14-20 November 2014 #732

The seeds of war

Clément Montfort and Stenka Quillet try to tackle issues of genetically-modified crops and global food security in their documentary, The Seed War

Who owns the genetic code? Can a company patent nature? Who decides? These are some questions that will have a major impact on global food security in the 21st century.

French television journalists and directors Clément Montfort and Stenka Quillet try to tackle this issue in their documentary The Seed War that was screened last week at the Planet Nepal event organised by the Alliance Française in Kathmandu’s Tundikhel, and followed by a panel discussion with agronomist Madan Rai, Ram Bahadur Rana from Pokhara-based LIBIRD and moderated by Kunda Dixit of Nepali Times.

The documentary doesn’t try to be journalistically neutral about the debate on genetically-modified crops, and may end up preaching only to the converted. But even for those who know little about the globalisation of agriculture, the facts presented are overwhelmingly convincing.

Like: six multinational corporations own seeds of 6,000 types of foodgrains that are steadily replacing crop diversity around the world. Not surprisingly, seed corporations are subsidiaries of pesticide and chemical companies. Cabbages grown in the EU are bred to be all alike in size, colour and taste. Wheat, rice and maize seeds sold by corporations cannot be reseeded. European law does not allow traditional seeds to be sold. The price of these patented seeds have grown three times in the last 15 years.

Seeds of staple crops serve two functions: they are food, but they are also tiny motherboards with the genetic codes necessary to grow the next harvest. Farmers know not to eat all their seeds, and keep some for sowing. Traditional agriculture works with a variety of seeds that are suited for their microclimates and soils.

European food activist Philippe Lambert says in the film: “Why do cabbages have to be the same size? Why do we all have to eat the same thing?”

Indian activist and crop diversity campaigner Vandana Shiva is even more vocal. She peppers her sentences with phrases like “seed freedom”, “food slavery”, or “disobedient seeds”. Dressed in a trademark homespun sari and big red bindi on her forehead, Shiva speaks forcefully at a hearing in the European Parliament against seed patents and a EU law seeking to impose food uniformity.  The visitor’s gallery which is filled with activists, breaks into applause.

“We need to fight the monopoly of monoculture, we have to free our seeds and ourselves from slavery,” she says. The film cites the well-known cases of suicides by Indian farmers growing genetically-modified crops who killed themselves after not being able to pay back loans.

For Shiva, this is the extension of the ‘Chipko’ movement by village women in her native Garhwal to protect Himalayan forests. In her nursery near Dehradun, she demonstrates how organic farming can actually lead to better health and better harvests.

The film ends with a trip to the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen north of Arctic Circle where seeds from all over the world are stored in ultra low temperature, so that if there is a global catastrophe future generations can still grow food. The exercise is ostensibly to protect the genetic diversity of our food plants, but activists see a sinister motive behind it: control over our food future by controlling the seeds.

The most convincing part of the documentary is when farmers are allowed to speak. A French farming family rebels against the EU law, and finds a loophole to protect the diversity of its maize crop. For many skeptical viewers, farmers interviewed in the film will be more persuasive than activists with their moral outrage and media savvy soundbites.

Le Guerre des Graines (The Seed War)

Directed by Clément Montfort and Stenka Quillet, produced by John Paul Lepers, 53min 

Watch Trailer:

Read also:

Transgenic foods, Roshan Karki

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