Seeds and their complications: An Introduction

The world of gardening is becoming an increasingly complicated one; as our food systems grow to ever more convoluted global networks, and law-makers and corporations alike continually threaten to implement sets of arbitrary rules which (only just) make sense to them on their terms, but which can be completely devastating to anyone actually attempting to grow food to, say, eat it (see for example 1, 2).

Saving seeds: in many ways a simple gesture. But there are many seedy issues to be aware of too.

Saving seeds: in many ways a simple gesture. But there are many seedy issues to be aware of too.

This year the EU scrapped a proposed law which, if put into effect, would have made it compulsory for all seeds in the entire continent to conform to specific restrictions of ‘Distinctiveness, uniformity and stability’ and to be registered, at rather large expense, with the EU (3). This would mean that anyone saving seeds which are adaptable and of a varied nature would have their seeds made illegal; even though, being adaptable, these types of seeds are more resilient and so more likely to be useful for future generations (4). Even if their seeds could pass the ‘Distinctiveness, uniformity and stability’ tests, many seed banks would have had to go out of business because of lack of funds to afford the something like £3000 per variety fee (3) (for more on this see my articles here and here).

More things to be wary of

Now the law has been scrapped, thanks at least in part to the huge amount of public criticism against it. However, other factors exist which could, if allowed to flourish, be a severe threat to our biodiversity. The international nature of our world now means that even if we are residing in Europe, it is not only the laws of the EU which are affecting us. Currently being formalised in ‘secret talks’ – though there has been a fair amount of publicity about them, so they are now not so secret – are a number of Trade Treaties which, if put into practice, could suddenly restrict all kinds of activities around the world.

The four main trade treaties which have come to my attention are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) (5) between the US and the EU; the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) (6) between the US, EU and other parties; the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) (7) between Canada and the EU and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (8) between twelve states across Asia. Though there has been no official release of the texts of any of the Treaties, enough concerned parties exist that there is quite a lot of information out there on what the agreements probably entail (see for example 9). One of the main concerns is that they would end up homogenising trade regulations, which in worst case scenarios could result in all of the most inefficient and bureaucratic aspects of trade staying in place while all of the actual human considerations would get forgotten.

One example which the Stop TTIP Campaign gives is the homogenisation of meat trade rules (10) which the TTIP could result in between the US and the EU. If taken to extremes this would mean that, as the Treaty is aimed at creating free trade between the two continents, then in the interest of allowing competition the US would increase imports of EU meat and exports of meat to the EU, while the EU would increase imports of US meat and exports of meat to the US (10). Apart from the obvious logistical inefficiencies which this would create, there is also the concern of the EU introducing US meat regulations to European meat. These regulations are quite different from those in place in the EU; for example, as living standards for meat chickens are generally lower in the US, it is compulsory for all factory-farmed chicken to be washed in chlorine before it can be sold (10), as it could carry diseases. The concern here is that suddenly, all European chicken would be made to be chlorine washed as well.

However, chlorine-dipped chicken may not necessarily be that detrimental; it may end up helping people to think more about their meat and where it comes from, and encourage consideration of whether or not they want to be putting such potent chemicals into their bodies. It may even stimulate a move away from factory farmed chickens to free range meat; which from the chickens’ point of view at least is quite desirable.

In terms of seeds, these agreements could make it so that there is no obligation to label food or seeds as containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), thus making it impossible to tell if your seeds or food have genetically modified material in them. Since genetic modification is such a new science and no one can be entirely sure of the effects of GMOs this would make it extremely difficult to ensure the health of you crops and yourself (see for example 11).

It’s not just governments…

The TTIP, TISA, CETA and TPP agreements present an interesting challenge to anyone who wishes to grow food for the sake of eating it, or anyone keen on preserving biodiversity, or at least their own health. It is not only governments who create these challenges, however. When it comes to GMO labelling, there are a number of corporations who are also attempting to make it rather difficult for us to know what we are growing or eating. One example is the state of Vermont, USA, who are due to implement a law, Act 120, making labelling of all GMOs mandatory by July 2016 (12). A number of Trade Associations are currently challenging the law in court, arguing that, as the law will affect “eight out of every ten foods at the grocery store”, it is too “costly” to be worth putting into effect and will do “nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers”. If the law suit is successful, the state will continue to have no labelling for GMO-containing foods – which means if you are shopping in Vermont and have bought ten items, chances are only two of them are GMO-free; though you will never know for sure.

This is not the first time corporations have fought US government or federal policy on GMOs. In 2012 agrochemical companies Monsanto and Dupont, along with a number of other large corporations from chemical companies Bayer and Dow to ‘food and drink’ (depending on your definition) giants Kellogg’s and Pepsi, contributed to a $45.6m advertising campaign against the state of California introducing mandatory GM labelling (13). The campaign in favour of the law spent a lot of money too – $8.9m (13) – but the fact that the law was eventually voted against suggests that the corporations’ spending power may well have been influential.

Think locally…and globally?

These issues, though local to one country or continent, affect everyone, even you. When it gets to the point where a corporation or government tries to control life itself, by patenting seeds and refusing to allow consumers the ability to know what goes into their food, then that’s when the simple act of saving your own seeds can take on a whole new significance. There have, undoubtedly, been many cases of these worrying trends being overturned; not only with the scrapping of the PRM Regulation in Europe, but also with the overturning in both Chile and Guatemala, earlier this year, of the so-called “Monsanto Laws” (2) which had been put in place in those countries with severe detrimental consequences to farmer’s livelihoods and the biodiversity there. The laws were only overturned because of the vocality of the local people; also evident in stories of farmers burning seeds given to them by Monsanto on the grounds that the seeds, being genetically modified, will contaminate their own seed varieties with potentially unsafe or unstable genetic material (see 14, 15).

A particularly powerful gesture is the example of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, when Monsanto donated, as a “perfect easter gift” (14), around 400 tonnes of vegetable seeds to that island. The farmers of the island had just been through a devastatingly dramatic upheaval; many had to rebuild their whole lives; yet more than 10,000 of them felt strongly enough about the importance of their food and seed sovereignty that they proceeded to burn all 400 tonnes of the gift seeds (14).

A strong statement, indeed: and yours do not have to be quite so controversial unless you want them to be. It is important to be aware of all of the different factors involved when exploring the issues surrounding seeds, and it is with this in mind that I participated in the Great Seed Festival in London last month. Watch this space for a write-up of the festival.


  1. Raskin, Ben, 2014. “Using a Chainsaw to Crack a Nut”. Soil Association: Bristol. – retrieved 10/11/14
  2. Haworth, Charlotte, 2014. ‘Seed Saving, part 1: Seedy Issues’. – retrieved 10/11/14
  3. Gable, Ben. “All About the New EU Seed Law”. Real Seed Catalogue, 2014. – – retrieved 10/11/14
  4. Bowen, Pat (Seed Circles). Interview with me at Seedy Sunday, Brighton, 02/02/2014.
  5. EU Commission, 2013. ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Draft: Without Prejudice’. Ecology International, 2013. available as PDF here:
  6. European Commission, 2014. ‘Trade in Services Agreement’. – – retrieved 10/11/14
  7. European Commission, 2014. ‘EU-Canada.’ – retrieved 10/11/14
  8. Trade Negotiations’. – retrieved 10/11/14
  9. Computer World UK, 2014. ‘TTIP Update – the Glyn Moody blogs’.–the-glyn-moody-blogs-3569438/ – retrieved 10/11/14
  10. Stop TTIP, 2014. ‘What has it to do with chlorinated chickens, GM food, and hormones in meat?’ – retrieved 10/11/14
  11. Seeds of Freedom, 2014. ‘TTIP will sacrifice food safety for faster trade’. – retrieved 10/11/14
  12. GMA Online, 2014. ‘GMA Files Lawsuit’. – retrieved 10/11/14
  13. Flynn, D, 2012. ‘GM Food labelling in California goes down in defeat’. retrieved 10/11/14
  14. Stock, R, 2014. ‘Haitians Burn Seed Donated by Monsanto to Protect their Native Maize Seed’. Health Impact News, 10/11/14. 10/11/14

2 thoughts on “Seeds and their complications: An Introduction

  1. Pingback: The Permaculture Research Institute

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