I was reading an article on heritage and heirloom seeds earlier on and came across the term “biopiracy” – something that happens when bioprospecting falls victim to good ole’ fashioned human greed. So what do these terms mean?
The natural world holds many answers to health problems and food issues challenging humanity; answers that can’t always be found in laboratories by boffins wearing white lab-coats.
Bioprospecting is about utilising natural resources not already in wide use; at times drawing on the knowledge of indigenous peoples in how to use those resources – an example is preparations used in traditional medicine that have migrated into the mainstream use.
Bioprospecting isn’t always just doing good for good’s sake – there is often money involved, and a lot of it as it’s usually about commercialising ancient remedies and plant varieties.
In a perfect world, many can benefit through commercially-oriented bioprospecting. The future of the species being utilised can be assured, the people responsible for the cultivar or who have unlocked how to use the resource effectively are rewarded, the company makes a bundle and we benefit from the product.
But it’s not a perfect world.
Biopiracy is where companies take ownership of that knowledge or resource without rewarding the people who pioneered it – or at times, not even recognising the resource was pre-existing. A company may even attempt to destroy the original resource by stealth in order to capture a bigger market share with a slightly “tweaked” version the company has created.
.. and this is where the link to heirloom and heritage crops comes in.
Heirloom and heritage seeds are basically seeds of “old world” varieties of plants with certain attributes that have evolved and are continuing to evolve through very careful selective breeding. These varieties are “owned” by no-one. These crops have been enhanced from generation to generation and can become very location specific. For example, one village’s variety of corn may be different to another’s. There is strength and insurance in biodiversity.
In this age where companies can patent genetically modified species, there have been attempts by companies to place patents on their own frankencrops based on an attribute. However, with some heirloom crops also displaying this attribute, it is not a new invention or innovation for that plant and therefore shouldn’t be patentable.
The danger is that the patents office won’t be able to discern this and by allowing these patents through, the farmer in a developing country that has harvested and propagated a certain heritage crop with these attributes for decades may suddenly find him/herself in “breach” of a patent.
We’ve also seen cases of Big Agriculture taking action against farmers for growing GM crops, but the problem is these plants weren’t sown purposely say some of the farmers being sued – the seed has been blown in from neighbouring properties or cross-pollination has occurred.
One season you’re growing 100% heirloom varieties, the next season they’ve been infiltrated by a patented crop – and you weren’t even aware it happened. It’s a very clever invasion strategy to force GM crops on the world in my opinion. Like pirated videos, these become ” pirated” crops, but the person growing them is the victim, not the perpetrator.
Aside from legal headaches, GM crops also tend to attract less money than non-GM varieties. If a farmer’s crop has been hijacked by GM plants, and it doesn’t have to be a total takeover, it can turn a good season into a lousy one; sending the farmer to the wall.
Another reported instance of biopiracy is in connection to the “Doomsday” seed vault; officially known as the Svalbard International Seed Vault. I originally thought this was a wonderful idea as the facility is meant to safeguard hundreds of thousands of varieties of plant seeds, to be used in the event of a disaster where a species teeters on extinction.
According to Kent Whealy, many of the seeds in the Doomsday vault were “stolen” from the Seed-Savers Exchange, an organisation Mr. Whealy and Diane Ott Whealy founded decades ago.
It’s a complex situation; but Mr Whealy says given the nature of the arrangement; additionally “Corporate breeders now can, as a right, request those varieties from SSE’s seed vaults at Heritage Farm, splice in GMOs, then patent and sell the seed.” If Mr. Whealy is correct, this means some of the well-intentioned folks contributing seed may be doing so to benefit seed companies; and perhaps without their knowledge. It sort of gets away from the original “people-power” focus of such groups.
The issue of seeds generally is a very important topic. As Henry Kissinger reportedly said: “If you control the oil you control the country; if you control the food you control the population.”
87% of the world’s seed supply is controlled by just a handful of companies. Seed is at the beginning of all our food – both plant and animal based.
This is why personal seed storage, exchanges and backyard vegetable gardens, based on heirloom and heritage varieties, are now more important than ever. It not only helps protect against losing species forever, but helping to deprive biopirates of the cash and control they crave.
By doing so, who knows – perhaps you may be the savior of not just your family, but your community – or even a species – if the poop hits the proverbial. After all, Norway is a very long way away for most of us.
Trivia: 90% of the vegetable species cultivated at the beginning of last century are now extinct.