Liz in the pumpkin patch

For those of us in the northern climes, it’s the time of year to start planning the summer vegetable garden.  As I hold seeds in my hand and prepare to put them in the dirt I always marvel that in a matter of weeks and months, a small pile of oddly shaped and sized seeds will become a beautiful and nourishing crop of food.  When I was a kid, my passion was growing pumpkins.  Now, I enjoy finding new varieties of frilly kale, fragrant sweet peas, and fingerling potatoes to grow in the garden.  In the fall I will collect seeds from favorite plants to use the following year and hope that a few strays that get left behind will make it through the winter to come up in the spring.

This seems like such a simple act, yet the practice of planting and saving seeds on a larger scale has become a source of controversy as conventional and organic seeds for significant crops, like canola and soybeans, are slowly being replaced with genetically-modified seed — much of it developed for chemical herbicide resistance.  Farmers who harvest and save seed that has been unwittingly contaminated through pollination or drift run the risk of being sued by agrochemical companies for patent violations.  Respected experts, like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), warn that contamination of conventional seed supplies with DNA from genetically-engineered seeds threatens global food security.

Thankfully, there is a growing movement to preserve generations of seed-saving heritage.  Here in the U.S., a large coalition of farmers, seed companies, and organic farming advocates recently filed a case challenging the validity of seed patents held by Monsanto and are seeking a court order that would protect farmers from being accused of patent infringement if their crops become contaminated with genetically-modified seed.

Many of ELAW’s partners are on the leading edge of efforts to preserve the genetic diversity of our food crops and ensure that our agricultural systems can adapt to climate change.

For example, Leo Saldanha and Bhargavi Rao, and their organization Environmental Support Group (ESG) India, are closely following efforts to introduce genetically-modified food crops to India.  Last year, ESG was instrumental in overturning the government of India’s decision to green light the introduction of genetically-modified eggplant (brinjal) seed.  ESG continues its work to protect India’s rich culture of seed-sharing and local agricultural knowledge.

Attorney Miguel Fredes is challenging the secrecy and lack of transparency around the testing and introduction of genetically-modified organisms in his home country of Chile.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is considering a petition that Miguel filed, seeking a declaration that citizens have a right to know whether genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are being released into the environment and whether their food supply contains GMOs.  Miguel and the GMO Transparency Project plan to ask the Inter-American Commission to hold a thematic hearing on the issue this summer.

As we tend to our own small garden plots, we are collectively supporting an important global effort to protect seed diversity.  Make sure to celebrate the seed as you rip open packets and smooth the dirt over your garden rows.  And…don’t forget to water!

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney