, thus facilitating, with state support, the expansion of the private chemical industry in North America. and Europe. In 1978 a meeting was held with representatives of these institutes from many countries, in an effort to establish control mechanisms in the line of intellectual property rights (patents) that are granted to inventions such as machines or equipment, to help the so-called "plant breeders" to finance themselves. Although there was opposition at the time based on the principle that seeds are the creation of life, and not human inventions such as machines, the idea was finally adopted that seeds could be patented as long as the breeder demonstrated that its "creation" was clearly different from the traditional seed. It was clearly defined that these rights did not apply to peasant seed, which continued to belong to humanity. All this was expressed in the convention called UPOV 78.
But in 1991 a new meeting, this time with representatives and influence from the industrial sector, changed the rules, opening the possibility that any seed could be patented. A breeder can buy a peasant seed in a village market, and then patent it as his own invention, as happened with Mexican beans patented by a US breeder. Moreover, UPOV 91 defines that the genes within the seed can be patented, so that any seed that in the future contains the patented gene (for example, because a bee crossed your plants with the plants of the neighbor) must pay rights to the owner. of the patent, although the seed itself is different. With these absurd rules, the big industry has started a strategy of total appropriation of the seed, at a global level.
A very dangerous aspect of UPOV 91 is the obligation of the signatory countries to create a national seed registration system. Under the pretext of “ensuring quality”, this system obliges seed producers to register their varieties, at a high cost, in a National Catalog. Only the seeds registered in this catalog can be commercialized, exchanged and generally circulated in the country. To enter the catalog, the seeds must meet three conditions: they must be Distinctive, Uniform and Stable. Characteristics that only industrial seeds can have, since natural and traditional seeds are, on the contrary, Diverse, Unstable, Adaptable, and “unauthorized”, that is, of traditional, peasant, genetically diverse seeds ... all seeds that are not controlled by the industry becomes illegal and its guardians criminal.
WHO DOES THE SEMILA BELONG TO?
Faced with this extreme situation, many movements have emerged in the world to defend the seed, joining the declaration of the Via Campesina movement: the seed is the heritage of humanity, at the service of the peoples.
In other words, the seed is a common good, it belongs to all of society, it should not be privatized. It is the fruit of the intellectual and practical work of millions of people, throughout generations, not of a handful of technicians. And its basis is the evolutionary mechanism created by Nature, which cannot be patented for the benefit of a minority sector of scientists and entrepreneurs.
Our future depends on the seed, so we must protect it. The "quality" criteria used by the industry cannot be applied to all seed, as they represent only its interests and this would lead us to lose the diversity that the seed needs to survive, and that humanity needs to build its future. The seed is a common good, like water or air. Its diversity is not only genetic, it is also cultural: in it gastronomic, health, religious and identity secrets of the peoples are kept. And it is essential to create new plant varieties capable of surviving climate change.
The seed is too important to be left in the hands of a few technicians, who will not even depend on it for a living; it must be seeded and selected anew, year after year, by millions of hands in the world.
This struggle is being led by peasant organizations, consumer groups, and networks of guardians, curators, preservatives and custodians of seeds. In each country of the world, autonomous initiatives have emerged, of citizens who care about the food future of humanity, a future at risk if the seed stops being free. A future that we can save if we hold the seeds with all our hands.