How did a handful of companies take over the cultivated biodiversity property? From this question starts " Chi possiede i frutti della terra - Who owns the fruits of the earth", a book by Fabio Ciconte, the Earth association director! A journey that intertwines history, legends and field investigations to tell the incredible privatization process of seeds and plants, stolen from farmers and transformed into a flywheel of billionaire profits.
For over ten thousand years, farmers have freely stored, selected, exchanged or sold their seeds, using and reusing them to produce food. A century of radical transformations in food systems has dramatically downsized these practices. We are today at the point that of the six thousand different plant species used as food just nine cover 66% of world production.
FAO collected in a recent report dedicated to the state of biodiversity for food and agriculture, these alarming numbers that show how local varieties grown by farmers around the world are disappearing at an unprecedented rate.
The result is our diets’ standardization and lack of choice, phenomena that have their roots in a progressive push towards the privatization of the most basic means of subsistence - the seeds - which began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
To the discovery of this story, indeed of many apparently parallel but intimately intertwined stories, Fabio Ciconte brings us with his latest book, published by Laterza. "Who owns the fruits of the earth". It is a text halfway between journalistic investigation and historical reconstruction, a key collection of anecdotes and at the same time a dive into the depths of today's agricultural economy, in the successful attempt to connect causes and effects.
Thus, in the 224 pages of the book the reader passes from the early twentieth century United States, when a nurseryman with an eye for business decides to build a metal cage around a particularly tasty apple tree, up to that of today’s immaterial cages, consisting of patents and conventions on the intellectual property of genetic resources.
"Who owns the fruits of the earth" takes us from one end of the world to the other, following the supply chain of some emblematic products such as pink apples, yellow kiwis or seedless grapes, fruits that the market pays well and encounter consumer enthusiasm.
Perhaps we too have tasted them without knowing that a few "clubs" of selected and managed by a quasi-military system companies cultivate them, whose first objective is to prevent all those outside the circle from planting that variety. Unless someone want to run the risk of ending up on the street or in prison.
This absolute domination of the market laws have supplanted in much of the West any other form of genetic resources management, be it in customary form or regulated by the state. In a surprisingly rapid process, which saw the invention of hybrid seeds as one of its most important steps, the right to reproduce plant life was stolen from farmers and taken over by companies.
The seed has thus lost its double nature (of seed of course, but also of food) which in the past made it elusive by the private sector.
With the new discoveries in genetic selection, first, and then with the advent of biotechnologies, the dynamics of profit bent what can be considered the basis of life to the point that the farmer is today almost always dependent on seeds manufactured by seed companies and must buy them every year, because they are designed to perform well but only once.
Uniformity is the main condition for patenting varieties, and has become a universal criterion but conflicting with natural practice (which does not generate anything identical) and is leading the food system towards an unprecedented loss of biodiversity. FAO itself admits that "there is considerable consensus that, in general, the shift from traditional production systems using local varieties to 'modern' production systems depending on officially released varieties is leading to genetic erosion."
The trust in a changing course we could place in public institutions vanishes when Ciconte describes the solutions countries and the international community have adopted in recent decades.
The so-called “seed banks”, owned by the states all over the world, created to preserve tens of thousands of local, ancient and less ancient varieties, are not in good health.
Despite leaving a bit of a bitter taste in the mouth, "Who owns the fruits of the earth?" offers us a historical reconstruction that frames the causes and effects of the ecological and economic disaster agriculture faces today. The book also invites us to mobilization, discussion and proposal of an alternative, in order not to suffer helplessly the climate crisis devastating impact on our agriculture and food systems.