a business controlled by four companies

Julia Quintana (president of the Association of Rural Women of Burgos) has always been working in the field and seeing what happens with cereal. Her father decided to become the first grain sorter in her town and now she is the one who dedicates herself to these tasks and to the care of a 200-hectare farm in which she combines different crops in rotation: barley, wheat, sunflower, while a part the fallow reserve to collect the CAP and aid from the eco-regimes. «I buy certified R1 and R2 seeds that come with their studies and germination guarantees. Using them means paying an annual royalty, something that many do not agree with, because it represents another expense. Every year new varieties appear, adapted to the climate or more productive, but not all of them work the same,” she says.

The farmer does not need new seed every year because she saves some seed from one person to another, something that the law allows, but every three years at most she has to renew it to “not have problems or lose productivity.” The truth is that European legislation requires the control of seeds that are sold: they have to be certified. According to official data, in Spain The use of certified seed has grown in 10 years from 12% to 38.7% (Germany or France exceed 50%). A farmer is not obliged to use them, but if he bets on them he is subject to a series of obligations such as not selling the seed to another farmer. He can only save a part for his own seedbed and be able to reuse it as long as it doesn’t give him problems. «Seeds and plants are regulated in Europe by several directives. Especially after the post-war, it was understood that they were a key sector and that their quality, health parameters, that they had a minimum of germination had to be ensured… That is why the certification system was established; “It is the administration that is in charge of it,” explains Antonio Villarroel, director of the National Association of Plant Breeders (Anove), who also details that in Europe there is no patent system for conventional seeds (only those that could be patented) genetically modified varieties), but some are protected by something similar to intellectual property. «They are new varieties from plant breeders that take a long time to develop, up to 10 years. This type of intellectual property guarantees about 25 years of protection for the company,” he says. Developing a new plant variety costs between 1 and 1.5 million euros and it comes with guarantees of germination, of not containing viruses or diseases and what is paid for them is reinvested in research into new varieties. The saved seed has “risk of losing up to 20% of productivity,” continues the technician.

Free use seeds

From her homeland, Julia doubts: «We have wanted to protect everything so much that I no longer know what is good. We are improving the seeds to adapt them to climate change, etc., but they are not durable. Before there were seeds that went years without becoming distressed. Today’s varieties do not last as long as the old ones. I continue to believe that the best laboratory is that of the farmer, because he knows the land and its terrain. According to data from the NGO “No patents on seeds”, until 2018 alone, there were around 3,500 patents on plants in Europe. The companies that lead the global seed market are Bayer-Monsanto, Dow DuPont, Syngenta and BASF. «It is estimated that in 2020 four companies controlled approximately 51% of seed sales. A 2019 study found only three of about 700 varieties with more than one patent for specific characteristics; At the end of 2021, there were already 108 of a total of 881 patented varieties. “It is true that around 80% of the seeds used globally are still controlled by farmers, that is, they do not come from companies, but there is an emphasis on implementing improved varieties,” explains Raquel Ajates, a UNED researcher. . Three years ago Ajates won the “Daniel Carasso Fellowship” Award for her project on the challenge of digitizing seed genetic material and the application of the open source model to stop its privatization. Furthermore, she recalls that «certification, marketing and health standards have been developed for large companies, but they also apply to small seed producers and farmers. This complicates many seed conservation and exchange practices that have been carried out for millennia. To be able to access CAP payments, a producer has to demonstrate the purchase of the seed.

In parallel, there are conservation projects for ancient varieties that are almost no longer marketed today.. 75% of crop varieties disappeared between 1900 and 2000, says the UN, which, in addition, recently raised the need to increase the variety of seeds in the shopping basket. Elena Rodríguez Pérez is an agricultural engineer. Ten years ago she devised a business, “El Huerto Los Tulipanes”, based on the cultivation of ancient vegetables and direct sales in the province of Burgos. She has recovered 20 types of tomatoes, peppers, white eggplant, etc. She has done it by searching the houses of neighbors in the area and among acquaintances. «My business is 2,000 m² and is based on direct sales. «For someone with a large area it would be more difficult to bet on these seeds, but it is important that there are seeds for free use because they are those of the area, they are adapted, they guarantee biodiversity and are part of the cultural heritage. “If you don’t have an independent circuit you have to do what the companies tell you,” she says.

At the Intia de Navarra Center for Transfer and Innovation in the Agri-Food Sector they have been working for a few years on a European project, Life Nadapta, in which they have recovered 92 old and local varieties. «At first we had to look for seeds among individuals, then we began to grow crops to reproduce them and we took them to a germplasm bank that guarantees their custody. They keep them there and, when they see that they may lose viability, they reproduce them again so as not to lose them,” says Salomón Sádaba, INTIA technician. And, on average, a seed has the capacity to germinate (it depends on humidity conditions) for 5-25 years (some legumes can be kept up to 200). “Conserving is important because these varieties are more adapted to the area and climate than one from Holland or the United States. In these changing conditions we do not know if what we keep may be more interesting to plant,” the researcher clarifies. «One of the recent changes to promote cultivated diversity has been –recalls Ajates– the introduction of a Regulation on organic production and labeling that has opened the possibility for all seed sales operators to market seeds of organic material (organic). ) heterogeneous (MOH) for use in agriculture or home gardening. MOH refers to populations whose seeds show diversity of botanical traits », he concludes.