Seed is often synonymous with food, while food for many people is the same as life. And yet an amendment recently introduced in Thai parliaments will take seeds out of the hands of women, farmers and indigenous peoples who have kept seeds, shared seeds and developed a wealth of local knowledge on plant varieties-- and put them instead in the hands of large corporations.
Across the world, women have bred more than 7,000 species of crops for taste, nutrition, pest resilience, drought resilience, flood resilience, and salt resistance. In Thailand, the Division of Rice Research and Development has documented at least 5,900 varieties of rice in Thailand since 1937, but 80 percent of the rice being planted today belongs to only five varieties of rice due to increasing monopolisation of rice seeds.
All over the world women have played a central role in ensuring food security by saving, preserving and diversifying seeds, and by feeding their family and community. Women farmers make up 43 percent of the agricultural labour in developing countries and make up the majority in some countries.
“The exchange of seeds is very common among indigenous people. We exchange and share the seeds for our food security and for the survival of our seeds. It is also a way to test and experiment what is best for us. For example, before we decide to grow rice, we will exchange seeds with others and try to find the one that is most appropriate for our climate as well as the one that tastes the best,” said Nengnoi Saeseng, Chairwoman of Indigenous Women’s Network of Thailand.
The amendment to the 1999 Plant Varieties Protection Act, if successfully passed by the parliament, will subject farmers in Thailand to the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) Convention of 1991. For women farmers, this means their practice of preserving, sharing and diversifying seeds can be criminalised, and farmers could be fined up to 400,000 baht and/or jailed for up to two years. They could have their crops destroyed if they are found to be in violation of a corporation’s intellectual property rights to the seeds.
“Seeds are our food security, our identities and our lives. We indigenous people have our own seeds and our own ways to preserve the seeds for the next planting seasons,” said Noraeri Thungmueangthong, Vice Chairwoman of IWNT. “So we should be consulted if laws relating to seeds are going to be drafted and enforced in our country.”
In Indonesia, although the country is not yet part of UPOV, the government is already introducing laws in line with it. Farmers have faced jail time up to 10 months and fined up to 1 million Indonesian rupiahs [2,300 THB] for exchanging and preserving seeds. Opposition by activists and farmers groups led the country’s constitutional court to rule the law unconstitutional and effectively invalid. And in India 12,000 suicides have been reported in the agricultural sector every year since 2013.
When farmers’ saved seeds are replaced by corporation seeds, farmers are forced to buy the seeds along with the pesticides and fertilisers from the corporations pushing many of them into debt. And when the price of farmers’ produce drops further due to free trade policies, farmers become trapped even further in debt. And when the debt becomes unbearable, farmers commit suicide. And each suicide often leaves behind women and children to pick up the pieces.
This is not the first time efforts have been made to subject Thailand to UPOV 1991. Previous attempts have received strong oppositions from farmers groups in Thailand.
However, this recent amendment is coming amidst the ongoing negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) - a free trade agreement involving the 10 ASEAN countries and its 6 Free Trade Partners - Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand. Put together; these 16 countries make up almost half of the world’s populations. If finalized, all the countries will be obligated to change all of their domestic laws and policies to comply with the RCEP - and likely UPOV 1991 - Thailand included. By that, they would usher in a new wave of corporate capture and takeover of our food and agriculture sector.
The concept of intellectual property first emerged in Europe in the US around the same time. Globally, it’s been imposed through the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
In many developing countries including Thailand, this concept remains alien to many, where community and farmer-led seed systems that rely on traditional knowledge and the practices of freely saving, using and exchanging seeds have been practised for centuries. Community and farmer-led seed prices are usually lower than certified seeds from corporations. Corporation-led seed breeding systems are also often focused on cash crops and other major food crops, corporations’ seeds even less relevant to women farmers who are often working in low-input farming systems and subsistence farming.
Thailand is the number one seed exporter in ASEAN and fourth in the Asia Pacific region. This was made possible through the existing 1999 Plant Varieties Protection Act that aimed to achieve a balance between protecting communities’ rights and the interests of corporations.
This balance has been strongly opposed by corporations. These very same corporations, the so-called Big Six (BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta) controlled 75 percent of the agrochemical market and 63 percent of the commercial seed market in 2013 while only providing 20 percent of global food supplies. Their monopolies have allowed these larger corporations to charge whatever they want at the expense of farmers and consumers. And now that the Big Six have merged to become the Big Three (Bayer-Mosanto, Dow DuPont, ChinaChem-Sygenta), it has become even easier for them to increase the prices of seeds, pesticides and fertilisers.
Meanwhile, 80 percent of the world’s food is produced by family farms - often also led by women. Small-scale farming is the dominant livelihood in most developing countries. And it is estimated that there are 2.1 million varieties of 7,000 species of plants that have been bred by the farmer-led system since the 1960s.
Community and farmer-led system are fundamental for farmers in developing countries to remain free, as well as to achieve food security and food sovereignty. Women and farmers have fed their families, local communities and countries since before the existence of agribusiness. And they will continue to do so, as long as they can continue to control and access resources, local knowledge and seeds as they have done traditionally for centuries.
“The exchange of seeds is not only a way to continue our way of life and our culture, but it is also a way to sustain and maintain our food diversity and food security and food sovereignty. We are very concerned about the passing of the new seed policy by our government,” said Nengnoi.
She fears this policy will only benefit corporations who want to profit from farmers’ seeds, and not those who see the sharing of seeds as necessary to ensure the survival of the world’s plant diversity.
IWNT is an NGO working towards improving the lives of indigenous women in Thailand. IWNT advocates for indigenous women's rights, equal opportunities in participation, and acceptance of the value of women's traditional knowledge. You can find out more about RCEP and women's rights here.