Seed laws that criminalise farmers: resistance and fightback


An article from Grain (abridged)

Seeds are under attack everywhere. Under corporate pressure, laws in many countries increasingly put limitations on what farmers can do with their seeds and with the seeds they buy. Seed saving, a thousand-year-old practice which forms the basis of farming, is fast becoming criminalised. What can we do about this? . . .

seedsClick on photo to enlarge
“No to seed privatisation… For a better world!” – Demonstration in Guatemala in defence of biodiversity and against control of seeds by industrial agriculture. (Photo: Raúl Zamora)

Social movements worldwide, especially peasant farmers organisations, have resisted and mobilised to prevent such laws being passed. In many parts of the world, the resistance continues and can even count some victories. To strengthen this movement, it is very important that as many people as possible, especially in the villages and rural communities that are most affected, understand these laws, their impacts and objectives, as well as the capacity of social movements to replace them with laws that protect peasants’ rights.

Today’s seed laws promoted by the industry are characterised by the following:

a) They are constantly evolving and becoming more aggressive. Through new waves of political and economic pressure – especially through so-called free trade agreements, bilateral investment treaties and regional integration initiatives – all the ‘soft’ forms of ownership rights over seeds were hardened and continue to be made more restrictive at a faster pace. Seed laws and plant variety rights are being revised again and again to adapt to the new demands of the seed and biotechnology industry.

b) Laws that grant property rights over seeds have been reinforced by other regulations that are supposed to ensure seed quality, market transparency, prevention of counterfeits, etc. These regulations include seed certification, marketing and sanitary rules. By means of these regulations, it becomes mandatory, for instance, for farmers to purchase or use only commercial seeds tailored for industrial farming. Or the regulations make it a crime to give seeds to your son or exchange them with a neighbour. As a result, seed fairs and exchanges – a growing form of resistance to control over seeds – are becoming illegal in more and more countries.

c) In strengthening privatisation, these laws have been disregarding basic principles of justice and freedom and directly violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These seed laws have imposed the rule that anyone accused of not respecting property rights over seeds is assumed to be guilty, thus violating the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty. In some cases, measures can be taken against accused wrongdoers without their being informed of the charges. These seed laws are even making it an obligation to report alleged transgressors; they are legalising searches and seizures of seeds on grounds of mere suspicion (even without a warrant) and allowing private agencies to conduct such checks.

d) These laws are being drafted in vague, incomprehensible and contradictory language, leaving much room for interpretation. In most cases, the laws are being moved through legislative chambers in secrecy or by means of international agreements that cannot be debated nationally or locally. . .

(Article continued on right side of page)

Question for this article:

What is the relation between movements for food sovereignty and the global movement for a culture of peace?

(Article continued from left side of page)

Experience shows that people do not want these laws, once the misinformation and secrecy used to push the laws through have been countered by information campaigns and mobilisation on the part of social organisations. Most people reject the idea that a company can take ownership of a plant variety and prohibit farmers from reproducing their seeds. They find it completely absurd. People also generally do not agree that the work that farmers do to feed the world should suddenly become a crime. Wherever resistance has been strong enough, the legal plunder embodied in these laws has been stopped. . .


Ghana: students and trade unions join farmers to oppose a restrictive seed law

Mozambique: farmers resist by developing local seed systems

Niger: farmers’ victory against the piracy of a local onion

The Americas

Brazil: large-scale development of creole seeds

Chile: victory against the privatisation of seeds

Colombia: mass protests for farmers’ seeds and food sovereignty

Costa Rica: major mobilisations make UPOV a household name

Mexico: people struggle against GM maize

Venezuela: a bottom-up law to defend farmers’ seeds


India: defending seeds sovereignty

Filipino farmers continue to mobilise and protest, vowing that they will go on opposing the advance of GMOs.

South Korea: women farmers campaign for native seeds

Thailand: resisting free trade agreements in order to protect local seeds


Austria: fighting for legislation in favour of biodiversity and farmers’ rights

France: Associations and small enterprises working together have enabled several thousand French farmers to stop using industrial seeds for many of their crops. They have initiated ‘peasant seed houses’ where communities select, reproduce, and preserve peasant seeds collectively.

Germany: a victory for the defence of farm-based seeds and a campaign to save the “Linda” potato

Greece: the crisis brings peasant seeds back to the fields

Italy: Farmers are organising in direct production and consumption networks and gardening collectives. One of their goals is not to become dependent on the seed industry. Their seeds are exchanged locally through large yearly exchanges