Feast or famine

That bread you will put on the dinner table tonight -- it comes from American wheat, right? Well, not exactly.

Chances are that its real "roots" are in the wheat seeds that were originally brought to North America from the Near East, and were later interbred with seeds from southern Russian and Turkey.

The cucumbers you got for the salad -- no doubt they have qualities inbred from seeds of the Himalayan cucumber. The tomatoes probably got their qualities from the wild tomatoes of Ecuador and Peru.

Or perhaps you're having "French beans," the variety that originated in Mexico, and got qualities from the beans of El Salvador, Chile, Turkey, and Syria.

In fact, virtually every major crop in America and Europe today came originally from seeds imported from abroad, and must constantly be infused with exotic new seed varieties just to keep ahead of threats from shifting weather, pests, and blight.

But nature's vital plant diversity -- the diversity that literally keeps bread and vegetables on our plates -- may now be in danger.

The enormously successful high-yielding seeds of the "Green Revolution" have come to dominate huge agricultural regions worldwide. Other plant varieties have been igmored or scrapped in the process. The result has been rapid disappearance of genetically diverse plant varieties that were once cultivated by peasant farmers or grew wild, a recent United States Department of Agriculture study points out.

And now, to compound the problem, the statute books of the entire industrialized West are being cross-pollinated with controversial "seed plant" laws.

These laws were passed to assure plant breeders that their painstakingly produced new varieties will not be scooped up and mass-produced by competitors. But they could also, opponents fear, allow genetic resources to concentrate in the hands of a relatively few powerful corporations and threaten world plant diversity even more.

"Placed under patent laws, seeds, like mechanical inventions or an author's copyrighted work, would become the private property of the few giant corporations that are coming to dominate the industry," warns Cary Fowler of the National Sharecropper's Fund, writing in Food Monitor magazine.

"and the control over genetic resources would pass from the third world where our major crops originated to corporated headquarters in the advanced countries. Along with this power shift would come a further reduction in genetic diversity."

Powerful multinational firms, which were not in the seed business before, have indeed been acquiring seed companies in recent years -- ITT, Cargill, and Sandoz Ltd. (Swiss), to name a few. Some others are powerhouse of the petroleum industry, like Atlantic Richfield, Occidental Petroleum, and Royal Dutch/Shell.

And the backers of seed patent laws have become a formidable international lobbying force.

The International Association of Plant Breeders, comprising some 500 plant breeders in 20 countries, has vigorously backed seed patenting laws.

And now it is throwing its collective weight behind a sweeping new international plant patent agreement likely to go into effect sometime this year for the 16 countries that have signed it -- countries of the European Common Market (excepting Belgium, Luxembourg, and Greece), plus Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, Sweden, and the United States.

The agreement, developed by the Geneva-based International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), would mean that a seed patent granted to a seed breeder in one country would also get patent recognition in other participating countries. This could greatly multiply a private company's control over world markets. And a dozen developing countries are considering seed protection laws that could extend that control even further.

To some onlookers, it all begins to look like a classic case of technological promise boomeranging with unexpected dangers.

On the one hand, plant breeding has long been one of the most promising, prospering of all human "inventions." The first recorded long-distance plant exploration dates back to 1500 BC when Egyptian Queen Hatsepsut's men went looking for seeds of exotic types of incense tree. And popular plant breeding in this century brought enormous new productivity through the high-yield seed varieties. In only two decades the particular wheat varieties developed by "Green Revolution" researchers has spread over nearly three-fourths of the total wheat-growing areas in the developing countries.

But lessons about the dangers of overdependence on uniform seed types have also become painfully obvious. Whole regions, it is realized, can be rendered helpless to respond to changing conditions -- as in the famine in Ireland triggered in the 1840s when potato crops were devastated by blight, the 1917 wheatless period in America triggered by wheat blight, and the startling loss in 1970 of nearly half the corn crop in the American South.

And the dependence of the Western world's crops on seeds from other lands has become increasingly clear. Two of the many examples:

To save California's endangered spinach crop several years ago, pland breeders had to go all the way to Iran, ferret out a variety of spinach seed with heartier growing qualities, and breed it into the American crop.

American and Canadian barley crops recently had to be "bailed out" by blight-resistant qualities from Ethiopian barley seeds.

And when wheat in the American Northwest was threatened in the early '60s, it was a seed variety from Turkey that saved the day.

so important are foreign seed varieties that whole "banks" of seeds have been established with the most sophisticated equipment to collect and preserve their genetic resources.

Here in Fort Collins, America's largest such bank houses thousands upon thousands of varieties of nature's little dynamos from around the world. Its huge temperature-controlled vaults and germination chambers have room for a half million "seed lots" and currently hold several billion seeds from over 100,000 plant varieties -- some of them in tanks of liquid nitrogen kept at -196 degrees C.

Still, attempts by man to preserve world plant diversity have not eased the fears of a growing number of activists. They worry that nature's own crucial stores of diversity could be eroded irreparably by the plant patent laws. They are launching campaigns to counter the possibility.

The World Council of Churches, focusing more attention in recent years on the social impact of technology, is expected to adoopt the "seed advice" of its scientific advisory panel this summer.

Affiliated churches around the world would urge their governments and plant cscientists to avoid overdependence on uniform seed varieties from abroad, to increase plant breeding in their own countries, and to join neighboring countries to set up regional seed banks to store diverse varieties.

The London-based International Coalition for Development Action (ICDA) is conducting a survey to find out their feelings about seed patent regulations. Incomplete returns so far show almost unanimous opposition from the scientists, according to organizer Pat Mooney, an agricultural economist at the University in Manitoba, Canada.

ICDA is also working out joint "seed strategies" with the Environmental Liaison Center in Nairobi, a United Nations affiliate organization of 200 nongovernmental groups concerned for the environment.

These two groups hope to bring joint proposals before the upcoming United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conference on plant diversity in November in Rome. At this writing, the proposals were expected to urge international rules for bolstering public control of genetic materials and protecting the rights of developing countries to control their own seed resources independently.

For all the controversy over the patent laws, very little is yet certain about the effect they will actually have on genetic diversity.

It doesm seem clear that some other types of seed marketing laws are having a negative effect on plant diversity. A prime example, say some analysts, is the laws established in the European community (EC). The EEC now requires seed varieties to be registered in order to be legally marketed. for his seed to qualify, the breeder must come up with a $:70 ($125) registration fee, another $ :600 ($1,080) to sell the seed, and proof that the seed is genetically different from others already on the market.

The new EC listing requirement, reported the British newspaper the Manchester Guardian last summer, resulted in the loss of some 500 vegetable varieties.

The director of england's National Vegetable Research Station in Wellesbourne , Prof. J. K. A. Bleasdale, disputes that claim, since there have been strong efforts to collect seeds of varieties that became "illegal." But, he concedes, some lesser-known varieties may have been lost. And he is deeply concerned about the possible loss of little-known varieties grown by peasant farmers who may now discard their old seeds to use the seeds on the official EC list.

According to Dr. Erna Bennet, a recently retired FAO botanist, seed marketing regulations have left all major crops in Europe dependent on five to 10 varieties.

Most analysts, however, beleive it will be difficult, if not impossible, to prove a direct connection between plant patent control over seed sales and decline in the world's genetic base.

The plant breeders, for their part, have been arguing that seed patenting is necessary and beneficial in the long run. The International Association of Plant Breeders maintains in one of its recent publications that the laws encourage breeding of new and better varieties for increasing world food production. Since they protect the breeder's sales, the laws encourage private industry to produce new seed varieties. In this sense the laws encourage diversity and the availability of high-quality seeds, the association says.

It is a view that gets considerable support from Dr. Louis Bass, the director of America's seed bank in Fort Collins, the National Seed Storage Laboratory.

"It is indeed in the public interest to have as much genetic diversity as possible," he says, "and in my experience the seed companies are just as interested in this as anybody else. In fact, they have been extremely cooperative with us in our efforts to preserve diverse types of germ plasm."

And even if large corporations invest more heavily in seed research, analysts say, competition to produce new seed varieties will continue to be stimulated by the seed research at agricultural centers around the world.

Still, opponents of the UPOV convention are concerned that powerful corporations in control of seed companies will ultimately use the convention to dominate world markets and to exploit developing countries.

"Once a powerful multinational starts to corner a market with a genotype that has good quality, and they get a regulation like this behind them, they're cornered it completely," says H. Garrison Wilkes, a botany professor at the Universtiy of Massachusetts, Boston.

"Ultimately what we're talking about," he adds, "is the very ability of countries to respond to the future, to respond to changing environments. This responsibility has always been in the public sector before. What happens if it moves too much into the private?"

The concern is compounded by the fact that private companies have themselves become major repositories of the world's stored germ plasm (including seeds).

The Campbell Soup Company, for instance, has the vast majority of tomato germ plasm currently stored in the world, according to the ICDA's Pat Mooney.

United Brands, which sells Chiquita bananas, now stores about two-thirds of all the banana germ plasm, he claims.

Further misgivings about private "seed power" are also expressed by the Nobel Prize-winning architect of the Green Revolution, Dr. Norman Borlaug. He is currently acting head of CIMMYT (International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center), the renowned agricultural research center in Mexico.

The laws could, he says, have an unfortunate effect on developing countries in their current stage of development.

"It would be one thing if there were private companies and researchers to compete with the outside firms. But in most of these countries that is practically nonexistent," he says.

"Until now the high-yield seeds supplied to these countries have come from publiclym funded institutions like ours at CIMMYT.They were multiplied by national programs in those countries, and no royalties paid to outside companies.

"I would not like to see unscrupulous privatem businesses exploit these countries in their present stage of development, or to see young agricultural scientists in these countries start their own breeding of seeds only to have the lawyers come in and collect royalties."

Whatever the final effect of the seed patent laws, the controversy over them seems to be focusing new public attention on the urgency of seed resource preservation.

The FAO's International Board for Plant Genetic Resources is the international agency charged with getting the germ plasm from all major crops stored in multiple locations. The board also fosters exchange of germ plasm between countries.

Although most seed storage now occurs in "seed banks" of the industrialized countries, the board chief, J. Trevor Williams, says that some two dozen seed banks have now been set up in developing countries -- 22 more than existed six years ago. In addition, he says, some countries such as Kenya have gotten international aid to set up their own seed industries.

Oxfam, the relief agency based in Oxford, England, has also set up a vegetable seed bank. It hopes eventually to supply seeds to developing countries in both moderate and tropical climates.

Dr. Williams, for his part, argues that the seed patent legislation takes a back seat to other issues: the need for more plant breeding in developing countries; the development of legislation around the world to guarantee that good- quality seeds are available for farmers; and the shoring up of the seed-bank system.

Relatively little priority has been given such efforts to date -- by governments or by international organizations. If there were greater funding at the international level or some seed-preservation fund equivalent to the World Wildlife Fund, he says, much more could be done to halt the loss of diversity of seed types, he says.

But one look at the kind of costly, sophisticated equipment it takes to store seeds properly makes it clear why it is no easy task to build up a worldwide system of seed banks.

The Fort Collins bank requires huge vaults and germination chambers. Climate control at a whole range of humidities and temperatures is furnished by giant generators and air cooling system.

Few governments around the world have budgets to even begin setting up such facilities, or a political climate stable enough to guarantee their safety. This means the FAO will still need to rely on the US system to keep the backup collections of seeds currently stored in developing countries.

Even if the growing network of seed banks does greatly bolster the protection of world plant diversity, some analysts nevertheless worry that seed patent laws could undercut their usefulness by restricting access to that diversity.

Will the owners of seed patents, for instance, begin withholding critical seeds from breeders in other countries for political or other reasons? For some analysts the prospect conjures up visions of "genetic property owners" holding the fate of whole countries in their hands.

The FAO's Trevor Williams, for his part, maintains that the UPOV convention and other patent laws will not, in fact, restrict the free exchange of germ plasm.

Patents, he says do not prevent breeders from experimenting with a patented seed; they only restrict them from mass-producing and selling that seed. Also, patent laws do not have any effect on breeders' access to wild varieties of seeds or to the old varieties that are not patented. (Seeds produced from crossing patented varieties may in turn be patented, but only after it has been proved that the new seeds are sufficiently different from already patented varieties.)

In recent years, however, there have been cases in the US of breeder protection laws hampering the free exchange of germ plasm, according to Dr. George White, american's chief germ plasm exchange officer. He works in the Plant Genetics and Germplasm Institute where all germ plasm entering or leaving the US is screened.

"On the one hand, the current US Plant Variety Protection Law is written so that we can send . . . any protected seed variety in small quantities for research purposes in other countries," he explained in a telephone interview from the Beltsville, Md., institute.

"But it is possible that the [UPOV] convention will restrict the free movement of germ plasm across borders. With some patented fruits from other countries, for instance, we cannot get germ plasm for our breeders unless they sign a formal agreement with the patent holder in which they agree no to propagate or distribute those fruits. That is somewhat restrictive. I would hope we will never get that tight with our other seed exchanges."

In addition, he concedes, political tensions between countries may add further pressures to restrict free seed exchange.

During the US freeze on high-technology exchanges with the Soviet Union last year, the exchange of germ plasm between top American and Soviet scientists was also restricted. And US seed officials occassionally find themselves having to bargain with the Soviets to gain acceptable agreements for germ plasm exchange.

Still, planners of America's seed storage system seem optimistic that a process of mutually beneficial exchange and preservation of the world's diversity in plant genetics can be maintained among governments, scientists, and breeders.

"In practice we really have a kind of a mutual-admiration society going among countries," Dr. Bass says, "because there has been generally a very good exchange of germ plasm."

This past year delegations from both China and the Soviet Union have toured the Fort Collins facility, and discussed seed exchange to strengthen seed preservation and breeding efforts.

Also, Dr. Borlaug adds, a growing worldwide network of cooperation in the seed field has been developing among agricultural scientists trained at research centers like CIMMYT.

But all agree that the stakes involved in preserving plant diversity -- and free access to it -- are enormous.

Much now depends on whether governments and private breeders can think far enough ahead to ensure that diversity is not irreparably lost.

"One variety preserved now," Dr. Bass says, "may save an entire agricultural industry."

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