THE 14th International Agricultural Show in Morocco, commonly as SIAM and held annually, this year also included representatives from the organic sector as guest participants. Our Staff Writer Constantine Akitanda interviewed STEFAN DOEBLIN, one of the founders of Sementes Vivas which is an organic and biodynamic seed company based in the Iberian Peninsula, on issues of seeds and seed sovereignty. Excerpts:
QUESTION: Mr Stefan, you have been involved in the seed sector for a while now, could you briefly tell us about your Sementes Vivas company and how it is directly involved in addressing and advocating seeds and seed sovereignty?
ANSWER: Sorry Constantine, I’ve only become involved with organic and biodynamic seeds in the past five years. I did a two-year training in biodynamic plant breeding and then, jointly with Demeter International, we set about trying to convince the European Commission to promote organic seeds as a main future market. We have achieved that.
My main work as an entrepreneur is to develop Sementes Vivas as a 100% organic and biodynamic seed company in the Iberian Peninsula. If you look at the trade balances of countries in the Mediterranean Sea area, most of them are importing more than 90% of their cultural seeds for agriculture from the big giant seed companies.
Our concept is different, we are focused on local production with over 30 certified organic and biodynamic farmers in the Iberian. Most of the seeds we use are adapted and produced locally, which helps to improve country trade balances and increases food sovereignty for such countries.
We also produce seeds for countries like Egypt and hopefully soon also Morocco and Turkey – all countries with similar climates and soil conditions. The countries of the Mediterranean need to work closely together to increase the diversity of usable and high-quality seeds for their farmers because, due to outsourcing to the big companies, these countries lost most of their heritage in seeds.
It would be very dramatic if the big agrochemical companies decide to boycott any country – its people would face starvation within a year maximum. Organic agriculture is grounded locally and linked to global knowledge. That is the difference between the old days (over 100 years ago) and today. Organic farming and organic plant breeding are based on collaboration and knowledge exchange between farmers, producers, scientists and consultants.
Q: What is your understanding about Open- and Self-Pollinated Varieties and what is the best direction for Africa?
A: We believe in plant integrity because nature and spiritual forces are a complex system which we will never fully understand. Plants communication with other plants and insects and the soil and climate are part of the system of communications. Human beings are related to cultural plants and there is a dependency between each other. Open- and self-pollinated seeds are developed by humans and nature in their historical relationship.
The advantage is that each farmer is able to replicate the seeds until the quality level goes down (after several years). Organic agriculture is based on biodiversity to always find the right varieties of soil, water and climate conditions are changing. We find that the best taste and aroma of vegetables comes from open- and self-pollinated seeds. That is another reason to focus on these seeds.
Unfortunately, most vegetables are transported around countries and there are tough logistical requirements involved. Therefore, hybrids are mainly used for professional farming. There are organic hybrids which we also sell, but we do not invest in their development. All our involvement in organic and biodynamic plant breeding is focused on open- and self-pollinated seeds.
- Seeds and the seed business have become a big debate all over the continent. Why is this happening now and where do you think we probably went wrong?
A: More people have become aware that pollution of the countryside and water is mainly done by agrochemical industry actors and their own health is related to food and seeds.
Humanity has destroyed nearly the whole planet in only 100 years. Most water is full of chemicals, the sea is full of plastics, everybody recognises climate change. Even organic farms are polluted due to no barriers against neighbours, air and water pollution. But each organic farm supports a better situation by not polluting the soil, water and air. It is clear that the agrochemical approach destroys soil and pollutes water with chemicals, pesticides and anti-biotic. This is very bad for all of us – humans, animals and plants. We have to learn again to use knowledge and observation of nature and we have to learn to love our soil and our farming. This is the chance for small farmers to learn organic farming to get a better output from their work.
Q: What does the statement ‘whoever controls seeds control our lives’ mean in the context of food security and food sovereignty?
A: As I mentioned before, most countries and populations are still dependent on the ten top seed giants. If they stop delivering or their prices go through the roof, then we are left starving. Every country should have its own system of producing in a natural way to maintain their sovereignty in this matter.
Q: In most of your presentations, you have been using this phrase ‘organic food from organic seeds’. Why do you sing this song every now and then, and how do we access these organic seeds?
A: I have been going to organic shops for more than 30 years but it was only five years ago that I learnt that 95 per cent of organic food is produced from conventional seeds. This shocked me and it’s why I decided to act by creating an organic seed company since consumers also need to know this.
If all farmers start to use organic seeds, we could easily finance organic plant breeding. But you cannot finance plant breeding if only five per cent of farmers are using organic seeds. Most organic farmers still finance the development of conventional seeds.
Q: What is your take on ‘seed freedom and open source seeds’?
A: It’s interesting how this idea is spread even in the world of seeds. You need to know I worked in the telecoms/IT industry for more than 20 years before I moved to renewable energy and now organic agriculture.
This is what I want to say in relation to this open source idea and seeds: Currently we have competition between conventional and organic seeds. We need high-quality seeds for professional farmers and this is only possible through professional development and plant breeding, all of which costs money.
We should not forget that software is a virtual product. It is mainly a structure and logic. It is neither a physical product nor life. The open source idea in the software area is easy to control and manage because you can do checks worldwide if you need to.
It takes microseconds to check whether computers are using a certain software or not. With physical products it is very different. Is variety A the same as variety B? It takes a lot of effort to check and prove. It can’t be done in microseconds. I do not believe that if you create many open source contracts you will be able to exert control, only that you will have plenty of labs and lawyers and you will have to pay them all.
In addition, we are producing open pollinated seeds and maybe organic hybrids in the future. But we are interested in being transparent and spreading know-how to others. The open source contract is a difficult contract and makes life difficult for a lot of growers. My experience with Iberian farmers is that none of them would go along. It gives the illusion of being safe but the world of seeds is not safe and we need to create a political movement to avoid any patents on seeds and on life.
If we spread the open source contract, people will have the illusion that all is fine and no action is needed. I have my doubts. The patent rights are very strong and we need a worldwide movement to fight that. Politicians will not accept patents on seeds and on life in principal. We need to get as many plant breeders as possible to create thousands of new seed varieties instead of fighting against Monsanto only. I believe in positive actions instead of only actions against.