UN Backs Seed Sovereignty as Defense Against Multinational-Led GMO Projects

Lambert here: Awesome. Very good news.

By Timothy A. Wise, a senior researcher at the Small Planet Institute, collaborating with director Frances Moore Lappé to start its new Land and Food Rights Program. He is also a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute. Originally published at Triple Crisis.

On December 17, the United Nations General Assembly took a quiet but historic vote, approving the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas, by a vote of 121-8 with 52 abstentions. The declaration, which was the product of some 17 years of diplomatic work led by the international peasant alliance La Via Campesina, formally extends human rights protections to farmers whose “seed sovereignty” is threatened by government and corporate practices.

“As peasants we need the protection and respect for our values and for our role in society in achieving food sovereignty,” said Via Campesina coordinator Elizabeth Mpofu after the vote. Most developing countries voted in favor of the resolution, while many developed country representatives abstained. The only “no” votes came from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Hungary, Israel, and Sweden.

“To have an internationally recognized instrument at the highest level of governance that was written by and for peasants from every continent is a tremendous achievement,” said Jessie MacInnis of Canada’s National Farmers Union. The challenge now, of course, is to mobilize small-scale farmers to claim those rights, which are threatened by efforts to impose rich-country crop breeding regulations onto less developed countries, where the vast majority of food is grown by peasant farmers using seeds they save and exchange.

Seed Sovereignty in Zambia

The loss of seed diversity is a national problem in Zambia. “We found a lot of erosion of local seed varieties,” Juliet Nangamba, program director for the Community Technology Development Trust, told me in her Lusaka office. She is working with the regional Seed Knowledge Iniatiave (SKI) to identify farmer seed systems and prevent the disappearance of local varieties. “Even crops that were common just ten years ago are gone.” Most have been displaced by maize, which is heavily subsidized by the government. She’s from Southern Province, and she said their survey found very little presence of finger millet, a nutritious, drought-tolerant grain far better adapted to the region’s growing conditions.

Farmers are taking action. Mary Tembo welcomed us to her farm near Chongwe in rural Zambia. Trained several years ago by Kasisi Agricultural Training Center in organic agriculture, Tembo is part of the SKI network, which is growing out native crops so seed is available to local farmers. Tembo pulled some chairs into the shade of a mango tree to escape the near-100-degree Fahrenheit heat, an unseasonable reminder of Southern Africa’s changing climate. Rains were late, as they had been several of the last few years. Farmers had prepared their land for planting but were waiting for a rainy season they could believe in.

Tembo didn’t seem worried. She still had some of her land in government-sponsored hybrid maize and chemical fertilizer, especially when she was lucky enough to get a government subsidy. But most of her land was in diverse native crops, chemical free for ten years.

“I see improvements from organic,” she explained, as Kasisi’s Austin Chalala translated for me from the local Nyanja language. “It takes more work, but we are now used to it.” The work involves more careful management of a diverse range of crops planted in ways that conserve and rebuild the soil: crop rotations, intercropping, conservation farming with minimal plowing, and the regular incorporation of crop residues and composted manure to build soil fertility. She has six pigs, seven goats, and twenty-five chickens, which she says gives her enough manure for the farm.

She was most proud of her seeds. She disappeared into the darkness of her small home. I was surprised when she emerged with a large fertilizer bag. She untied the top of the bag and began to pull out her stores of homegrown organic seeds. She laughed when I explained my surprise. She laid them out before us, a dazzling array: finger millet, orange maize, Bambara nuts, cowpeas, sorghum, soybeans, mung beans, three kinds of groundnuts, popcorn, common beans. All had been saved from her previous harvest. The contribution of chemical fertilizer to these crops was, clearly, just the bag.

She explained that some would be sold for seed. There is a growing market for these common crops that have all-but-disappeared with the government’s obsessive promotion of maize. Some she would share with the 50 other farmer members of the local SKI network. And some she and her family would happily consume. Crop diversity is certainly good for the soil, she said, but it’s even better for the body.

Peasant Rights Crucial to Climate Adaptation

We visited three other Kasisi-trained farmers. All sang the praises of organic production and its diversity of native crops. All said their diets had improved dramatically, and they are much more food-secure than when they planted only maize. Diverse crops are the perfect hedge against a fickle climate. If the maize fails, as it has in recent years, other crops survive to feed farmers’ families, providing a broader range of nutrients. Many traditional crops are more drought-tolerant than maize.

Another farmer we visited had already planted, optimistically, before the rains arrived. She showed us her fields, dry and with few shoots emerging. With her toe she cleared some dirt from one furrow to reveal small green leaves, alive in the dry heat. “Millet,” she said proudly. With a range of crops, she said, “the farmer can never go wrong.”

I found the same determination in Malawi, where the new Farm-Saved Seed Network (FASSNet) is building awareness and working with government on a “Farmers’ Rights” bill to complement a controversial Seed Bill, which deals only with commercial seeds. A parallel process is advancing legislation on the right to food and nutrition. Both efforts should get a shot in the arm with the UN’s Peasants’ Rights declaration.

The declaration now gives such farmers a potentially powerful international tool to defend themselves from the onslaught of policies and initiatives, led by multinational seed companies, to replace native seeds with commercial varieties, the kind farmers have to buy every year.

Kasisi’s Chalala told me that narrative is fierce in Zambia, with government representatives telling farmers like Tembo that because her seeds are not certified by the government they should be referred to only as “grain.”

Eroding Protection from GMOs

As if to illustrate the ongoing threats to farm-saved seed, that same week in Zambia controversy erupted over two actions by the government’s National Biosafety Board to weaken the country’s proud and clear stance against the use of genetically modified crops. The Board had quietly granted approval for a supermarket chain to import and sell three products with GMOs, a move promptly criticized by the Zambian National Farmers Union.

Then it was revealed that the Board was secretly drawing up regulations for the future planting of GM crops in the country, again in defiance of the government’s approved policies. The Zambian Alliance for Agroecology and Biodiversity quickly denounced the initiative.

The UN declaration makes such actions a violation of peasants’ rights. Now the task is to put that new tool in farmers’ hands. “As with other rights, the vision and potential of the Peasant Rights Declaration will only be realized if people organize to claim these rights and to implement them in national and local institutions,” argued University of Pittsburgh sociologists Jackie Smith and Caitlin Schroering in Common Dreams. “Human rights don’t ‘trickle down’—they rise up!”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Louis Fyne

    russia/putin is making non-GMO a national priority. if i recall correctly, russia is the largest exporter of non-gmo food.

    sorry to bring in russia-russia-russia….but it’s relevant and that tidbit surprisingly is not mentioned by NBC’s Meet the Press/PBS/etc. brought to you by …ADM “supermarket to the world ™” et al.

  2. Believe it when I see it

    If UN backs it, so what? I haven’t really checked UN track record of promoting ideas and its implementation. Judging by the invasions and illegal killings by Nato forces I don’t really put very much value on this.
    PLEASE correct me if I am wrong.

    1. jefemt

      That was my first thought when I saw the headline– while UN resolution does not hurt, and does elevate the issue, it’s hardly a ‘bomber’ safeguard or protection.

      For those interested in the heirloom seed movement, this is a link to a sumptuous catalog chockablock full of interesting information and absolutely beautiful plants/ veggies/flowers. Their art department is something!!


      One can’t read it without having a snese of wonder and awe at our natural world. I vote Earth, not Mars.

    2. polecat

      Was reading just yesterday, b’s post at Moom of Alabama, and his take of the U.N.’s ultimatum towards the Yemeni rebels to cede the only port that they control to ‘others’ .. the intention being to ‘allow’ supposed food agencies access to distribute ‘aid’ to the starving residency, but, in his opinion, using the lure of food distribution as an ‘inducement’ to either play ball and do what we (the U.S., the Saudis, U.A.E., etc.) say … or we’ll withhold aid, and allow you to futher starve ….

      The U.N. has no legitimacy in my book … they’re just another corrupt bureaucracy, under the guise of righteous planetary oversight !

      1. JEHR

        The UN is bigger than one corrupt bureaucracy and it’s an organization that is only as good as its members.

        1. polecat

          Ok, so how’s THAT workin out : Saudi Arabia head ( ha !) of the U.N. human rights commision ..
          What A Joke

    3. Mattski

      In many ways it’s the Via Campesina that’s interesting–the leaders of what is by far and away the world’s biggest social movement (for food sovereignty), with 250 MILLION plus members. Zero attention in the U.S. of course, but you would be surprised how seriously the UN is still taken in small poor countries, not derided as here. It was considered an enormous step forward when the UN Special Rapporteur adopted food sovereignty, and–partly due to efforts of the UN–a number of countries, including Nepal, have inscribed the food sovereignty idea in their constitutions and other law. In many ways we are utterly backward here; there is a whole lot happening out there which, as cited below, does not make it back through the prism of NB f’ing C News as brought to us by ADM. If you want to read one of the most inspiring documents of our time check out the Nyeleni Declaration on Food Sovereignty.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        The US does contain its own Food-Sovereignty supportive and sympathetic groups. General knowledge of them is kept contained and suppressed under the FNM’s Cone Of Silence. But people who know about them are free to bring them to bloggy awareness on threads like this.

        For example . . . OSSI. The Open Source Seed Initiative. https://osseeds.org/

  3. EoH

    That would be consistent with traditional Russian propaganda efforts. It means it’s a useful wedge issue and that the Russians can spot a popular trend around the world. When the US and industrialized West – presumably those 8 “no” votes and 52 abstentions – spot them, they oppose them.

    1. Harry

      Why use “propaganda” when you can use “marketing”? All marketers call bugs “features” when they can. In this case, why not make a virtue of their low tech agriculture? God knows, I am not a fan of consuming additional glyphosate just cos some guys selling it tell me it only hurts plants. Not that long ago other guys sold asbestos as a fire retardant building supplies product, or thalidomide as an anti-nausea agent.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        GMO is not “high” tech. It is merely “maltech”. As in “malware”.

        I suspect Russia is techno-logistic enough to grow GMOs if it ( they) wanted to. They may well be placing a future-marketing bet on the emergingly “sunset” nature of GMOs.

  4. Grebo

    What is the link to GMOs here? It is conventional hybrids that have unviable seeds, not GMOs. What do GM supermarket products have to do with seeds?

    I can’t see the UN doc unfortunately. Maybe it has more clarity than this piece.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Hybrid seeds are not non-viable as in ” will not sprout and grow.” What they are is “not true to either parental type” as in the first generation offspring will be a boiling hash of different characteristics.

      But hobby gardeners could have fun sorting out their own desired “personal varieties” from among all the different sorts of things emerging from some hybrid seeds. And some varieties are hybrids which breeders have neo-stabilized as reliable expressions of what the hybrid itself expressed.

  5. juliania

    Shame on my native country, New Zealand, for voting no! I have been horrified listening to radio programming from there, with glyphosates and heavy use of poisons a way of life. They do have considerable problems with invasive species both in flora and fauna threatening the native populations,working hard on re-establishing the latter, but sadly do not seem to be learning the horrific truths of GMO acculturation soon enough.

  6. Susan the Other

    Thank you for this post. I read Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet in one of my ancient incarnations. I have always tried to minimize my addiction for meat since then. She was a natural successor to Rachael Carson and I’m happy to read this on the progress, worldwide, of this anti-gmo movement. I’m more than happy, I’m almost giddy over this one. It’s funny, because I saw little to no progress for so long, in fact these sound practices were so steamrolled by the neoliberal debacle I was sure I wouldn’t see any good news in my lifetime. Long live Africa’s agroecology.

  7. JTMcPhee

    Maybe people in India are catching on to real costs of the GM scam, albeit a lot of deplorable mopes there are committing suicide after getting suckered or forced into trying to make a hardscrabble living growing Bt cotton.

    Here’s a description of the reality and costs of buying in, including the mandatory multiple-chemical-input overhead snd the mandatory use of scarce water to irrigate: https://off-guardian.org/2019/01/02/gm-cotton-reckless-gamble/

    Recent pieces say US farmers have to buy armored tires for the tractors (the ones they have no right to repair) and other field machinery because GM corn stubble is so tough it rips through regular tires. (Sorry, my net connection won’t let me pull up the link.)

    My plea to everyone writing about tech and “progress” is that we all need to constantly promote and demand global adherence to the Precautionary Principle. The burden of proof MUST be on the disrupters&innovators ™ (sic) to prove that the Sh!t they are peddling and profiting from by avoiding internalization of real costs does not cause harm. “Et MonsantoGoldmanGoogleBezos est delenda!”

    1. dd

      A nice example of unintended consequences — in this case tougher stalks and weaker tires (rubber toughens with age, but just-in-time inventory management means that tires may be used within weeks of being manufactured).

      This item is one of many news stories that make clear the connection between the seeds used in intensive industrial farming and increased wear on tires.

      A telling quote from the story linked to above: “You know it’s a serious problem when standard issue for the day begins with making sure there is an air compressor along when heading to the field”.

      And speaking of right to repair, this tidbit: “When I first learned that tire selection for my planter was actually very specific, and specified by the OEM, I really didn’t have the choice to upgrade to a more durable tire, even though I was willing to pay more for something that would be able to handle the stalk punishment. The tire manufacturer’s hands were tied”.

      New tires are the solution recommended in this story. Other simple low-tech solutions include “stalk stompers”, “stalk smashers”’ and letting your tires age before using them.

  8. drumlin woodchuckles

    There are quite a few sources for heirloom seeds and other non-GMO types of seeds in the “tiny company” sector. I don’t know if there are any central information dumpsites for all of them at once. On the web it is possible to find a few at a time with grinding brute-timeforce searches.

    Here is one little listing.

    And here’s a couple more links.
    This one contains an internal link to a very large list.



    1. yelladog

      I use Baker Creek. Great germination rates, although oddly enough I couldn’t get mint to grow. The animals absolutely ravaged my Maiz Morado. My guess is they were seeking those nutrients more than I could imagine.

      They recently published an article about corn protein rates, the unbelievable diversity of corn and about their frustration with local universities not wanting to study corn protein of heirloom vs. gmo. They are in Bayer (formerly Monsanto) country, though. In their big seed catalog, they also went through a quick history of Bayer (It isn’t flattering).

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