The fight for food
Why Asia’s farmers are standing firm to save their cropsby Gwyneth Cheng
Under corporate pressure, traditional farming practices in Asia are slowly being erased by new laws. But our region’s farmers are standing firm, resisting legalities for the sake of protecting local crop seeds. What exactly is happening in this fight for food, and how can we, as consumers, contribute?
Did you know that for the past 12,000 years, one small act has been the foundation of the world’s food supply?
It’s called seed-saving, and it refers to the practice of farmers saving the seeds of harvested crops for further planting.
And it’s extremely important, because of its incredible efficiency. From merely 20 seeds of pea varieties, a farmer can save 700 seeds. Planting those 700 seeds will give the farmer another 24,000 pea seeds in just two years.
Naturally, this means that farmers can produce large amounts of crop at a very low cost.
Seed-saving helps to maintain agricultural biodiversity as well as enable crops to adapt to changing climatic conditions within different bioregions. This means that farmers are able to keep producing crops for the global food supply, even with the effects of climate change.
Seed-saving is more difficult than it sounds—it requires ample knowledge on the parent plants. While a seasoned professional can save seeds from many different types of crops, beginners need to be aware that some crops will yield good produce easier than others.
Seed-saving helps farmlands thrive at a very low cost for farmers. But this is being increasingly threatened.
And no, for once, it’s not just about climate change—the threats to our seeds are mostly human.
See, when farmers save their own seeds, it’s efficient and cheap—which means they don’t have the need to purchase seeds from companies.
Some companies aren’t happy about that, and they have been applying increasing pressure on governments. These governments have, in turn, implemented laws that put more and more limitations on what farmers can do with their crop seeds.
Seed-saving, a centuries-old tradition, is currently being criminalised.
And it could not have come at a worse time. More intense climate change impacts, extreme natural disasters, overexploitation of natural resources, habitat loss, as well as poor public awareness of the issue means that plant and crop biodiversity is already highly threatened. Seed saving used to be immensely helpful in preserving existing varieties of essential food crops—but now, it’s a tradition that’s rapidly being erased.
There are two types of laws that do this: seed laws and intellectual property laws.
Seed laws control how farmers or companies can market seeds, and in some countries, farmers are more or less prevented from saving seeds, which forces them into buying corporate seeds. Naturally, this takes the advantages that farmers used to have away from them—and greatly benefits seed companies.
On the other hand, intellectual property laws allow plant breeders to monopolise the seeds they breed. One of the most prominent intellectual property laws of late is the UPOV 1991, established by the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV).
Under this law, breeders can obtain a 20—25 year monopoly over seeds that are “new, distinct, uniform, and stable”. With these laws in place, no farmer is allowed to produce, reproduce, exchange, or sell seeds without the permission of the plant breeders.
Asia has a lot of mouths to feed. A full 60 percent of the world’s population resides here, and the region is also home to 74 percent of its farmers. Farmers who save seeds from their harvests provide 80 percent of our seeds.
The Green Revolution replaced many traditional seeds with high-yielding varieties—and Western seed companies have been trying to control the regional seed supply since the 1990s. Corporate pressure on Asian governments to revise and change their seed laws, to give these companies and producers more rights over seeds, has been increasing.
However, Asia has not succumbed to the pressure. Over the years, resistance has been strong and resolute. Despite Asian countries being increasingly and intensely targeted to join the UPOV, only a few are members. Many Asian countries still do not allow the use of genetically modified (GM) seeds.
Over the years, agriculture in India has faced immense corporate pressure, but Indian farmers have stood firm.
For instance, they took a stand against the establishment of a People's Biodiversity Register in 2004. The register, meant to document farmers' knowledge of local seeds, sounds good in theory. But there were worries that such documentation could take place without the farmers' consent, and the resulting database would be left in the hands of external "experts"—who could use the data to create industrial and commercialised varieties.
Local farmers have also resisted the implementation of the 2001 Plant Variety Protection (PVP) and Farmers' Rights Act, which penalises traditional seed exchanges. And for a decade now, they’ve successfully delayed a Seed Bill that would criminalise the marketing of seeds by farmers.
Apart from protesting, Indian farmers also protect seeds in their own ways. Many form a network of seed-savers that meets up each year and distributes seeds to one another.
Through defending traditional farming methods and local seeds, Indian farmers are determined to show that seed sovereignty is essential to food sovereignty.
For years, farmers organisations have been protesting the Plant Cultivation Law of 1992, which criminalises the reproduction and distribution of seeds. They fought for the attention of local and national government bodies, and in 2013, the Plant Cultivation Law was finally ruled as "unconstitutional".
Now, natural resources essential for livelihoods can no longer be privatised, and farmers no longer need permission to perform traditional seed protection practices.
That’s a huge success, but there are other local laws that still give leeway for the private ownership of seeds. For instance, the Plant Variety Protection Act of 2000 states that farmers can be imprisoned if they were to use seed companies' protected seeds without prior authorisation.
Thus, Indonesian farmers and related associations continue their fight to protect local seed varieties and seed saving practices.
In the Philippines, "Golden Rice", a GM rice crop made to contain beta carotene and provide dietary vitamin A, is widely produced. Having received millions in funding as the icon for the GM industry, "Golden Rice" has a lot to prove—that it can be nutritious and is worth the price.
However, local farmers have been protesting this, as their existing harvests produce an ecosystem that can support the production of foods with all the necessary nutrients, without the health risks that GMOs present for the environment and farmers. They even held a discussion with the Department of Agriculture to show their refusal, but the government continues to support "Golden Rice".
Till today, the funders and supporters of GM rice push the crop in several Asian countries. However, in the Philippines, farmers keep on protesting, insisting that they will keep refusing the advance of GMOs until their voices are heard and actions are taken.
In South Korea, farmers have been pushing for government support for native seed varieties. Through public hearings and presentations, these farmers showcased the importance of native seeds. In response, regional native seed protection laws were created, with the first established in 2008.
Today, six out of the nine regions in South Korea have these protective laws, which state that regional governments will encourage research and seed collection of native seeds. Also, they can be freely distributed, and farmers who plant such seeds can be subsidised.
But the work doesn't stop there. Farmers continue to push for the protection of other local seed varieties, especially historical seeds that are on the brink of dying out.
Thai farmers have been fighting intense pressure from the United States and Europe to adopt intellectual property laws on seeds. To resist joining UPOV and avoid more restrictive laws, the Thai government gave in and passed the PVP Act in 1999. While less restrictive, it still imposes many requirements for farmers when it comes to using and distributing seeds.
During the negotiation of free trade agreements with Thailand, the United States and Europe pushed for stronger property rights and the support of seed companies. They wanted Thailand to be part of the UPOV, but in response, Thai farmers and related movements established strong coalitions that disrupted these FTAs.
In 2013, thousands protested on the streets of Chiang Mai after hearing news of FTA discussions with the European Union. Because of this uproar, those discussions have been put on hold, but Thai farmers remain on standby, ready to fight back against laws that could be disadvantageous to traditional seed practices.
That said, the pressure continues. Over the past 50 years, seed-saving and other seed distribution practices have been increasingly limited by law. As these practices are very common and essential to farming in Asia, criminalising them will hurt regional farmers a lot.
Farmer groups, non-profit organisations, and governments are saving crops in their own ways, with more than 1,000 seed banks, collaboratives, and exchanges all over the globe. Many of us might know about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, but there are important organisations and efforts in Asia that we should know about, as well.
Against the pressures of capitalism, it’s a tough battle for farmers’ rights. For decades, there has been effective resistance in Asia, but the scales could always tip in favor of the rich and powerful.
This is why farmers are standing firm. As consumers, we can help by being well-aware of these struggles in the region and contributing whenever and wherever we can.
As always, we should make informed decisions whenever we buy our produce. Opting to buy products that are not genetically modified, and choosing more organic goods (especially from farmers in our bioregion) helps. Where possible, select products that apply the Fair Trade standards.
If you’re looking to contribute more directly, organisations like Foodscape Pages have got you covered. They’ve compiled a list of seed-saving communities right here in Singapore, which anyone can contact to learn more about the issue. You can even help propagate climate-appropriate seeds for further distribution simply by growing some plants at home!
These efforts, like seed-saving, are simple, effective, and easily doable.
For our food, Asia’s farmers have struggled for decades. Traditional practices such as seed saving are essential to agricultural biodiversity and food security in an age of intensifying climate change.
It’s time we lend them a hand in any way we can—green thumb or not.
Read more about the issue of seeds and stories of seed-saving practitioners in our bioregion in Foodscape Pages’ upcoming journazine.
Gwyneth is immensely curious about the way the Earth works. An Environmental Biology graduate, she is particularly interested in environmental issues and the many ways in which human beings are intertwined with the natural world.
Foodscape Pages is community driven platform for publications and gatherings that inspire meaningful conversations and new perspectives around the ecology and culture of food. Through the lens and medium of food, we hold space for personal stories of lived experiences and for direct connections with practitioners on the ground.