Seed adaptation, an elementary part of food production, is necessary for responding to changing environmental influences. The topic is largely neglected in politics, however. Only a few companies with high performance varieties dominate the discussion. A new motion by Maya Graf is giving the topic new momentum.
Daniel Langmeier, Policy Advisor
Switzerland, with its diverse geography, is particularly dependent on locally adapted plant varieties. The range of nutrients, diseases and pests challenges plants, which require seed to be adapted to changing conditions. This work is very time-consuming. For example, it can take up to ten years before a new organic variety becomes available on the market. This very time-consuming work is therefore dependent on public support, but state subsidies are limited to the lower millions. This is why only a few small companies or foundations in Switzerland take on this labour-intensive task.
Due to several initiatives by Council of States and Biovision Board of Trustees Member Maya Graf, the Confederation rediscovered the importance of this topic in 2016 and presented the ‘Plant Breeding Strategy 2050’. Concrete demands for action and goals are missing, however. Maya Graf has been actively involved in this topic for years. In June of this year, she submitted a motion to amend the patent law in plant breeding. It aims to improve transparency regarding intellectual property rights and to facilitate access to source material for plant breeding. This will guarantee the availability of varieties that are optimised to the conditions and requirements of Swiss agriculture.
The role of seeds for biodiversity
A particularly serious challenge for our food systems is the global decline in biodiversity, for which seeds are crucial. In the field of agriculture, agrobiodiversity is also often mentioned. The term entails a functioning ecosystem’s dependence on animals, plants and organism diversity in order to be able to perform its services, such as producing food and filtering groundwater. And plant diversity is directly related to seeds.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), even though 6000 plant species are grown for food worldwide, only 9 crops account for 66% of agricultural production. This reduction in diversity is partly explained by the fact that more and more local plant varieties are being replaced by commercial varieties. But a successful agroecological food system depends on diversity. This has been pointed out not only by the FAO but also in the World Agriculture Report. In 2018 it was reiterated internationally in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other
People Working in Rural Areas. The right of farmers to store, use, exchange and sell seeds also plays a role.
Farmers need free access to seed
At present, we are still a long way from this right becoming a global reality. The seed market is dominated by a few large transnational corporations with business models that depend on the continuous use of monocultures. This market concentration has real consequences both for the rural population in East Africa and for farmers in Switzerland. It is also capable of ruining livelihoods permanently.
Biovision’s projects are committed to sustainable and ecological agriculture in our project countries in East Africa, in Switzerland and on the international political stage.
In Vihiga, Kenya, for example, together with our partner organization Bioversity International, we have made a seed bank possible. You can find more information here.