Plant selection in the industrial age

Life exists thanks to the singularity of each organism, industry asserts itself through the uniformity of its goods.

Living creatures reproduce themselves for free, while industry’s raison d’être is profit.

For industrial capitalism life is a two-fold sacrilege.

Over the last two centuries, vanquishing this double sacrilege has been the historic task that industrial capitalism has entrusted plant to plant breeders and agronomic sciences. This task is now almost completed. You only have to see the oversize, over-green industrial fields scored by the scars left by the wheels of tractors, in which no plant is higher than its neighbours, to realize that uniformity has triumphed. As to the other sacrilege, the patenting of life crowns two centuries of efforts aimed at putting an end to the founding practice of agriculture, that of resowing one’s own harvested seed. This means separating production from reproduction, and making reproduction the privilege of a few. Today this privilege belongs to the cartel of “life sciences” – the producers of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, larvicides, ovocides, gametocides, bactericides, molluscicides, rodenticides, acaricides, fungicides : the “Cartel of Cides”!

Industrial selection is simple if you break through the genetic smokescreen. It consists of replacing a variety, the characteristic of which is being varied and therefore the opposite of uniformity, with copies of a selected plant within the variety – with clones. This signaled the death-bell for the sacrilege of diversity. There remained, however, the other sacrilege to be dealt with, which meant putting an end to reproduction free of charge. Already in its early days the new science of genetics achieved this miracle. The result was “hybrid” corn, the sacred cow of agronomic sciences and “paradigm” of plant breeding of the 20th century.

The cloning technique of breeding had been used empirically with autogamous species since the beginning of the 19th century, at the same time as the expansion of the industrial revolution. In 1836 it was codified as the “isolation method”. As an autogamous clone duplicates itself exactly, the harvested cereal is also the seed for the following year. The “farmer’s privilege”, that of sowing one’s own harvested grain, remained intact.

At the end of the 1920s French technocratic agronomists imposed a new system according to which varieties put on to the market must be “homogenous” and “stable”. Homogenous means that the plants must be phenotypically (visually) identical, while to be considered stable the same plant must be put on the market every year. This dual requirement means that the plants must be genetically identical or almost so. Their homogeneity and stability are controlled by an official body. If a new variety satisfies these criteria, it is registered in a Catalogue and the approved breeder receives a certificate which gives him the exclusive right to put the variety on to the market. In 1960 this mechanism was adopted by the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) which has now been ratified by about sixty countries.

The certificate protects the seed producer from “piracy” of his clones by competitors, but there were still too many farmers for the seed industry to dare to attack the “farmer’s privilege”. The certificate corresponded to the needs of traditional plant breeding companies run by agronomists passionate about their breeding work. Over the last thirty years, however, the “Cartel of Cides” has taken control over the world’s seeds. This cartel considers the farmer who sows the seeds he harvests to be a “pirate”. European directive 98/44 that authorizes the patenting of life is putting an end to this “piracy”.

In short, the history of industrial plant breeding is that of destructive selection-cloning and the relentless exploitation of the diversity created by the cooperation between farmers and nature since the beginning of domestication of plants and animals. Farmers did not wait for genetics to “improve” plants. The proof lies in the great profusion of cultivated varieties and animal breeds.

In the 1980s I had the fortune to see a great wheat breeder, Claude Benoît, working in a wheat field. To begin with, as far as I could see, all the plants were the same. At the end of the day, I began to crudely distinguish them. Claude Benoît could not himself explain what drew his attention to this or that plant in a crop that seemed identical to me. Selection depends on a “non-codified” know-how that cannot be fully explained. The meticulous work of the plant breeder is guided by experience, by years of familiarity with the plant, by the empathy or even love that he bears1, by an acute sense of observation, by his agronomic knowledge. He does not need the geneticist2. The esoteric nature of genetics intimidates and discourages those who would like to become involved in selection. The aim is of course to ensure that they give up.

There is no point in shedding crocodile tears about the collapse of cultivated biodiversity if one ignores the whole dynamics of industrial capitalism that encourage this phenomenon. Moreover, the legislative and regulatory system that constitutes the framework for the production and sale of seeds imposes one single selection method based on cloning that started two centuries ago.

It is therefore vital to struggle against the infamy of patenting of life, to demand the abolition of a legal framework that enforces selection methods that destroy diversity. We must ensure that the “Cartel of Cides” no longer poisons life. But at the same time, we must get organized collectively throughout the world to cultivate diversity, share seeds, spread the required know-how, as generations of farmers have done before us. This is an act of survival, of resistance and of freedom. Kokopelli has shown the way. In this film Longo maï describes, step by step, how we can regain possession of both our seeds and our future.

Jean-Pierre Berlan, former director of research, French National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA)

1 An old plant breeder from INRA said this magnificent thing to me, a little embarrassed: “You know, when I’m on my own with my plants I talk to them”.

2 For this reason the “Cartel of Cides” has bought out seed companies. Their molecular biologists who manipulate genes are quite incapable of carrying out plant selection.

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