We fight not simply to defend seeds as peoples, we are also the seeds that defend themselves

A reflection to address the debate on the seed law in Argentina.
(also available in Spanish)

The Argentine government kicked off its mandate in December 2015 by decreeing a mega transfer of USD 20 billion to the increasingly concentrated agro-industrial sector, together with a drastic devaluation of the national currency (peso). The expectation was that the business-state force promoted by Cambiemos would from its legislative branch send a positive signal to the markets in the form of a draft seed law, previously agreed upon with the Monsanto/Bayer multinational. The minister for agro-industry had been quick to announce that seed regulation was to be a priority on the agenda. What couldn’t be predicted however was that Monsanto/Bayer would head a multisector management association set up to press the government to settle the outstanding questions of royalties and added technological value in transgenic seeds. Resolving the conflict with Monsanto/Bayer triggered an announcement of a bill of law that is to be sent to Congress this week for debate in August 2016. This initiative, marked like so many others by clear corporate-state gesturing by the Cambiemos alliance, urges us to be on our guard and to take a much broader view of the issue.

Internationally, the bioagrochemical monopolies find themselves at a stage that is as contradictory as it is dangerous. The trend for mergers between multinationals is strengthening and prompts warnings of interference in different sectors of society: the Chinese group ChemChina has taken over the giant Syngenta; Dupont has agreed to merge with Dow Chemical next July; and Bayer has made a bid for Monsanto. Together the three corporations handle half of global seed sales. This process of concentration comes just when multilateral trade and investment treaties are on the offensive, seeking to control transgenic technologies and intellectual property mechanisms. The entry of Argentina as observer in the Pacific Alliance is a clear step in the right direction for the agroindustrial, pharmaceutical, mining, security and IT sectors. However, parliaments in Russia and the European Union have manifested an unprecedented spirit of rebellion against the use of certain agrotoxins, especially glyphosate, with several countries failing to renew licences for use. Social protests against these oligopolies are intensifying, as witnessed by the 400 marches held in over 50 cities in May 2016. In the United States, several states have decreed compulsory labelling of transgenic products, unleashing a fierce legal, scientific and communicational counter-offensive by economic groups to revive agrotechnological packages. To the surprise of many in Argentina, the Supreme Court rejected a request for patenting made by the multinational in November 2015, arguing that it entailed modifying something that already existed in Nature.

Locally in Argentina, we view the stage as an authoritarian drift towards a new market fundamentalism that aims to satisfy the demands of its powerful actors, particularly in the areas of energy, agroindustry and mining, and to recreate a regionalism that depends on centres in the North. Actions in defence of family, rural and indigenous farmers, broadly part of the popular economy, have been put on the back burner while the RENATEA (National Register of Agricultural Workers and Employers), the Family Agriculture Secretariat, is being dismantled with the loss of hundreds of jobs in offices of the state agency throughout the country. The Council of Family Agriculture and the new law on historical reparation of family farming are in a state of paralysis. Recent large utility price hikes and inflation are posing a serious threat to small-scale producers by making their inputs and public services considerably more expensive. We see a similar situation in Brazil where the de facto government of Michel Temer has sapped the strength of the family farming sector by neutralising the Ministry of Agricultural Development. Numerous agricultural organisations have organised protest action days in both countries in a demand for public policies for the sector and the reincorporation of any dismissed workers. All this amidst a change in the correlation of forces and a loss of political hegemony, which not only ignore farming histories and vulnerable production sectors, but which to a certain extent are bringing about their isolation, and making them liable to criminal action by sectors of power (as in the extreme case of Milagro Sala, or the Curuguaty scandal in Paraguay).

In Argentina, the national Law on Seeds and Phytogenetic Creations has been in force since 1973. In 2011, the FONAF stated that in view of changes around the world a law that is 40 years old must be updated without dogmatisms or misrepresentations and with clear foresight. The current political context hands an evident advantage to the media and parliamentary apparatus in installing the debate on respect for private property, expiry of the law, and due return on technological investment, without ignoring the supposed “de-idealogisation” of the previous cycle that will surely be blamed for such conflicts over the use of seeds. Nevertheless, we are all aware that in Argentina the conflict over seed regulation has been dragging on for years, with economic interest groups, authorities, producers and defenders of socio-environmental rights all jockeying for position. In 2012, with the launch of Monsanto’s Intacta RR2 soybeans, the national government warned of an intention to modify the seed law. The initiative led to a vehement rejection of the draft bills of law by social, political, rural and indigenous organisations. The conflict illustrates above all the depth of the paradigm clash summarised in the regulations on seed use. Of course, the challenge to regulate can frequently extend beyond the conceptual and normative frameworks. We have therefore prepared the report “Regulating Seed Use” in an attempt to account for the complexity, and the diversity of concepts and legitimacies involved.

In short, seeds are a bio-socio-cultural good that strongly combines the biological, social, identity, cultural, spiritual and economic aspects that underlie the different methods of exchange, preservation, diversification, improvement and collective reappraisal, which cannot simply be reduced to the forms implemented by the market (or by the traditional protection of rights). The Argentine law of 1973 contemplates the “right to use”, in other words it recognises the ancestral process fortunately created by Nature and farmers to re-sow the seeds obtained from each harvest without the need to request authorisation or to pay the plant breeder of the variety sown. However, it also recognises the plant breeder’s right, an exclusive right to commercial exploitation granted to the one who “breeds” a new seed variety. The new seed laws currently emerging guarantee that all seeds should be registered and certified, that is “policialised” at the end points of grain production, thus allowing seed groups to maximise their profits. The end of the conflict between Monsanto/Bayer and the government has in fact led to an announcement that port controls will be delegated to the National Seed Institute (INASE) and not to the enterprise concerned. This will imply a virtual doubling of the current INASE budget from 120 million pesos a year to 210 million pesos. The technology supply companies, such as Monsanto/Bayer or others, will then be able to either demand payment from producers or take legal action.

The signal recently sent by Bayer suggesting that Argentina is a vital client for Monsanto and thus key to strengthening income on intellectual property throughout the region clearly reflects more vigorous corporate strategies to tighten control on foodstuffs, but this time as a more organic articulation with anti-popular governments. In a context of considerable fragmentation of popular groupings and great institutional weakness, it is time for unity in multisector action to defend rural, indigenous and citizen rights. Much more than merchandise, seeds are in the DNA of the Argentine people, as is knowledge, the university and the workers’ struggle, just as maize is in the DNA of the Mexican people. New national seed laws in Venezuela or in Bolivia reveal a more independent regulatory horizon. Although not going as far, thanks to the current correlation of strength, the cases of Chile or Colombia, and the path taken so far by Argentina to defend the rights of rural workers, show that protest is possible. We fight not simply to defend seeds as peoples and citizens, we are also the seeds that defend themselves.