Bigger, faster, cheaper but not better

Bigger, faster, cheaper but not better

You probably paid scant attention to the recent amending of a law to protect every plant variety found or bred in Singapore.

It's also likely that few of us noticed when that law was first passed in 2004 to protect 15 varieties of plants. That was when Singapore ratified a treaty that protects new plant varieties, usually created through cross-breeding or genetic modification (GM).

That treaty - which is referred to as UPOV, the French acronym for the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants - required Singapore law to protect all plant varieties by 2014.

The law offers monopoly rights in the form of a "grant of protection" of 25 years' duration to any entity that discovers, breeds or develops a new plant variety. If a plant is protected, then others may not produce, sell, import, export or use it to make a hybrid or a different variety.

The issue is not directly important to Singapore, given its minuscule farming sector. But it has to do with the world's food security and, in that sense, is of some interest to Singapore, which imports most of its food.

The recent amendment to the law reminded us again about that obscure treaty, which mainly benefits Big Agribusiness. Unfortunately, it is also Big Agribusiness' practices that have led to a diminishing biodiversity in the food supply chain in past decades.

And biodiversity is important for food security in this manner: If one crop variety fails in a drought or because of a disease, a more robust variety might not fail, thus staving off food shortages.

Historically, the devastating effects of a lack of crop biodiversity were seen in the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 to 1849. A fungus wiped out Ireland's potato crop because the Irish had brought in only a few varieties of potatoes from the Andes of South America and all of these varieties were not resistant to the fungus. As the Irish relied mainly on potatoes as their staple food, that lack of biodiversity led to famine and death.

So diminished biodiversity in the food chain as a result of industrial agribusiness practices can only pose an insidious threat to food security in the long run.

Why then did Singapore ratify this treaty and pass a domestic law to enact it? It had to, as one of the United States' preconditions for inking a bilateral free trade agreement in 2003. And it also had to protect all new varieties of plants by 2014.

It is Big Agribusiness that is likely to make new varieties of seeds that may be exported to Singapore, a trans-shipment hub for many goods, including GM seeds.

So it is the interests of big agribusiness firms of the developed West that this treaty protects the most. The firms that dominate the world's food supply chain today are mainly huge US corporations that make new GM seed varieties which are food crops used to produce the many foods that fill supermarket shelves, ranging from corn oil to cookies and chips.

Here is how Big Agribusiness' bigger, faster, cheaper approach to food production is bad for biodiversity in the food supply chain:

Traditionally, small farmers save the seeds from one crop cycle to replant in the next cycle. They keep the seeds of the best plants in their fields - those that are high in yield, resistant to disease or pests, or tolerant of poor soil or high altitudes, for example.

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