What could be more routine than saving seeds from one season to the next? After all, that is how we grow crops on our farms and in our gardens. Yet from Guatemala to Ghana, from Mozambique to Malaysia, this basic practice is being turned into a criminal offence, so that half a dozen large multinational corporations can turn seeds into private property and make money from them.
But people are fighting back and in several countries popular mobilisations are already forcing governments to put seed privatisation plans on hold.
Trade agreements have become a tool of choice for governments, working with corporate lobbies, to push new rules to restrict farmers’ rights to work with seeds. Until some years ago, the most important of these was the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Adopted in 1994, TRIPS was, and still is, the first international treaty to establish global standards for “intellectual property” rights over seeds.1 The goal is to ensure that companies like Monsanto or Syngenta, which spend money on plant breeding and genetic engineering, can control what happens to the seeds they produce by preventing farmers from re-using them – in much the same way as Hollywood or Microsoft try to stop people from copying and sharing films or software by putting legal and technological locks on them.
But seeds are not software. The very notion of “patenting life” is hugely contested. For this reason, the WTO agreement was a kind of global compromise between governments. It says that countries may exclude plants and animals (other than micro-organisms) from their patent laws, but they must provide some form of intellectual property protection over plant varieties, without specifying how to do that.