Is Saving Seed a Human Right?

Quaker International Affairs Programme (QIAP) began its work in Ottawa by focusing on intellectual property rights and transnational trade. At first I wondered about this choice. While considering the range of critical issues that Friends testimonies can relevantly address, this seemed less than central. But after examining this choice and following the issues it encompasses, I have reconsidered.

No longer are there any single-focus issues; this is a central fact of our time. Social justice, equitable economics, a durable peace, and the ongoing resilience of Earth’s ecosystems form an overarching, multifaceted task that colors the entire horizon of the human species’ future. QIAP has decided to focus on the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement, an international treaty administered by the World Trade Organization that sets standards for intellectual property regulation, including the protection of new varieties of plants. This decision of QIAP reflects an astute assessment of the unfolding human development options and shows how Friends testimonies can be brought into effective witness.

The more I come to understand the TRIPS program, the more I recognize its uniquely critical focus—a focus that maps two highly divergent trajectories into the human future. The first trajectory considers access to the means of life as best delivered through an increasingly narrow range of technologies, which are controlled by an elite strata of wealthy and privileged persons. Their primary concern is, understandably, their own wealth accumulation and an ever-tighter organization of economic and social control toward this end. For example, industrial agriculture has brought land ownership; the chemical, seed, and machinery companies; the food processing, transportation, and marketing systems; and the financial industry into an interlocking package of interest that sees food as a commodity for the accumulation of capital. The result has been the desiccation of rural life in many regions, a shantytown boom in many cities, and industrial food products that betray health and damage Earth.

The alternate trajectory is a diversified pattern of social and economic development administered through cooperative political economies. In the interest of the common good, it aims to embed access to the means of life in the productive resilience of regional and local ecosystems. Again, it is food system design that most clearly illustrates the features of this path: local and regional production for local and regional consumption; small scale, value added, food processing; small scale animal husbandry and comprehensive land stewardship; cooperative marketing. The result of this social and economic settlement pattern is ongoing biotic resilience and increasing ecological intelligence.

Although these descriptions may be oversimplifications, I think they are on target. Given the distance that modernizing societies have traveled along the high-tech, elite-controlled trajectory, many people who consider themselves realistic now say we have no choice; there is no turning back, even if the cooperative, organically based option is a better path for long-term development.

I think this "realism" is wrong in its view of technological momentum and human adaptation. Social and economic collapses have occurred with some regularity throughout the history of unwise human settlement, and there is no reason to think modern arrangements are immune to this possibility. Think of the great American Dust Bowl disaster, or of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or the whole system of dikes on the lower Mississippi that the Army Corps of Engineers readily admits will eventually fail (see Collapse: Why Societies Fail by Jared Diamond). We may indeed face a very unpleasant turning back.

Secondly, the high-tech, centralized trajectory and the organic, diversified trajectory are not hermetically sealed pathways. They are more like bundles of skills, resources, and strategies that bleed back and forth as though they have permeable membranes. Organic diversity frequently applies selective high technology to good effect—for example, small-scale food processing equipment and solar electric homesteads. High-tech elite centralization increasingly poaches on the organic—for example, industrial agriculture’s recent swing into so-called "organic foods." This blending further defies the stereotypes of "progressive" and "backward" for these two trajectories, and understanding this blending should help us focus on the critical values at stake—common good versus elite privilege; stewardship versus wealth accumulation; human solidarity versus social triage.

The struggle over TRIPS is about whether the common good (stewardship and human solidarity) or elite privilege (wealth accumulation and social triage) will shape the human future. Quaker International Affairs Programme, working as a project of Canadian Friends Service Committee, has now engaged this struggle on behalf of Canadian Friends and our many supporters.

Order 81, issued by the U.S. Provisional Administration that took over Iraq after the U.S. invasion, prohibits Iraqi farmers from saving seeds. It provides an example of what is at stake. Why–in the middle of insurgencies and the struggle to get electricity, water, waste treatment, medical, educational, food, and oil production systems back in service–would one think to impose such an order on Iraqi farmers? Obviously, the strategists at agri-industries like Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, and Cargill thought about this, and their legal teams were effective in translating those thoughts into this administrative order.

A fuller explanation is that there is more than one type of war going on. Forty years ago, Ivan Illich coined a term for this second variety: "a war against subsistence." This "war" opposes all arrangements of culture and economic life that enable communities and regions to create and sustain themselves without contributing to the wealth accumulation of transnational corporations.

As the invasion of Iraq got underway and the occupation settled in, many folks said, "This is about oil." Others cited security issues and freedom’s agenda and said, "It’s not about oil." Considering how U.S.-based transnational corporations have placed themselves in Iraq, it seems that the latter statement is partly correct —it’s not just about oil. There is a much larger agenda at work: an agenda of economic and financial arrangements that generally serve the trans-national corporations and all the interests that surround and support them.

Here is the larger picture: cultures, countries, regions, and communities that are not within the orbit of capital-driven economic behavior are seen by transnational corporations and their political allies as resource wells to be mined and marketing opportunities to be penetrated. No corporate leader, financier, economic theoretician, or policy analyst who thinks that the purpose and measure of economic activity is to make money and increase wealth has any interest in the resilience and development of subsistence ways of life. In this worldview, subsistence economies are a problem to be solved, an obstacle to "material and human resource development," and a barrier to market penetration. There is a term for this approach to subsistence economies, coined by the economist Joseph Schumpeter, and it is blunt: "creative destruction." Adherents of this perspective have no interest in resilient, secure, self-provisioning regional and local economies. Such arrangements do not contribute to the program of transnational, corporate wealth accumulation. Hence the war against subsistence.

The work QIAP has begun seems like a way to join with traditional and indigenous peoples in the struggle for justice, peace, and the integrity of Creation. In specific, strategic terms it means supporting the efforts of these peoples and their governments to maintain or rebuild access to their means of life within a context of organic diversity, biotic resilience, and cultural self-management. For example, Canadian Friends Service Committee provided critical funding that helped a traditional medicine project in Thailand become an established and flourishing cooperative business. In taking on this task, QIAP is developing an approach that is uniquely Quaker. It enters this arena not so much as a partisan with a program, but as a facilitator of off-the-record communication between parties negotiating intellectual property rights in trade agreements. In addition, it is creating information and discussion documents that help develop a more rounded perspective on the issues involved. Both activities advance the issues, concerns, and voices of developing countries within the negotiating context.

Many countries with traditional food and health systems, rich biodiversity, and indigenous cultures haven’t had the resources to participate effectively in negotiations on international agreements that directly affect them. The result is that agreements such as TRIPS are shaped mainly by the interest of rich industrial nations and transnational corporations. By facilitating conversation and providing analyses that focus the issues, concerns, and proposals of traditional peoples and developing regions, QIAP not only helps enhance dialogue, but it helps advance the capacity of these delegations to negotiate on intellectual property rights. This interaction helps level the playing field by enhancing the negotiating capacity of those defending organic diversity, biotic resilience, and cultural self-management.

It is particularly significant for Friends in Canada that QIAP entered this work as a partner of the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva. Friends in Europe have been working on intellectual property rights for some time. Linking with QIAP and the Canadian jurisdiction broadens and strengthens the scope of QUNO Geneva’s work. In addition, it advances QIAP’s entry into the field of intellectual property rights.

QIAP is also positioned as a project of Canadian Friends Service Committee, which further enhances the network available and its contribution to the life of Canadian Yearly Meeting. Such projects among Friends in Canada are necessarily small-scale, but with the current approach (dialogue, documentation, and capacity building), their work could support those on the frontlines of the intellectual property rights struggle. The effort to review and modify the TRIPS Agreement is ongoing. Its provisions and requirements are under growing pressure to meet acceptable standards of justice, equity, and ecological integrity. On behalf of Canadian Friends, QIAP is helping to advance this work.

Back to the opening question: Is saving seeds a human right? Not according to Order 81. This order, like a whole range of other intellectual property rights regulations, prohibits Iraqi farmers from saving and planting seed that, in some way, has been brought under agri-industry jurisdiction. Order 81 is not just about a transnational corporation’s ability to recoup a fair investment profit; it is a broadly cast legal net that will mire Iraqi farmers in highly complex litigation should they become suspected of contravening the Order. Furthermore, it is about extending transnational corporate control over agricultural seed stocks, plants, and "plant materials."

Order 81 specifies that "protected varieties" cannot be "produced, reproduced, multiplied, propagated, conditioned, offered for sale, sold, exported, imported, or stocked for any of the purposes mentioned." Order 81 continues:

The breeder’s certificate shall also confer on its owner the rights established in the preceding paragraphs with respect to varieties that are not clearly distinguishable from the protected variety.

And further:

The competent national authority may confer on the owner, the right to prevent third parties from performing, without his consent, the acts specified in the previous paragraphs with respect to varieties essentially derived from the protected variety.

So not only do seeds and plant stocks, perhaps several times removed in derivation from a protected variety, become subject to the same prohibitions, but seeds and plants bearing a faint resemblance to protected varieties are, by virtue of this resemblance, liable to the same prohibitions. This is a very cagey approach. Imagine what the intellectual property rights lawyers working for Monsanto, Cargill, or Archer Daniels Midland could do with this in litigation against an Iraqi farmer. But clearly, this approach does not just establish ground rules for litigation; it also obviates the need for litigation through intimidation.

Order 81 states that it has been drafted and issued in anticipation of Iraq’s becoming a fully functioning member of the World Trade Organization. Again, we can see that the occupation is not just about oil, but about recreating Iraq in the image of the Washington consensus (a set of policies designed to make a target economy more like that of First World countries like the U.S.). And this goal includes, in particular, the increasing subservience of Iraqi agriculture and its food system to transnational agri-industries. Given a seemingly uncheckable insurgency at work in Iraq, the George W. Bush administration and its corporate allies may well fail in this effort. Order 81 could become a memory in the museum of failed imperial conquests, and Bush may join Winston Churchill in coming to grief in Iraq.

What will endure—and my faith has the full integrity and resilience of the Earth behind it—is the eventual resurgence of people in defense of their land and land-based livelihoods. The transnational trade agreements that now give legal cover for biopiracy, the "creative destruction" of traditional social systems, and ecosystem disruption could be transformed into instruments for the promotion of biodemocracy, cooperative economics, and ecosystem maintenance. Far-fetched? Perhaps it is today, but beyond oil nobody knows what will happen, except that change could be enormous. It may be resource wars all the way down, or it may be cooperative economics and ecosystem maintenance all the way up. If the people of the land around the world do manage to get on their feet and change the rules of trade in favor of the common good and biotic integrity, it will be in part because allies like QIAP and other social justice organizations have been on the case for the long haul.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Canadian Friend, Sept.-Oct. 2005. Further information on the Quaker International Affairs Programme may be found at For further information on Order 81, enter "Order 81" in Google on the Internet. Also see Intellectual Property, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development: Resolving the Difficult Issues, by Martin Khor, published in 2002.

Keith Helmuth

Keith Helmuth is a member of New Brunswick Monthly Meeting (Canada). He currently lives in Philadelphia, Pa.