‘Keeping seeds in our hands’: the rise of seed activism


Semantic innovations like seed commons, peasant seeds and seed sovereignty are a powerful expression of what may be termed as seed activism. In this opening paper of the JPS Special Forum on Seed Activism, we explore the surge of mobilizations the world over in response to processes of seed enclosures and loss of agrobiodiversity. A historical overview of the evolution of seed activism over the past three decades traces a paradigm shift from farmers’ rights to seed sovereignty. Some of the main threats to peasant seed systems – from seed and intellectual property laws to biopiracy, corporate concentration and new genome editing technologies – are analyzed along with strategies by peasants and other activists to counter these developments. We take stock of what has been achieved so far and of the challenges ahead, and suggest some avenues for future research.

Every seed makes a political statement.


Seeds seem to have been taken so much for granted until the 1980s that we did not even have a vocabulary to talk about farmers’ contribution to the breeding of plants. It was only in the early 1980s that two pioneering seed activists, Pat Mooney and Cary Fowler, coined the term ‘farmers’ rights’ as a counterweight to plant breeders’ rights 1 (Mooney 2011). In the following years, the demand to recognize farmers’ rights to plant genetic resources was first put forward by a small but committed group of civil society activists at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It was the consolidation of transnational agrarian movements in the 1990s that marked a turning point with agrarian activists becoming central protagonists in the struggles around seeds. The decades since have been characterised by remarkable levels of mobilization and creativity as evident, for instance, in the ‘voluntary reapers’ or the Ban Terminator Seeds campaigns as well as in the Global March against Monsanto, Seedy Sundays and Free Seeds Networks. The 2000s also saw the emergence of new concepts such as peasant seeds 2 , open source seeds and seed sovereignty, which were associated with new practices of seed conservation and exchange. With the support of allied civil society organisations (CSOs), peasants and indigenous peoples organized to defend their rights over agricultural biodiversity and peasant seed systems, using both everyday practices of conservation and exchange common to agrarian communities and more explicit forms of political mobilization (Da Vià 2012). 3

This article explores the rise of activism around seeds worldwide over the past three decades. We adopt a broad definition of seed activism as encompassing all actions that oppose the enclosure of seeds and defend individual and collective rights to seeds. Not surprisingly, those whose livelihoods depend on agriculture – peasants, farmers, and indigenous peoples – are clearly on the frontline of these struggles. 4 Communities are displaced by agribusiness expansion and lose plant varieties due to genetic contamination. They are not only denied the right to save seeds but can also be prosecuted for infringing seed patents. The enclosure of seeds has a different impact on small and large farmers, and this is reflected in the class dynamics of these political and legal mobilizations. If differences in land access and ownership are key differentiating factors among rural-based working classes and groups (Edelman and Borras 2016, 41), so is access to seeds, which is another essential input for agricultural production. Peasants and small farmers who either do not participate in the market-oriented seed sector, or are only partially dependent on it for their access to seeds, are most adversely affected by seeds enclosures as their livelihoods depend on their ability to reproduce their own seeds. Even those who rely primarily on the market for procuring seeds suffer from increases in seed price resulting from strong proprietary systems as unless they are large landowners their resources are limited. It must be noted that seed use practices are fluid, and peasants and farmers rely to varying degrees on a mix of non-commercial and commercial seed systems. While seed activism is stronger among peasants and small farmers, seed saving remains a widespread practice among large rural producers for certain crops, particularly in the global South (soybean in Brazil and cotton in Colombia are two cases in point). This is one of the reasons why, in some cases, political and legal mobilization around seeds cuts across class lines and attracts the support of family farmers as well as that of large rural producers (see, for example, Peschard and Randeria 2020).

Over the years, many of the concerns raised by agrarian activists with regard to corporate concentration or genetic erosion have gained wider recognition. Today, struggles over seeds also involve food rights activists, urban gardeners and consumers, plant breeders, public interest lawyers, students and a younger generation of consumers, trade unionists, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and academic researchers. The capacity to reach out to several other constituencies and convey the broader socio-environmental relevance of what is at stake has been one of the main strengths of the movement and a key factor in the success of its large-scale mobilization.

The rise of seed activism is first and foremost a response to processes of seed enclosures and to the loss of agrobiodiversity. For most of agricultural history, seeds have been freely (re)produced and exchanged by farmers. This is because an intrinsic characteristic of the seed – the capacity to reproduce itself – acted as a built-in barrier to capital accumulation. Hence, while the agrifood system was progressively capitalized upstream through the industrialization of agricultural input and downstream through food processing, until recently its productive core – farming itself, that is, planting and harvesting – was not. As Kloppenburg argues in his authoritative political economic history of plant breeding, First the Seed (2004 [1988]), the radical change brought about through the introduction of agricultural biotechnology – first hybrid seeds, and more recently genetically engineered seeds – is that it allowed capital to overcome social and biological barriers to the capitalization of agriculture by constraining farmers’ ability to save seeds. The introduction of biotech crops in the mid-1990s was accompanied by a draconian proprietary rights system that includes patents, private licensing contracts entered into upon the purchase of seeds, and the corporate surveillance of farmers to ensure enforcement of these contracts. As a result, not only are farmers legally prohibited from saving and replanting biotech seeds, they no longer even own the seeds. While plant genetic engineering has been instrumental in ushering new proprietary rights regimes in agriculture, the contemporary enclosure of seeds is not limited to genetically modified (GM) crops. Scholars and activists have also documented the role of seed laws in outlawing peasant seed systems; and showed how scientists and industry are increasingly tapping into the gene pools of wild plants in their drive to extend the commoditization of seeds into new spheres (Montenegro de Wit 2017).

If the mechanisms of dispossession are well documented, the manifold ways in which social movements and civil society actors have resisted the enclosure of seeds and the erosion of agricultural biodiversity is much less understood. Who are the actors engaged in activism around seeds and which national and transnational alliances bind them together? What political strategies do seed activists in various countries use and how successful have they been? How have these strategies evolved over the past three decades? Given the predominant role of law in creating modern enclosures, how do activists use the law to resist enclosures and reclaim seeds? How do seed activists combine institutional engagement with extra-institutional mobilization? Finally, what alternative understandings of the social and property relations of seeds are activists developing in their efforts towards seed sovereignty?

This Special Forum invites activists and academics engaged in and with seed activism to address these timely issues. It aims to highlight the commonalities as well as diversity of contemporary struggles and initiatives around seeds with a view to analyze the dilemmas as well as transformative potential of seed activism. We include case studies from Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua and Venezuela), Europe (France and Italy), South Asia (India) and the Middle East (Turkey), including two comparative articles (Brazil/India and France/Italy). While Latin America and Europe are home to some well-documented movements in defence of peasant seeds, our hope is that this foray into seed activism will stimulate research on the subject in other regions as well as more comparisons across regions. 5

The following section provides an historical overview of the evolution of seed activism over the past three decades. It highlights the main paradigm shifts from the initial concept of farmers’ rights to a more comprehensive conception of seed sovereignty. Indeed, activism around seeds has evolved greatly over time, as civil society actors have developed increasingly sophisticated understandings of the legal status of seeds along with innovative strategies to resist their enclosure. Over time seed activism has become more solidly rooted in grassroots communities, on the one hand, and more resolutely transnational, on the other. In the third section on resistance to the enclosures of seeds, we discuss some of the main threats to peasant seed systems and delineate the strategies used by peasants and their allies to counter them. We provide examples of these various threats and analyze how activists have responded by using a combination of institutional and extra-institutional strategies including lawsuits, lobbying, campaigns, demonstrations and civil disobedience. We conclude by taking stock of what has been achieved so far and suggesting some directions for future research.

From farmers’ rights to seed sovereignty

Researchers and activists Pat Mooney and Cary Fowler are credited with coining the term farmers’ rights in the early 1980s (Mooney 2011). In 1983, Mooney published The law of the seed, in which he laid the groundwork for the concept by making an argument for the essential, albeit unrecognized, contribution of farmers to the maintenance of plant genetic resources for agriculture (Mooney 1983). 6 The same year, under the pressure of a small group of activists, the FAO adopted the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources and created an intergovernmental commission, providing an institutional forum for the discussion of farmers’ rights over the following two decades.

The idea of farmers’ rights was initially met with considerable ambivalence and contention. The concept was difficult to define, tricky to implement, and had a complicated relationship to breeders’ rights (Borowiak 2004; Peschard 2014). In 1989, FAO Resolution 5/89 officially endorsed farmers’ rights as the ‘rights arising from the past, present and future contributions of farmers in conserving, improving, and making available plant genetic resources, particularly those in the centres of origin/diversity’ 7 (FAO 1989). The resolution stated that plant genetic resources were the common heritage of humankind, and that they should be freely available for use. Given the development of a highly lucrative biotech industry, however, there was growing uneasiness among countries in the global South regarding the inequity of a system in which raw biological materials (most of which are found in the South) were considered to be the common heritage of humanity and were thus available freely, whereas products derived from these resources were privatized and patented (mostly by corporations based in the North). To resolve this thorny political issue, the Convention on Biological Diversity signed in 1992 enshrined the principle of national sovereignty over biological resources as a new principle of international law.

In the meantime, negotiations to transform the International Undertaking into a binding treaty resulted in the signing of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) in 2001, the first international treaty pertaining exclusively to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Known for short as the Seed Treaty, it established farmers’ rights to the protection of traditional knowledge, to equitable benefit sharing and to participation in decisions regarding the management of plant genetic resources. During most of this period, farmers’ rights were advocated by a small but committed group of NGO activists, and activist engagement centered on the FAO.

By the time the Seed Treaty was signed, agrarian movements had emerged as influential global actors (Desmarais 2007; Edelman and Borras 2016). Since the mid-1990s, a number of regional and transnational coalitions have become important actors on seed-related issues, notably in Europe. One of the first was the European Peasant Coordination (CPE, following its French acronym), which was active between 1986 and 2008. Since 2008, the European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC) 8 has mobilized on issues related to seeds and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and recently adopted a ‘General framework and positioning on seeds’ (ECVC 2018). In 2012, another European coalition – Let’s Liberate Diversity (EC-LLD!) – was formed to coordinate the positions and actions of its members (a dozen organisations from nine European countries) to promote the dynamic management of biodiversity on farms and in gardens, and to advocate favourable legislative frameworks (EC-LLD! n.d.). At the transnational level, La Via Campesina has been a major voice in seed politics since its creation in 1993.

In the Americas, seed activism initially coincided with anti-GMO mobilization. Strong national GM-Free campaigns were set up in various countries, and coordinated regionally through the Network for a GM-Free America (Red por una América Latina Libre de Transgénicos, RALLT). In the 2010s, these campaigns evolved in several countries into national free seeds networks (Red de semillas libres) and food sovereignty alliances (US Food Sovereignty Alliance and Food Secure Canada). More recently, a Latin American Seeds Collective was set up by GRAIN and six national social movements. 9 In Africa, a number of regional organisations and coalitions – such as the African Center for Biodiversity (ACB) in Southern and East Africa; and the Coalition for the Protection of African Genetic Heritage (COPAGEN) and West African Committee for Peasant Seeds (Comité Ouest Africain des Semences Paysannes, COASP), in West Africa – also focus on seed issues. Since 2011, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) 10 , through its Seed Working Group, has promoted seed sovereignty and advocated against seed laws and policies that undermine peasant seed systems (AFSA 2017). In South Asia, seed activism has been spearheaded by GM-Free coalitions and CSOs. In India, for example, this includes the GM-Free India coalition, the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), Navdanya and Gene Campaign. In Southeast Asia, the Third World Network and SEARICE (Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment) have been leading research and advocacy for the protection of farmers’ rights and agrobiodiversity.

Non-profit organisations continued to play an important supporting role. Two civil society organisations – GRAIN and The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group, formerly RAFI) – stand out for having been founded by pioneering seed activists and for being dedicated to the issue of seeds and biodiversity. 11 Other NGOs that have been active on seed-related issues include Public Eye (formerly the Berne Declaration) and Focus on the Global South. Several civil society coalitions were also formed around specific issues related to seeds. The European coalition ‘No patents on Seeds!’ was founded in 2007 to monitor the European Patent Office; to challenge patents on plants, seeds and farm animals; and to lobby to have conventional breeding, genetic material, animals, plants and food exempted under European patent law. 12 In 2009, seven civil society organisations from the global South and North founded the Association for Plant Breeding for the Benefit of Society (APBREBES) 13 to monitor the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), the inter-governmental organisation responsible for implementing plant breeders’ rights.

The first decade of the twenty-first century was marked by intense mobilization in global seed politics. In January 2003, La Via Campesina launched an international seed campaign – ‘Seeds: peoples’ heritage in the service of humanity’ – at the Third World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil [Figure 1]. The announcement was made during a conference on food sovereignty in a stadium packed with 15,000 people. The campaign was aimed, first and foremost, at guaranteeing the right of family farmers to produce their own seeds, individually or collectively. In order to achieve this objective, the campaign sought to democratize seed production and to raise awareness among family farmers throughout the world of the importance of producing their own seeds. The campaign also made demands on international institutions. These included pressuring the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and FAO to have farmer-selected varieties declared the cultural heritage of humanity; exempting agricultural products, in particular foodstuffs and seeds, from World Trade Organization (WTO) legislation and trade agreements; and resisting the introduction of intellectual property (IP) rights and patents on seeds in national legislations (Peschard 2010)

Figure 1. Banner of the Brazilian Peasant Women Movement with slogan of the Global Seed Campaign: \’People\’s Heritage Serving Humanity\’

Credit: Karine Peschard.

The history of the international seed campaign reflects an evolution in global seed activism. When the idea of a global campaign was first discussed in the early 2000s, it was named ‘Seeds: common heritage of humanity.’ In February 2002, a large international civil society coalition announced its support for a ‘Treaty Initiative to share the genetic commons’ that would establish the earth’s gene pool as a global open-access commons (Treaty Initiative 2002). At the Rio + 10 summit held in Johannesburg later that year, Monsanto agreed that seeds were a world heritage, prompting La Via Campesina to revise its motto: ‘No, seeds are not the patrimony of humanity, they are the heritage of our indigenous and peasant peoples.’ The campaign was thus renamed: ‘Seeds, peoples’ heritage at the service of humanity’ (CTP database 2016, emphasis added). The new slogan split and rearranged the terms of the traditional paradigm of seeds as the common heritage of humanity to emphasize the idea that seeds are indeed people’s heritage (as opposed to the recently created norm of national sovereignty over genetic resources), but a heritage at the service of humanity (and, implicitly, not freely available for private appropriation). Stated differently, La Via Campesina rejected both the idea that seeds belong to everyone and no one, or that they belong to the state, asserting instead that they belong to the communities that cultivate them.

In the late 2000s, the transnational peasant movement La Via Campesina put forward the concept of seed sovereignty, a major paradigm shift in struggles over seeds (Wittman 2009, 817–819). 14 Conceptions of food and seed sovereignty have evolved conjointly since the turn of the twenty-first century. The former is evidently more wide-ranging than the latter, but the two share a common philosophy and are intertwined since ‘seeds and seed saving are the foundation of food sovereignty’ (McMichael 2010, 178). 15 Food sovereignty is a complex and constantly evolving project that defies easy definition (see Edelman 2014; Claeys, Desmarais, and Singh Forthcoming). At its core, however, lies the idea that peasants and farmers must regain autonomy and control over what they produce and how they produce it. Seed sovereignty, in turn, involves regaining ‘complete autonomy over all seed activities including breeding’ (Demeulenaere 2018, 213). The emergence of seed sovereignty thus marked a paradigm shift in the struggle over seeds, ‘from simply defending farm seed-saving’ to promoting and defending ‘a radical change in farming practices’ (p. 213).

By the 2010s, the shortcomings of the approach adopted in the Seed Treaty were becoming increasingly clear (De Schutter 2009, 24). The Seed Treaty has unquestionably played an important role in recognizing the historical contribution of farmers to the conservation of agrobiodiversity and in putting farmers’ rights on the map. However, its main objective – the establishment of a multilateral system to facilitate access to seeds and planting material and to share the benefits in a fair and equitable way – has come in for severe criticism (Rabitz 2017). La Via Campesina (2011) described it as ‘a contradictory and ambiguous treaty, which in the final analysis comes down on the side of theft’. The movement also rejected the benefit-sharing mechanism unequivocally: ‘We do not want to be offered the proceeds from the theft of our seeds; we do not want benefit sharing because we do not want industrial property rights on seeds’ (La Via Campesina 2011). 16 Stated differently, ‘[access and benefit sharing] structures are a natural corollary of [intellectual property rights]’ (West 2012, 22). The emerging consensus was that ownership approaches were unworkable and served to further entrench existing inequities and power imbalances, ‘without offering [local and indigenous agricultural communities] the autonomous legal status required to defend these rights themselves’ (p. 22). The disappointing results of years of international negotiations over farmers’ rights led to increasing frustration among activists with protracted proceedings, resource asymmetries and power imbalances inherent to legal and institutional processes that loaded the dice against vulnerable communities. As one NGO member from Colombia put it, ‘We have grown tired of legal activism. Even when we win, the state manages to turn things in their favor’ (quoted in Silva Garzón 2017, 155). However, the continued erosion of agricultural biodiversity also created a certain sense of urgency. For many peasants and agrarian activists, there was a growing perception that no amount of mobilization would succeed unless ‘we keep seeds in our hands’ (RtFN Watch Consortium 2016).

These concerns led to a blossoming of initiatives in the 2000s and 2010s associated with saving and regaining effective control over seeds. ‘Seed saving’ is a shorthand term for what is in fact a complex set of practices that include ‘the planting, tending, harvesting, storing, eating and replanting of seeds (and other planting materials), as well as the attendant processes of exchanging and knowledge-building’ (Phillips 2013, 3). The revival of seed saving practices has been described as a form of ‘quiet activism’ that cuts across rural/urban and global South/North divides. Pottinger defines quiet activism as ‘small, everyday, embodied acts, often of making and creating, that can be either implicitly or explicitly political in nature’ (2017, 215). These include ‘modest, quotidian acts of kindness, connection and creativity’ that nonetheless ‘critique, subvert and rework’ dominant modes of production and consumption’ (p. 215). While this characterization applies well to the UK Seedy Sundays (Pottinger 2017), or to the growth of seed saving practices among Canadian gardeners and farmers (Phillips 2013), seed saving can also constitute an overtly political or militant form of activism in situations where the practice is criminalized.

A variety of social movements and networks centered on seed saving and sharing have flourished in the past decades. According to Balázs et al. (2016), a new wave of seed networks started in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States (Seed Savers Exchange, 1975), the Philippines (MASIPAG, 1986), Australia (Seed Savers’ Network, 1986) and India (Navdanya, 1987) as well as in a few countries in Europe (Switzerland, Austria). In much of Europe, Latin America and Africa, these networks were established in the 2000s in response to the introduction of GMOs. This is the case, for example, of France’s Peasant Seeds Network (Réseau Semences Paysannes [RSP]), set up in 2003, the same year as the Senegalese Association of Peasant Seed Producers Association (Association Sénégalaise de Producteurs de Semences Paysannes [ASPSP]). The French association BEDE (Biodiversité, Échange et Diffusion d’Expériences), a member of the RSP, was involved in the founding of the ASPSP, which underlines the transnational connections between some of these initiatives. America’s Free Seeds Network (Red de Semillas libres de América) was founded in Peru in 2012 under the auspices of Kokopelli, a non-profit French organisation producing and distributing copyleft organic seeds. This network then fostered the creation of other national Free Seeds Networks (known as Red de Semillas Libres) in Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Peru (Demeulenaere 2018). In Asia, India’s Seed Sovereignty Alliance was created in 2014. These networks are primarily organized nationally, but are beginning to create transnational ties (Balázs et al. 2016).

While each of these seed savers movements or networks has its own characteristics, they have some commonalities. They bring together seed savers, breeders, farmers and gardeners in the search for alternatives designed to manage and regulate seeds in a collective and autonomous manner. The expression ‘peasant seeds’ has grown in popularity in seed activist circles because in contrast to other expressions such as farmed-saved or traditional seeds, it explicitly gives visibility to those who produce these varieties. As Demeulenaere points out, this is not simply a minor linguistic innovation since ‘the expression’s widespread adoption has been followed at the grassroots level by a long and patient engagement to construct the meaning of “peasant seeds”’ (2014, 49). It is noteworthy that seed activists increasingly frame their struggles in the language of the commons (Wirz, Kunz, and Hurter 2017), thus contributing to a resurgence of interest in commons-based approach to food security and natural resources sovereignty (Vivero-Pol et al. 2019). The French Peasant Seeds Network (RSP), for example, recently adopted the motto ‘Peasant seeds, a commons’ (Demeulenaere 2018).

A growing number of social actors foster the conservation of peasant varieties through on-farm or community seed collections 17 (as opposed to ex-situ seed collections), and organize local, regional and national seed fairs where farmers gather to exchange seeds and knowhow. These initiatives are based on the idea ‘that plants belong to the communities that breed and maintain them, and should only be protected, if at all, by collective user rights defined by these communities, not by property rights that are privately held’ (Dutfield 2011, 16). Efforts to reclaim seeds as commons entail creating spaces beyond the state and market, or alternative markets, in which the production and circulation of seeds and knowledge are governed by rules established by participants through their own internal governing mechanisms. For example, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), in the United States, is experimenting with the creation of seed commons based on Open Source principles. OSSI is conceptualized as a ‘protected commons’ of farmers and plant breeders whose materials are freely available and widely exchanged but is effectively protected from appropriation by those who would monopolize them (Kloppenburg 2010; 2014). OSSI fulfils the conditions of a commons: a community of 38 plant breeders, 48 seed companies and 377 crop varieties, who manage plant varieties by devising their own rules that include a moral pledge. 18 Open Source seed initiatives are also being developed in Germany, Ethiopia, Kenya and India (Montenegro de Wit 2019a). This approach, however, has received a tepid response from other actors within the seed sovereignty movement, especially in the global South, who feel that it is not adapted to their realities. In the view of its critics, the approach relies too heavily on the tools of intellectual property, while not being sufficiently able to protect against biopiracy/private appropriation (Kloppenburg 2014). But the approach is equally contested by some in the global North. As Demeulenaere (2018) has shown, the paradigm of the commons is internally debated within the RSP community, as some members prefer to defend collective rights over seeds rather than property claims even if these are made within the framework of a commons. Some researchers have also argued that the multilateral system established under the Seed Treaty – whereby parties agree to share plant genetic resources from 64 crops and forages – could be re-designed into a global seed commons (Halewood 2013; Halewood, López Noriega, and Louafi 2013; Frison and Coolsaet 2019). However, this proposal is viewed sceptically by agrarian movements and some CSOs that reject the principle of benefit sharing and view the multilateral system as too remote to allow effective control by local communities.

In parallel to the multiplication of grassroots initiatives aimed at regaining autonomy over seeds, La Via Campesina and its allies have been engaged in the past decade in an unprecedented initiative aimed at having the human rights of peasants – including the rights to seeds and biological diversity – recognized as human rights in international law. In December 2018, in a significant victory for peasant movements and their allies, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas – UNDROP (United Nations 2018). The Declaration marks an important evolution in human rights law because it grants individual and collective rights to land, seeds and natural resources to groups that are neither Indigenous Peoples or minorities, signalling the emergence of local communities as legitimate rights-holders (Claeys and Peschard, forthcoming). It is also unprecedented in that agrarian movements (with the support of NGOs and academic allies) played a prominent role in initiating, drafting and negotiating the text in what amounts to transnational law-making by social movements (Claeys 2015, 2019).

The Declaration covers a wide array of rights, from the right to life and to the means of agricultural production through access to justice. Rights to seeds, traditional knowledge, and state obligations concerning the protection of biological diversity figure prominently in the text. Besides land rights, these were among the most controversial provisions in the negotiations. Article 19 of the Declaration recognizes the right to seeds. The first paragraph reproduces the farmers’ rights provisions of the Seed Treaty, including ‘the right to save, use, exchange, and sell their farm-saved seed or propagating material.’ Paragraphs 2–8, however, go further than the Seed Treaty. Paragraph 2 states that ‘Peasants and other people working in rural areas have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their own seeds and traditional knowledge.’ Paragraphs 3–8 establish States’ obligations, including to ‘take appropriate measures to support peasant seed systems and promote the use of peasant seeds and biodiversity’ (Art. 19.6). In view of corporate enclosures, the text of the final declaration also crucially affirms that ‘States shall ensure that seed policies, plant variety protection and other intellectual property laws, certification schemes and seed marketing laws respect and take into account the rights, needs and realities of peasants and other people working in rural areas’ (Art.19.8). Crucially, according to Art. 2.4 of the UNDROP, States shall elaborate, interpret and apply relevant international agreements and standards to which they are party, including those protecting intellectual property rights, in a manner consistent with the Declaration (Golay 2019; Golay and Bessa 2019). La Via Campesina and its allies hope that the Declaration will serve as a legal tool to re-establish the primacy of the collective rights of local communities to natural resources over private property rights to profit from their commercialization (Haugen 2020).

Interestingly, around the same time, La Via Campesina relaunched the global seed campaign on the occasion of the International Day of Action for the Food Sovereignty of Peoples and Against Multinationals (October 16). The movement argued that though much had been achieved in the intervening fifteen years, peasant seeds were still under threat from mega-mergers, the spread of chemical fertilizers, hybrid seeds and GMOs, free trade agreements, seed laws and intellectual property rights (LVC 2018). This time around, the global campaign included an action calling ‘on every peasant, peasant family or community to engage in the adoption of a variety of plant or animal seeds, to become the guardian of this seed, ensuring its propagation, reproduction and distribution, and to engage in the collective defence of their rights to use, exchange, sell and protect them’ (LVC 2018). The ‘Adopt a Seed’ action [Figure 2] highlighted the fact that in addition to political mobilization, it was essential to keep seeds in the hands of peasants and indigenous peoples.

Figure 2. La Via Campesina Global Action to Adopt a Seed.

Resisting enclosures

This section addresses some of the main threats to peasant seeds systems and agrobiodiversity, and a variety of responses to them: seed laws and regulations; intellectual property, genetically modified crops; proprietary rights systems; biopiracy; corporate concentration and new technologies and corporate strategies.

Seed laws and regulations

Countries typically have two types of legislation dealing with seeds: (i) seed laws, which regulate seed production, marketing and trade; and (ii) plant variety protection laws, which regulate plant breeders’ rights (discussed in the next section). Seed laws originated from the need to regulate the nascent seed industry and protect farmers from spurious seeds. However, in recent years, these laws have increasingly been used to further industrial, corporate interests (Wattnem 2016). 19

Seed regulations negatively impact peasant seed systems by imposing criteria that are based on commercial plant breeding and industrial agriculture. In order to be commercialized, for example, a plant variety must be distinct, uniform and stable in its characteristics (this is known as the DUS criteria). It must also fulfil the ‘value for cultivation and use’ (VCU) criteria based on the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Farmer-selected varieties, by contrast, are genetically unstable, which is precisely what makes them highly adaptable to specific soils and cultivation systems, and are adapted to low-input farming. However, because they do not meet commercial criteria, peasant varieties are often no longer considered seeds, under a country’s seed legislation, but ‘grains’ and cannot circulate legally. This has multiple implications, such as excluding those who grow them from accessing public procurement programs, agricultural credit and crop insurance. It also promotes genetic erosion by disincentivizing farmers from growing these varieties. The marginalization of peasant varieties, which is also the denial of farmers’ historical contribution to plant breeding, is another, subtle aspect of dispossession.

In Europe, French peasant organisations have struggled for years to bring about legislative change and end the legal exclusion of peasant seeds. In order for seeds to be legally sold, they must belong to plant varieties listed in an official catalogue of protected varieties. In practice, this means that peasant varieties are illegal since they do not meet the registration criteria for commercial varieties (Da Vià 2012). 20 In April 2018, following a broad consultation process, a new agriculture and food Law (Egalim) lifted this prohibition, therefore allowing peasants to freely sell their seeds. The victory, however, was short-lived: in October 2018, France’s Constitutional Council vetoed 23 of the 98 provisions of the new law, including the provision legalizing peasant seeds, on the grounds that they were unconstitutional. Peasant movements were quick to denounce the undemocratic character of this decision and to question the influence of lobbies on the council’s decisions (Debove 2018). As this case shows, peasants all over the world continue to confront powerful corporate interests.

The United States and Europe have exerted pressure to amend seed laws in Latin America and Asia by including them as requirements under bilateral and regional trade agreements and investment treaties. Colombia represents an extreme case. 21 In fulfillment of a bilateral free trade agreement with the United States, the Colombian government passed in 2010 a decree known as Resolution 970, that prohibited ‘farmers from saving, producing, commercializing, sharing free of charge and/or using seeds not registered or certified by the ICA [Colombian Agricultural Institute] without its authorization’ (Wattnem 2016, 861). The decree also introduced draconian conditions for seed production, storage and certification, and allowed farm inspections and the prosecution of farmers. 22 The ICA then used this decree to seize and destroy crops that it alleged had been grown from non-certified seeds. This provoked a popular backlash and a nationwide agrarian strike that forced the government to suspend Resolution 970. 23

In Africa, seed laws are being promoted by regional organisations (for example the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa – COMESA), private U.S. foundations (the Bill and Melinda Gate Foundation’s Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa), and intergovernmental organisations (the G8 New Alliance for Food and Security) (LVC and GRAIN 2015). Under the COMESA treaty, over twenty countries in East and Southern Africa must ‘harmonize’ their national seed regulations by adopting a common certification system and catalogue. The avowed objective is to trigger seed trade and the treaty does not include any measures to foster peasant varieties (GRAIN and LVC 2015, 17). When changes to seed laws and regulations are imposed through comprehensive regional trade agreements such as COMESA, it becomes more difficult for civil society organisations to oppose them in their respective parliaments.

Peasant movements and organisations have struggled for many years to amend laws that discriminate against peasant seeds. One of their strategies consists in carving out a limited legal space for peasant seeds under the respective national seed legislation. For example, when the Brazilian Seed Act was revised in 2003, small farmers and their allies fought and obtained a provision which recognizes local, traditional or crioula 24 varieties. These are defined as varieties developed, adapted or produced by the communities of family farmers, land reform settlers or indigenous people. These varieties have well-determined phenotypic traits that are recognized by these communities, and are not substantially similar to commercial cultivars (Peschard 2017). In some cases, agrarian activists participated directly in the drafting of legislation that supports peasant seed systems, for example, in the case of the Venezuelan Seed Law (Felicien et al. 2020) and of regional seed laws in South Korea (GRAIN and LVC 2015). In other cases, they launched participatory processes to design new seed policies, as in Mali for instance (IRPAD/BEDE 2016).

Agrarian activists and their allies have contributed to politicizing the debate around seed laws by showing that seed quality and certification norms are not merely technical criteria but that they lay the groundwork for and enable the corporate enclosure of seeds. Both passive resistance and civil disobedience have been used by activists and farmers, who have refused to comply with laws they consider illegitimate.

Intellectual property: TRIPS and UPOV

Since the mid-1990s countries in the global South have been under enormous pressure to adopt intellectual property (IP) protection for plant varieties. At the time, only a handful of industrialized countries provided for plant breeders’ rights, a limited form of IP protection for the breeders of new plant varieties. The Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), the inter-governmental organisation responsible for implementing plant breeders’ rights at the international level, had only some twenty members in the early 1990s (GAIA/GRAIN 1998). Countries in the global South (and even some industrialized countries like Canada) exempted plant varieties from IP protection based on the premise that the free circulation of plant varieties and knowledge was in the public interest.

In 1995, the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) made it compulsory for all members to provide plant variety protection. Industrialized countries whose seed industry stood to benefit from strong plant breeders’ rights skillfully maneuvered to get countries to meet the TRIPS requirements in matter of plant variety protection by joining UPOV. 25 While the TRIPS Agreement stipulates that countries must provide some form of IP protection, it leaves considerable leeway as to how this is done. By joining UPOV, countries effectively gave up the possibility of developing a sui generis legislation adapted to their needs and interests, and implemented stronger IP requirements than required by the TRIPS Agreement (‘TRIPS-plus’) (Randeria 2007).

India represents a notable exception. Like most other countries, the Indian government was initially intent on introducing legislation based on UPOV 1978. A first draft of the plant variety protection bill introduced in 1993 made no mention of farmers’ rights. A nation-wide campaign by Indian NGOs mobilized public opinion through mass demonstrations by farmers (seed satyagraha, or seed protest). A seven-year long process of public debate and consultations ensued, culminating in the passing of sui generis legislation in 2001 (Randeria 2007). The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPV&FR) Act confers significant rights to a farmer, including the right to save, use, sow, re-sow, exchange, share or sell seeds, including from protected varieties, ‘in the same manner as he (sic) was entitled before the coming into force of this Act’ (GOI 2001; see also Peschard 2014).

What happened next is testimony to the relentless pressures to which countries have been submitted in matter of IP rights in agriculture (Dutfield 2011). In May 2002, less than a year after the adoption of the PPV&FR Act, the Indian cabinet expressed interest in joining UPOV. This would have negated all that had been achieved with the PPV&FR Act, since UPOV has no concept of farmers’ rights. Such a move – in direct contradiction to everything that had been achieved by way of national legal sovereignty in the area over the past seven years – was probably due to strong external pressure on the government. It is plausible to assume that UPOV was keen to get a major country like India on board and prevent its sui generis legislation from becoming a model for other countries in the process of introducing plant variety protection legislation. Gene Campaign, an Indian NGO that had been involved in drafting the PPV&FR Act, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) case challenging the government’s decision on the grounds that India was under no obligation to join UPOV, and that doing so would constitute a violation of its own legislation (the PPV&FR Act and the Constitution) as well as of the CBD and Seed Treaty, of which India was a signatory (Gene Campaign 2003). In response to the PIL, the government backtracked and denied its intention to join UPOV (Peschard 2014). The case of India is instructive: if it were not for relentless pressure from civil society actors, India would have joined UPOV and agreed to plant variety protection norms based on UPOV 1978. This was indeed the path taken by a majority of countries that lacked a strong civil society and/or the resources to develop their own sui generis legislation, and thus were more vulnerable to external political and economic pressures. By 2019, 75 countries and two intergovernmental organizations (the African Intellectual Property Organization-AIPO and the European Union) were members of the UPOV.

A revised UPOV convention – UPOV 91 – entered into force in 1998. Influenced by the development of biotech patents (see below), it approximated plant breeders’ rights to those of a patent holder and severely restricted farmers’ rights over protected plant varieties. Indeed, with UPOV 1991, seed saving became an ‘optional exemption’ for countries: restricted to farmers’ own use, it ‘must safeguard the legitimate interests of the breeder.’ 26 Moreover, breeders’ rights were extended to harvested material, which meant that a farmer could have to pay royalties on harvest in cases where the breeder did not authorize the use of a protected variety. Countries which joined UPOV after 1999 are obliged to adopt UPOV 91, while those that were already members of UPOV 78 at that date are under pressure to amend their legislation to bring it into line with UPOV 91. In 2019, 59 out of 75 UPOV members were signatories to the 1991 Act. 27

The United States, the European Union, Japan and South Korea have used bilateral and multilateral trade and investment agreements to impose UPOV 1991. In Latin America, for example, those countries who have joined UPOV 1991 – Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Panama and Peru – have all entered into FTAs with the United States (on Costa Rica, see Aistara 2012). Accession to UPOV 91 is also compulsory under the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) signed by 11 countries in 2018. A draft of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) IP chapter leaked in 2015 revealed that Japan, Australia and South Korea were pushing to make accession to UPOV 91 an obligation and to place infringement of plant breeders’ rights under criminal law, thus criminalizing seed saving (RCEP 2015).

Farmers’ organisations and social movements have contested these agreements, at times successfully. This is an uphill battle because agreements are negotiated in secret and because governments are often willing to make concessions on some aspects of the deal in exchange for what they perceive as the larger gains to be had from these trade agreements and investment treaties. When Colombia passed Law 1518 in 2012 to accede to UPOV 91, the Colombian Free Seeds Network (Red de Semillas Libres) – a network of grassroots and activist organisations committed to seed sovereignty – immediately challenged the law before the Constitutional Court on the grounds that it would restrict farmer’s right to freely use, save, and commercialize certified seeds. In 2012, in a legal victory for civil society, the Colombian court declared Law 1518 to be unconstitutional due to the absence of mandatory prior consultations with indigenous and Afro-Colombian ethnic groups. The ruling thus effectively stopped Colombia from joining UPOV 91. Thailand has been under sustained pressures to adopt UPOV 91 through the proposed US-Thailand and EU-Thai FTAs. However, both negotiations had to be aborted, in large part due to the strong mobilization of farmers and civil society (GRAIN and LVC 2015).

National and international CSOs have played an important role in documenting the impacts of adopting UPOV-type legislation and in raising awareness of the fact that there were alternatives to UPOV under the TRIPS Agreement (Correa 2015; APBREBES 2019). The international non-profit organisation GRAIN has been particularly active on this issue, closely monitoring and documenting countries’ accession to UPOV (GRAIN n.d.). The Association for Plant Breeding for the Benefit of Society (APBREBES) and ECVC campaigned for more transparency at the UPOV and have had observer status since 2010. This allowed them to closely monitor new developments and liaise with other CSOs and social movements. APBREBES conducts research and analysis on the impact of UPOV for farmers, as well as on the interrelations between UPOV and other international organisations that implement IP and farmers’ rights, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the FAO.

Colombia and India are examples of countries whose vibrant civil society has been able to act as watchdog to monitor governments, use the courts, and draw on the Constitution and national legislation to prevent their country from acceding to UPOV. In the Colombian case, this was a bittersweet victory since domestic legislation based on UPOV 91 was not substantially modified in the wake of the constitutional court ruling, thus considerably reducing the impact of the lawsuit (Gutiérrez Escobar 2017). This case illustrates well the challenges faced by activists, who have to negotiate multi-scalar governance: activists successfully invoked the Constitution to prevent Colombia from joining UPOV, but the UPOV 91-based provisions in the domestic legislation remained in place. The FTA agreement with the United States continues to impact domestic policy, as witnessed by the fact that Colombia abstained from voting on the UNDROP because some elements were contravening its trade and intellectual property commitments (Agencia Anadolu 2019). Colombia and India, however, are the exception rather than the rule as many countries in the global South have yielded to the strong political pressure to join UPOV exerted by countries in the global North acting in the interest of multinational corporations.

Genetically modified crops

One of the most heated controversies concerning seeds in the last thirty years has been the environmental release of GM crops. Critics argued that these crops were being pushed through by corporate interests in the absence of rigorous, independent environmental impact assessments and proper biosafety protocols. According to them, GMOs were emblematic of regulatory capture, whereby a government agency charged with regulating in the public interest promotes instead the interests of private industry. Critics pointed out that this was particularly problematic because once the GM organisms were released into the environment, there would be no way to control their spread and prevent the genetic contamination of non-GM crops. The heated controversies surrounding the introduction of GM crops worldwide have produced a vast literature, which is beyond the scope of this section. 28 In keeping with our object – seed activism – we limit ourselves to reviewing the repertoires of action deployed by activists in their attempts to prevent the environmental release of GMOs.

When the first GM crop varieties came up for regulatory approval in the late 1990s and early 2000s, activists launched national GM-free campaigns in many countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, India, Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa and the UK. The objective was to raise public awareness of the human and environmental risks posed by GMOs, and to put pressure on governments to implement the precautionary principle. 29 These national campaigns acted as watchdogs, putting pressure on public regulatory agencies to be more transparent and accountable to citizens. The effectiveness of these actions was partly due to the inclusion of professionals (e.g. lawyers and agronomists), who were able to position themselves as experts with the authority to intervene in the public debate on legal and procedural grounds, as well as on technical and scientific issues. These experts not only produced considerable research on the subject to substantiate their positions but also put forward concrete policy proposals.

When these efforts failed and environmental release of GMOs became imminent, activists went to court. A prominent example is the public interest lawsuit brought to the Supreme Court of India by Aruna Rodrigues to challenge the permission to release GMOs given by the Indian government in the absence of a proper biosafety protocol. Filed in 2005, the case was still ongoing in 2019. During this period, the petitioner obtained a number of judicial orders, including an interim injunction on open field trials, public domain access to data related to GM crops, and a technical report unanimously recommending selective bans and moratorium on further approvals of GM crops (Rodrigues 2018). The public interest lawsuit was also instrumental in preventing the approval of GM eggplant and mustard varieties. The success of such a legal challenge rests on the contingent and complex interplay between civil society, corporate lobbying, judicial institutions and political will. Few lawsuits have been equally successful. In Brazil, environmental and consumer advocates obtained a court injunction in 1998 prohibiting the commercial release of RR soybean in the absence of an environmental impact assessment. In force for five years, this de facto moratorium was lifted in 2003 under the pressure of the agribusiness lobby, opening the gates to a slew of GM-crop approvals in the following years (Motta 2016).

When conventional political means failed, activists did not shy away from disruptive forms of mobilization. In several countries, activists have engaged in the uprooting or ‘neutralization’ of experimental plots. This type of action has been especially prominent in France, where an estimated 7000 individuals have registered as faucheurs volontaires, or voluntary reapers (Hayes 2007; Doherty and Hayes 2014, 12). The first such action took place in 1997 under the leadership of the Peasant Confederation, a farmers’ union affiliated to La Via Campesina, and the movement reached a peak between 2003 and 2008. French voluntary reapers are organized in autonomous groups and sign an agreement in which they commit to carrying their actions overtly in the spirit of non-violent civil disobedience, and to refrain from using sharp tools (Faucheurs volontaires d’OGM 2018). They invoke the ‘defense necessity’ provision of the Penal Code, which allows a citizen to disobey the law in the name of higher interests for the common good. Given the government’s failure to guarantee the precautionary principle in the Constitution, they contend that their actions are required to prevent greater harm that would result from the irreversible spread of GMOs (Faucheurs volontaires d\’OGM 2018). Voluntary reapers stand out for their willingness to face prosecution. When authorities moved to arrest a few activists, hundreds more turned themselves in and declared themselves to be equally responsible. The ensuing mass trials ensured visibility for the issues involved. In some cases, voluntary reapers were acquitted by judges, who agreed that ‘the actions were urgent and necessary’ due to the risk of cross-contamination in the fields (Doherty and Hayes 2014, 14). However, ‘these acquittals have been the exception rather than the rule’, and most activists have been convicted, incurring suspended prison sentences, as well as small to substantial fines (p. 14).

The voluntary reapers’ movement has been unique for its offensive use of collective action. It has courted arrest to challenge public policy, establish the legitimacy of its position and mobilize public opinion (Doherty and Hayes 2014). In addition to campaigns in France and the UK, there have been sporadic actions to uproot GM crops in several countries, including Brazil (GM soy), Iceland (GM barley), India (Bt cotton), the Philippines (Golden Rice), Spain (GM maize) and the United States (GM sugar beet). In some cases, these were transnationally coordinated actions. For instance, in the first action of its kind in Brazil, eight hundred small farmers and landless rural workers uprooted 2.5 hectares of experimental transgenic soy and corn belonging to Monsanto in the municipality of Não-Me-Toque (State of Rio Grande do Sul). The action was carried out during the first World Social Forum (2001) and was organized jointly by two La Via Campesina member organisations, Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra–MST) and France’s Peasant Confederation (Confédération paysanne) (Peschard 2010).

Another creative form of collective action combining legal means and territorially-based struggles has been the creation of GMO-free regions and territories. This movement is strongest in Europe, where 174 regions and over 4500 municipalities had declared themselves GMO-free by 2007. But GMO-free zones are also found in Latin America (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico), North America (Canada and the United States), the Pacific (Australia and New Zealand) and Southeast Asia (Philippines) (GMO-free Europe n.d.; Meyer 2007). Finally, the global grassroots movement called ‘March Against Monsanto’ has organised annual demonstrations around the world since 2013 and made seed sovereignty one of its main demands (March Against Monsanto n.d.).

By their own admission, GM-Free campaigns have had victories and suffered setbacks, but even some GMO proponents acknowledge that these campaigns have achieved a remarkable success (Paarlberg 2014). Indeed, twenty years after their introduction, GM crops are grown for animal feed and industrial purposes, not as food staple crops, and GMO production has been restricted to a small number of countries worldwide. One of the strengths of the campaigns is the bringing together of diverse organisations, such as environmental and human rights NGOs, consumer advocacy groups and agrarian social movements. While each organisation worked in its own area, it did not do so in isolation. For example, while a human rights advocacy NGO contested a decision to authorize the environmental release of a GM variety in the courts, it also provided legal support to the occupation of an illegal experimentation site. And while agrarian social movements carried out direct actions, they also mobilized in support of the NGO’s public interest lawsuit. More fundamentally, these campaigns raised essential questions regarding farmers’ autonomy, agricultural biodiversity, the ethics of patenting seeds and food sovereignty. One of their most important contributions has been to promote a redefinition of the terms of the debate away from a narrow focus on health and environmental risks toward broader issues of social and environmental justice. These issues raise fundamental questions about intellectual property, ownership of biogenetic material, and the very division between nature and culture (Caduff and Randeria 2010).

Proprietary rights systems: biotech patents and royalties

In the past three decades, new proprietary rights regimes accompanying GM crops have severely restricted farmers’ right to save seeds from their GM crops for replanting and to exchange or sell seeds among themselves. These regimes first evolved in the United States in the mid-1980s. With Ex parte Hibberd [1985], for the first time, plant breeders obtained the right to claim intellectual property (IP) protection under the U.S. Patent Act (Caduff and Randeria 2010). Monsanto complemented its patents with extensive private contracts (known as ‘technology stewardship agreements’) binding farmers upon the purchase of patented seeds.

Starting in the late 1990s, Monsanto began to police farmers in the United States and Canada and to file patent infringement lawsuits against those who saved seeds from transgenic varieties. Keen to avoid potential bankruptcy, the majority of farmers chose out-of-court settlements to avoid a lengthy lawsuit against a powerful multinational corporation with large teams of experienced lawyers, public relations expertise, political influence and economic resources. The few farmers who refused to settle – such as Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser and U.S. soybean grower Hugh Bowman – gave rise to high-profile cases. 30 In these patent infringement lawsuits, the U.S. and Canadian supreme courts systematically ruled in favour of technology providers, favouring a strict interpretation of patent law that placed companies’ IP rights above the statutory rights of farmers. In her analysis of four lawsuits involving patents on new biotechnologies in Canada and the United States, Pechlaner (2012) shows how pervasive the logic of dispossession has become, and how difficult it is for farmers to contest the loss of control over their own production.

Monsanto has endeavoured, with the backing of the U.S. government, to export this very specific US proprietary model to countries in the global South. These efforts, however, have met with considerable resistance in countries with different IP cultures, and stronger farmers’ rights legislations and seed saving practices. In the top three GM-crop growing countries – Brazil, Argentina and India – farmers and activists have resisted Monsanto’s practices and challenged its IP rights in the courts (See Lapegna and Perelmuter 2020, and Peschard and Randeria 2020). In Argentina, the Patent Office and Monsanto are locked in a judicial dispute over the legality of Monsanto’s patent on Roundup Ready soybean. The case reached the Supreme Court in 2016, and a ‘Citizens coalition against Monsanto’s claims to patents on life in Argentina’, composed of 80 civil society organisations, demanded a public hearing and applied to act as amicus curia in the case. In Brazil, farmers’ unions filed a class action lawsuit in 2009 to challenge the legality of Monsanto’s collection of royalties on harvested soy, as opposed to seeds. Charging royalties on harvested grain has important implications: it means that Monsanto’s IP rights extend to a farmer’s production, and it effectively does away with the right to save seeds. The farmers’ union won in the first instance, but the decision was overturned on appeal, and confirmed by the Superior Court of Justice in 2019. In India, farmers have decried the high royalties and seed prices charged for Bt cotton seeds and pressed the state and central governments to intervene to regulate them. The ensuing legal dispute has led Indian courts to examine, for the first time, the legality of biotech patents under Indian law. In April 2018, a landmark decision by the Delhi High Court revoked Monsanto’s patents, but the Supreme Court has since suspended the decision and asked the Delhi High Court to conduct a full trial (Peschard and Randeria 2020).

These ongoing lawsuits are already having a far-reaching impact. By challenging corporate IP rights and practices, activists have prompted courts to examine the complex issues raised by the extension of patent rights to plants in the context of their own countries’ laws. Laws governing IP rights in agriculture in these countries differ in substantial ways from those of the United States, which has the most stringent IP laws worldwide. These lawsuits are prompting the development of new legal interpretations regarding the patentability of plant life forms that depart from the pro-patent jurisprudence developed by the U.S. and Canadian Supreme Courts (Caduff and Randeria 2010; Peschard and Randeria 2020). These rulings are informed by broader concerns over food security, farmers’ rights, and the limits and social function of property rights. As these cases show, litigation is not merely a defensive strategy: by filing legal challenges, activists contribute to the creation of new legal interpretations. The case law developed by these courts could encourage other countries to examine the issues raised by the extension of patents to plants in light of their own domestic legislation.


The term ‘biopiracy’ was coined by Pat Mooney, of ETC Group, to mean ‘the appropriation of the knowledge and genetic resources of farming and indigenous communities by individuals or institutions that seek exclusive monopoly control (patents or intellectual property) over these resources and knowledge’ (ETC Group n.d.). Biopiracy is a historical phenomenon, but it has taken on a new dimension with the consolidation of the biotech industry and the development of new genetic technologies. Indeed, the legal decisions allowing the extension of patents to biotech traits have unleashed a patenting race and an explosion in the number of biotechnology patents. Some of these patent claims are so sweeping that they virtually cover an entire species. In 1994, the European Patent Office granted a patent to Agracetus (later bought by Monsanto) on all forms of genetically engineered soybean varieties and seeds, irrespective of the genes used or the transformation technique employed. ETC Group, No Patents on Life and Greenpeace filed a challenge and the patent was overturned in 2007 after a thirteen-year legal battle (ETC Group 2007b).

Coalitions of civil society organisations have mounted protracted legal challenges to patents in a number of high-profile transnational cases, including Indian staple and traditional plants such as the neem tree, basmati rice, melon and eggplant (Randeria 2007; Caduff and Randeria 2010; No Patents on Seeds 2011; Abdelgawad 2012). These challenges have been successful in revoking only a few patents but have been important in raising awareness of the ethical, politico-legal and economic issues involved in biopiracy. Even when these long drawn out legal battles across jurisdictions succeed, they require considerable resources, besides on-the-ground mobilization and extensive press coverage. But activists hope that by targeting the most egregious cases, they can prevent patent offices from granting questionable patents in the future.

Recent technological developments are heightening concerns over biopiracy. Indeed, the dematerialization of plant genetic resources is threatening to render obsolete international obligations (however imperfect) in matter of free, prior and informed consent regarding access to genetic resources and related knowledge, as well as of benefit sharing derived from their use. 31 Breakthroughs in the genetic sequencing of the genomes of living organisms mean that seeds no longer need to be physically preserved in ex situ collections, but can be stored as digitalized genetic sequences in mega electronic databases. If genetic information is dissociated from its physical basis (seeds and plants), it becomes virtually impossible to trace it back to the communities where these plants were originally collected, therefore opening the door to biopiracy on a whole new scale (RtFN Watch Consortium 2018). For example, the DivSeek project, launched in 2012, aims to ‘uncover crops’ hidden genetic data’ (Piotrowski 2015) by sequencing plant genetic material held in national and international gene banks. This material was collected from farmers’ communities under the assumption that it would remain in the public domain. By bringing together 66 institutional members and by seeking close ties with industry, DivSeek opens the door to the corporatization of these resources (TWN 2016). Farmers are conspicuously absent from the initiative, which makes no mention of access and benefit sharing. In 2017, under pressure from civil society, the Seed Treaty announced its withdrawal from DivSeek (IPC 2017).

Corporate concentration

From the 1990s onwards, the potential for profits opened up by patented biotechnology set in motion an unprecedented restructuring of the seed industry, characterized by three forms of integration: horizontal (among seed companies), vertical (among different links of the food chain) and global (into new national markets). Monsanto (acquired by Bayer in 2018) is a prime example. Originally a chemical company with no involvement in seeds, it started to invest heavily in biotechnological R&D in the 1980s. In order to gain access to germplasm, or plant genetic resources, it acquired 50 seed companies between 1996 and 2008, in the United States, but also abroad (Howard 2009). By 2009, it had become the leading seed company worldwide. Today, the proprietary seed 32 industry is intimately linked to the world’s largest agrochemical corporations.

ETC Group has played a key role in monitoring industry mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures and cross-licensing agreements over the past 30 years. It regularly publishes a report tracking trends and levels of concentration in the global seed and chemical industries. In 1996, when GM crops were first commercialized, the top 10 companies controlled approximately 40 percent of the global commercial seed market (ETC Group 1997). By 2006, that share of the commercial seed market was controlled by only three companies (ETC Group 2007a). In 2018, following the latest round of mega-mergers among the top players, only four corporations – Dow-DuPont, ChemChina-Syngenta, Bayer-Monsanto and BASF – controlled over 60 percent of global proprietary seed sales (Howard 2018). 33 The global commercial seed market was valued at approximately USD 15 billion in 1996 (ETC Group 1997). By 2015, the global seed and pesticide market was worth USD 100 billion (ETC 2015). These four corporations consolidate their hold on the market even further by entering into agreements over the cross-licensing of IP, research and development, and over access to biotech traits at patent expiration (IPES-Food 2017).

These unheard-of levels of concentration in the seed industry have a range of negative impacts on farmers’ rights as well as on agrobiodiversity. 34 First of all, the number of varieties available on the market is greatly reduced, since these companies tend to focus on a small number of profitable varieties. Moreover, it leads to declining rates of seed saving and replanting since commercial varieties are covered by patents, plant breeders’ rights and licensing agreements that restrict or prohibit these practices. The inordinate level of control over the market of a small number of corporations with their aggressive legal and marketing strategies have led to the demise of conventional and peasant varieties. When this happens, both the varieties themselves and the knowledge about how to cultivate them are lost.

By their sheer size and the nature of the regulatory process, mega-mergers are difficult to oppose. Civil society actors and agrarian movements have nonetheless voiced their concerns and called attention to the negative impact of such high levels of concentration by making submissions to national competition commissions (see, for example, ACB 2017) and organizing public events in global forums such as the UN Committee on World Food Security.

New technologies and corporate strategies

Since the first breakthroughs in plant genetic engineering in the early 1980s, the pace of technological innovation has picked up rapidly. Gene Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs) were developed in the 1990s, followed by new genome sequencing and editing technologies 35 and gene drives (Montenegro de Wit 2019b, 2020). Civil society organisations have tracked these scientific developments and raised awareness of their potential to consolidate corporate control over agriculture and negatively impact agrobiodiversity.

The Ban Terminator campaign is a prime example of how activists have influenced international policies in matters of agrobiodiversity, biotechnology and farmers’ rights at international forums such as the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. In March 2006, the Southern Brazilian city of Curitiba hosted the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP8). One of the most controversial issues was a proposal by Australia, Canada and New Zealand to allow Gene Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs) on a case-by-case basis. Dubbed Terminator by opponents, this technology prevents the production of fertile seeds in genetically engineered plants. The proposal would have undermined the moratorium in place since 2000 and opened the way to field trials. In response, an international coalition – the Ban Terminator Campaign – was formed in the months leading up to the conference. 36 During the meeting, the Campaign mobilized actively, briefing delegates on the issue, holding press conferences and public demonstrations. As a result, the issue received a lot of attention, both inside the conference center and outside, where it was one of the main demands put forward by the social movements.

On the day the issue was to be discussed, about forty women of La Via Campesina entered the plenary room and formed a row in front of the stage. Facing the audience, they held candles and signs with the words ‘Terminator, the Genocide Seed’ [Figure 3]. The Chair acknowledged the protest and thanked the women for ‘a heartfelt protest with which many of us sympathize.’ The women then left the room singing traditional songs under the applause of some of the delegates. When the item came up on the agenda, the tension was palpable. Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland spoke in favour of case-by-case risk assessment; the G77 37 , China, Argentina and Norway took a stand against. Acknowledging the deadlock, the Chair asked those countries in favour of case-by-case assessments to come forward, and gave them an hour to drop the proposal or come up with an alternative proposal. When they came back to plenary, they announced that they would simply abandon the proposal. The moratorium was thus upheld (Peschard 2010).

FIgure 3. Action of the Women of Via Campesina Against Terminator at the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil, March 23, 2006

Credit: Ban Terminator Campaign.

Several factors were decisive for the success of the campaign. First, activists were ‘ahead of the game’, learning of the government move to undermine the moratorium before the actual meeting. Secondly, international activist networks meant that they were able to organize, on short notice, an internationally coordinated campaign bringing together NGOs and transnational agrarian movements. The campaign coordinators designed media-savvy materials and interventions; renaming GURTs ‘Terminator’, for example, proved a framing masterstroke facilitating publicity and mobilization. Finally, the campaign was active both outside the conference, organizing demonstrations and participating in the Global Civil Society Forum; and inside the conference, briefing delegates about the issue and lobbying for the moratorium. By drawing public attention to the issue, by approaching delegates who may not have been aware of what was at stake and by ‘shaming’ the countries’ delegates advocating the case-by-case approach, activists were able to stop a proposal that may otherwise have gone unchallenged.

The UN moratorium prevented the environmental release of GURTs, but sterilization has since returned in the form of gene drives, one of the latest gene technologies. Renamed “Exterminator”, gene drives are an invasive technology designed to force a synthetic gene through an entire population of plants or animals or even an entire species (ETC Group and Heinrich Boll Foundation 2018). In the months leading to the CBD meeting held in Egypt in November 2018 (COP14), a broad alliance of civil society organisations demanded the introduction of a global ban on gene drives. Short of a moratorium, delegates to the CBD adopted a decision calling upon countries to adopt a precautionary approach, and only allow the environmental release of gene drives under strict conditions, including carrying out scientifically sound case-by-case risk assessments, and obtaining the prior and informed consent of affected indigenous peoples and local communities (CBD 2018).


The food sovereignty movement has been described as a ‘movement of movements’ and this is equally true for activism around seeds. Seed activism is best described as a diverse and growing constellation of networks and coalitions crisscrossed by multiple and overlapping connections. These mobilizations bridge the rural-urban divide as well as various scales, from the local to the national, regional and transnational. Contemporary transnational agrarian movements (TAMs), including but not limited to La Via Campesina, are major global actors on seed-related issues, but there are also informal transnational networks of activists and movements pursuing similar projects or strategies, such as those engaged in seed saving and sharing networks, Open Source seed systems or GMO-free territories.

As even this partial overview shows, activists have mobilized a wide repertoire of actions in opposing enclosures and reclaiming seeds. These strategies are not only complementary, they overlap and are often combined. For example, a voluntary reaper may save and exchange seeds as a member of the French Peasant Seeds Network, while also participating in the negotiations of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants as a member of the European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC). Peasant-activists can and do engage simultaneously in grassroots action, civil disobedience and transnational lawmaking at the local, regional and transnational levels.

Because so many of the mechanisms of seed enclosure are legal in nature – whether these be seed laws, intellectual property rights or free trade agreements – activists have had no alternative but to engage with the law. As they put it, ‘we have also learned that it is important to block the legislative process, because once the laws are passed, resistance becomes harder and more complex’ (GRAIN and LVC 2015, 45). Through political and legal battles, activists have developed increasingly sophisticated understandings of the legal status of seeds. Moving away from the original concept of farmers’ rights, which remained tied to a property rights framework, many of them started advocating in the 2000s for the collective rights of local, peasant and indigenous communities over seeds and agrobiodiversity. The question of whether and how best to engage with the law – be it seed laws, plant variety registers or ABS mechanisms – remains a highly contentious matter among seed activists and is the source of much debate and creative tension.

One distinctive feature of seed activism is its capacity to appeal to broad constituencies. As the basis of our food supply, seeds carry tremendous symbolic power, even for urban dwellers with no direct relationship to land. This explains why various kinds of mobilizations around seeds – for example the Global March against Monsanto, seed swaps and guerilla gardeners – are urban-based. This broad appeal that brings together actors with diverse political agendas can be a strength but can also represent a challenge. Indeed, the more diverse the constituencies, the more potential there is for conflicts based on class, identities and ideologies besides differences based on geographic location.

Indeed, divergent long-term objectives and visions coexist out of necessity, although uneasily, within such diverse movements. At one end of the spectrum, there are activists for whom seed sovereignty is an essential and inseparable part of the broader struggle for food sovereignty, defined as a radical restructuring of our food and seed systems around principles of re-peasantization and re-localization. At the other end, there are actors involved in these struggles who contest specific aspects of seed enclosures without necessarily questioning the dominant agricultural paradigm. This is the case, for example, of large soybean farmers who oppose Monsanto’s proprietary rights without necessarily questioning the productivist farming model. It is important to acknowledge these ideological differences that have implications for the prospects of joint, sustained mobilization. For instance, a Hindu right-wing farmers’ organisation (RSS) and a food sovereignty coalition may temporarily join forces in opposing Monsanto’s Bt cotton and supporting state regulation of seed prices and royalties in India. However, they may part ways on the issue of GM plant varieties in the public domain because they have different ideological projects and because they oppose Monsanto’s Bt cotton for different reasons. The RSS opposes the role of transnational corporations on nationalistic grounds while food and seed sovereignty activists oppose GMOs as a component of the industrial model of agriculture.

Even among seed sovereignty activists, there are important differences concerning whether the state has a role to play in regulating seeds and, if so, the kind of rules and regulations that are needed. Some, for example the French association Kokopelli and the Indian-based Navdanya, favour ‘seed freedom’, the idea that seeds should circulate unhindered (Shiva, Lockhart, and Schroff 2012). More numerous are those who believe that the state has a role to play in supporting peasant seed systems (Demeulenaere 2018). But even among those who uphold a role for the state, there are differences of opinion concerning the nature of that role. For example, while Italian seed activists have welcomed the possibility of registering their peasant varieties within the formal seed system, French activists oppose such registration as distorting the meaning of their political project (Demeulenaere and Piersante 2020). Activists’ ambivalent relationship to state institutions is a corollary of the state’s own ambiguous role in the transposition of neoliberal globalization (Randeria 2003). As Felicien et al. (2020, 2) remind us in their analysis of the Venezuelan Seed Law, the processes of constructing food and seed sovereignty can be ‘long, messy, dynamic and contentious, with unexpected twists and turns, betrayals and alliances.’

Common threads in the articles in this Special Forum point to several fruitful avenues for future research. One line of inquiry would involve an exploration of romantic visions of local communities in the defense of native seeds and in opposition to foreign multinational companies. In recent years, the election of right-wing governments has been accompanied by the instrumentalization of these issues by ultranationalist movements and right-wing parties. As Yenal and Nizam (2020) note in the context of Turkey, and as we observe in the Indian context (Peschard and Randeria 2020), struggles over seeds can feed into a chauvinistic discourse that essentializes some plant varieties as more ‘natural’ than others, and extols ‘native seeds’ as inherently superior to foreign ones.

A second line of inquiry concerns the importance of studying what happens at the margins of bio-hegemonic agricultural regimes (Newell 2009), where ambiguous forms of resistance and accommodations develop in response to larger economic and political forces. As McMichael (2008) cogently observed, ‘peasants make their own history, but not just as they please.’ Several contributions to this Special Forum (see Lapegna and Perelmuter 2020; Müller 2020; Silva Garzón and Gutiérrez Escobar 2020) show how peasants and small farmers, though aware of the relations of exploitation and dependency surrounding seeds and intellectual property, at times resist and at times adapt to the forces that affect their autonomy.

A third important line of inquiry concerns the ontological shift in human-plant relationships. The profound biosocial changes affecting seeds – through genome editing and patenting, for example – have prompted activists and scholars to rethink our relationship to seeds. As a matter of fact, a number of scholars make the case that we need to expand the field of interspecies studies beyond animals to encompass plants (Galvin 2018).

Finally, a fourth line of inquiry concerns the need to deepen our theoretical and practical understanding of ‘seed commons’. Too often, the term is used lightly as an antonym to privatization, though the reality of what constitutes a commons is much more complex. The status of seeds is far from dichotomous: a plant variety distributed to farmers by a public agricultural university is not commodified in the same way as a patented biotech seed, but it is nevertheless not part of the commons. While in recent years there has been a surge of research and publications on the commons in various areas including food, efforts to (re)create seed commons remain understudied. 38

Activism around seeds has undergone a remarkable growth and transformation in the course of the past three decades, and the progress made in defense of peasant seed systems is undeniable. Activists have brought these issues to the global fore. They have raised awareness of the problems surrounding the regulatory approval and environmental release of GMOs and significantly limited their expansion. They have curbed, and in some cases stopped, the adoption of seed and intellectual property laws that discriminate against peasant seed systems. They have successfully lobbied for legal provisions and laws that support these systems. With the FAO Seed Treaty, farmers’ rights over agrobiodiversity and associated knowledge have won international recognition; and, with the UNDROP, these rights have been included in international human rights instruments. Crucially, peasants, farmers and agrarian activists have actively promoted seed saving and seed sharing, and revived the cultivation and circulation of peasant varieties. They have also contributed to the growing recognition that agrobiodiversity will be a determining factor in our capacity to adapt food production to climate change. And yet, despite these achievements, many of the key processes driving the enclosure of seeds and the genetic erosion of agrobiodiversity continue unabated. Peasants’ rights and agrobiodiversity remain under pressure from new genome editing technologies, seed laws, proprietary rights regimes and historically unprecedented levels of corporate concentration in the seed industry.

Following the lead of the first article in this forum by Felicien et al. (2020), what is needed at this stage are more in-depth and empirically-grounded studies by scholar-activists that report on the important debates concerning property, ownership and the commons happening within these movements, explore their fault lines and contribute to sharing the practical lessons and theoretical insights learned from three decades of activism. There is an urgent need for these studies, especially in regions, such as Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East, that remain under-represented in the literature. This Special Forum hopes to contribute to this endeavour and pave the way for cross-regional comparisons.

For more on the authors and references, please visit this link: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03066150.2020.1753705?scroll=top&needAccess=true.

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