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Down to Earth

Sowing seeds of security

DOWN TO EARTH
DOWN TO EARTH © FRANCE 24
By: Mairead DUNDAS Follow | Pierre LEMARINIER | Valérie DEKIMPE | Marie-Claire IDE | Clémence WALLER
9 min

How do we ensure that the seeds which grow the food needed to nourish the rising number of people on the planet are safe and productive? This week Down to Earth explores the challenges of securing a seed system for the long term.

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Bayer, the multinational pharmaceutical giant which bought Monsanto in 2018, is at the forefront of seed technology. FRANCE 24 was given a rare opportunity to visit the company's quality control laboratory, unique in Europe. 

It's here that hybrid seeds, known as F1, are brought after being selected and crossed for specific characteristics, such as disease resistance and yield. 

Gwenola de Fontenay, head of the laboratory's quality control, explains that her team's work allows the company to make a promise to the farmer: "From your bag of 50,000 grains that you're going to sow, you're going to have 50,000 plants, which are going to give you 50,000 ears if we're talking about corn, which is going to guarantee your income."   

Each new hybrid is registered in a European catalogue of plant varieties, which controls what seeds can be marketed in the EU.

The system of registering seeds was implemented in Europe in the latter half of the 20th century, when the continent was looking to modernise its agriculture. The goal was a more mechanised and productive system but it also led to more standardisation and uniformity.

''If there was no catalogue there would be no seed companies,'' adds de Fontenay. ''Nobody would put seeds on the market if the following year everybody could use them. You can't carry out seven years of effort if there is no guarantee your work will be protected.''

Kokopelli, the outlaws

Others argue that the very system designed to protect and promote agriculture is having a detrimental effect on farmers and the planet, while helping the multinationals grow. 

Ananda Guillet is president of the Kokopelli association which fights for the preservation of agricultural biodiversity. The association sells seeds that are not registered in the catalogue, essentially operating outside the law. 

More specifically, all of the seeds at Kokopelli can be saved by farmers and replanted the following year, unlike the F1 hybrids that need to be bought again after each harvest.

"F1 varieties are totally scandalous because they tie up the agricultural system, they force farmers to go back to the cash register every year,'' Ananda argues. ''They (farmers) repurchase seeds that need the whole technological package, and all the agrochemical products sold by the multinationals, and that's what makes the real fortune for these companies.''

It's generally agreed that F1 varieties have higher yield, although there is much debate around other characteristics such as taste and nutrition.

Debate continues

French organic market farmers Séverine and Tiffen say all types of seeds are needed.

Though they avoid using F1 varieties when possible, partly because they believe in promoting agricultural biodiversity and farmer autonomy, the couple sometimes resort to F1 seeds, when a crop is hit by a virus.

"We are using a small amount of F1 hybrid seeds because they do produce much more," explains Tiffen. ''But if we all give all the power to a few companies that make F1 hybrids and everything else disappears, it means we wouldn't have any control, we wouldn't have any seeds of our own," he concludes.

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