A small legislative amendment is sometimes enough to introduce historic changes. Fortunately lawmakers occasionally give us cause for celebration: last Wednesday the Italian Senate voted to set up a national register for seeds of endangered native varieties which have been selected by farmers but not registered on official lists.
A small paragraph, proposed by Loredana De Petris of the Green Party, has replaced the current section of the law, in implementation of the International Treaty on Phytogenetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. So Italy will now have a register of rare seeds and registration will be simple and free. It is also very important that farmers will be allowed to freely trade seeds on a local scale.
The significance of this momentous small change can be properly appreciated if one considers the importance of seeds and the critical situation developing around the world.
‘Seeds are the first link in the food chain, the embodiment of biological and cultural diversity and the repository of life’s future evolution,’ are the opening words of the Manifesto on the Future of Seed presented at Terra Madre last October, but unfortunately this is not happening.
The FAO estimates that three quarters of cultivated plants have been lost over the last century. In over ten thousand years of agriculture, human beings have used about a thousand species to feed themselves, while today we have whittled it down to 150 and only about four of them (wheat, corn, rice and potatoes) account for more than half of the calories consumed in the world.
Preserving uncommon varieties, or ones deriving from traditional small farming, helps us to withstand the crisis in agriculture, new diseases, climate change and soil erosion. Unfortunately the trends in the international market for seeds—where the focus is on quantitative yields and commercial concentration—are bringing a progressive reduction in available seeds down to a few standardized varieties.
Seeds which are not registered in official catalogs generally cannot be commercialized and the criteria for inclusion are very expensive: it is certainly not a procedure consistent with the age-old practices of so many small farmers, who handed down and improved their traditional old varieties. In developing countries this crazy situation is becoming an unimaginable problem.
This time Italy has set a good example.
Carlo Bogliotti, a journalist and writer, works at the Slow Food President’s Office
First printed in La Stampa on March18, 2007
Adapted by Ronnie Richards