Crop varieties have been selected and reproduced over thousands of years by farmers, creating great diversity. India, for example, used to have 200,000 varieties of rice. Seeds were kept each year for replanting and exchanging in what was a free or low-cost system for many farmers.
After the end of World War II, with the sudden availability of nitrate fertilisers – used in munitions – and pesticides developed for protecting soldiers from lice and mosquitoes, corporations saw great opportunities in agriculture. New crop varieties were developed that responded well to nitrate fertilisers and were more susceptible to pests and diseases.
These new varieties were often hybrids that either failed to germinate in the next generation or reverted to one of their parents, meaning they have to be purchased each year. Some, however, do reproduce well, so plant breeders rights legislation, under various names, was introduced to legally prevent seed saving of those patented varieties.
Genetic modification is a further strategy to ensure continual re-purchase of seeds.
Consequently, huge numbers of crop varieties have been lost as control over genetic resources is transferred from farmers to corporations.
As alarm over this was raised around the world, seed saving networks sprang up to protect the remaining traditional varieties.
One of the most vociferous biodiversity conservation advocates is Vandana Shiva.
I recently spent several days at the Navdanya Biodiversity Farm near Dehradun in northern India that Shiva established in 1994. It is now one of a network of 122 community seed banks throughout India.
Navdanya, meaning “Nine Seeds”, referring to the traditional practice of planting nine varieties at one time.
Each of the community seed banks collects varieties from local farmers only in that region and reproduces them. Seeds are given out free to farmers who undertake to return the same amount plus 2% at harvest time.
The Dehradun seed bank, serving the mountain states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, cares for 700 varieties of rice and 200 of wheat, plus varieties of millet, pulses, tomatoes and eggplant. There are 50 varieties of basmati rice being protected in Uttarakhand alone.
In addition, in the Dehradun district there are 23 farming seed saving communities, each of 20 families.
Navdanya has created a huge nationwide community based seed protection system. It has trained 900,000 Indian farmers in organic methods, allowing them to convert from the chemical-based system introduced in the Green Revolution.
Now more than half a million farms have organic certification and probably several times that number are using biological methods without organic certification. The entire north-eastern state of Sikkim is organic. Neighbouring Bhutan is 87% organic.
Shiva was a nuclear physicist but gave up that role when she saw the urgent need to repair the ravages of the Green Revolution.
She talks about the violence of the Green Revolution: the war on the environment that has destroyed soil, the war on people’s health caused by pesticides, the war on farmers who become indebted because input prices go up and produce prices go down, the war on biodiversity as huge numbers of crop varieties disappear and the war on communities.
Shiva blames the communal violence in Punjab in 1984 on the Green Revolution: farmers protesting about their deteriorating living conditions turned on and attacked each other, Hindu against Sikh, resulting in many thousands of fatalities.
Also influencing Shiva was the Bhopal disaster of 1984, when the Union Carbide pesticide factory exploded, directly killing 3000 people and slowly killing many thousands more.
Industrial agriculture polarises society, she says. Once corporations get involved in agriculture the margins received by farmers fall. Now only 1% of the consumer price of a tomato in India goes to the farmer.
Corporations create the chemicals that destroy health and create the medicines to repair that damage. The current merger of Monsanto, one of the biggest agro-chemical seed companies, with Bayer, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies, will be a mutually supporting cosy relationship – cancer creation and cancer treatment in one.
The costs of industrial agriculture are borne by society, not by the creators of the problem. Shiva advocates a different measurement system for prosperity that takes into account input costs and costs to the environment and health.
She suggests Wealth per Acre or Health per Acre or Nutrition per Acre, and has written books on these themes.
Organic farmers in India out-produce chemical farmers without the side costs. Shiva says that organic farming is the only solution to the environmental and social crises the world faces. Every change away from chemical monocropping to organic biodiversity and local markets cuts out the corporations and makes food producers more prosperous.
The contribution of Shiva to the future of humanity and biodiversity is tremendous, an inspiration to seed savers and biological growers around the world.