Seeds for the People: A Mobilisation for Seed Self-Reliance in Thailand
Artist and Community Organiser Aubrey Pongluelert Shares the Story
This week, I wanted to bring you a story about a new seed-saving network that’s emerging in Thailand. Like in many other places, traditional seed systems are increasingly under threat here, and as a result, creative solutions are emerging in response. During my time here, I had the privilege of meeting Aubrey Pongluelert, who is on the organising team of this new network called Seeds for the People, and she agreed to share its story with you all here.
Aubrey is a Thai-American food grower, artist and community organiser. For the past year, she has been entangling with seed stories and building relationships with seed keepers and rice farmers in northern and northeastern Thailand. Her work explores farmer-led seed keeping/exchange networks as sites of resistance to seed privatisation and as webs holding and spinning situated knowledges, cultural diversity and food sovereignty.
With that, let’s jump into this instalment. I hope Aubrey’s reflections on the power of seed resonate with you as much as they do for me.
In the last 60 years, over 90 percent of seed diversity in Thailand has been lost. The international trends of increased industrial mono-agriculture, seed privatisation and corporate seed monopolisation that have contributed to this loss are largely a consequence of the Green Revolution, which began the agricultural biotechnology regime in the 1960s, and the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). UPOV, which was formed in 1961 by six European states, imposes intellectual property rights over plant varieties and enables corporations to monopolise and claim ownership over them through patents.
But for over 6,000 years, humans and seeds in Southeast Asia have been co-conspiring, building creative, tangled, and delicious relationships with each other. These relationships are woven into farmers’ stories, and the seeds themselves are time-traveling storytellers who embody cultural practices, local knowledge and networks of care. While it is important that we consider the myriad factors driving farmers’ mobilisation for seed self-reliance, a simple yet deeply rooted sentiment lies at the heart of their work. Seed keeping is farmers’ witi chiwit – their way of life. “Keeping seeds ourselves, growing ourselves – this has been our way of life since our ancestors’ time,” said seed keeper Aim. “Seeds are what give us life. They have allowed us to grow to be the people we are today.”
Empowered by UPOV regulations, this way of life is increasingly under threat. Farmers’ rights to practice traditional seed keeping are stripped, and their indigenous seeds are open to theft under laws that prioritise the “rights of breeders of new plant varieties.” New plant varieties must be distinct, uniform and stable to qualify for registration. Proponents of UPOV argue that these standards ensure seed quality and protect breeders, but the truth is that they grant permission for seed corporations to take farmers’ seeds, homogenise them, call them ‘new,’ patent them, and claim exclusive rights to the profits made off those seeds. Under UPOV, it is illegal for farmers to save seeds for replanting without authorisation from the ‘owners.’ This privatisation and monopolisation of seed development delegitimises generations of farmers’ work and knowledge, separates farmers from their traditional roles as seed breeders and seed savers, and forces them to rely on corporations for their seeds.
“This is a strange idea – that people can own seeds,” said Seeds for the People co-founder Jon Jandai. “Owning seeds means owning other life as well, because life is cyclical. The cycle of life includes seeds, food, soil, water, plants, sunlight. If someone takes control of one part of the cycle, it means that they can control all life. This is what is happening in our world today. There are efforts to take control of seeds in order to control people.”
As a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Thailand was required to adhere to the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement and adopt a form of plant variety protection by 2000. While many countries became UPOV signatories, Thailand was one of the few that opted to implement a sui generis system. In 1999 Thailand passed the Plant Variety Protection (PVP) Act, which includes several notable distinctions from UPOV regulations. Though some of these distinctions theoretically offer greater protection to traditional seed varieties and farmers’ rights to those varieties, the threat of UPOV’s stringent seed privatisation policies looms large.
Pressured by transnational seed corporations and foreign administrations, the Thai government has attempted to join UPOV multiple times in the past decade, and it is certain to try again. The government has repeatedly pushed to sign trade agreements, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Thai-EU Free Trade Agreement, as a means of quietly imposing UPOV standards. Under these trade agreements, Thailand would have to amend the PVP Act to align with UPOV. The amendments would erase components of the PVP Act, which protect traditional seed varieties and would clear the path for multinational seed giants to seize control over Thai farmers’ seed.
Seeds for the People: Thailand
In response to the increasing threat to farmer-led seed systems, farmers and activists have come together to establish Seeds for the People (SFP). SFP is a budding social enterprise founded to support farmer seed self-reliance and revitalise seed diversity by cultivating a new movement of seed keepers and seed breeders in Thailand. They are developing an alternative, decentralised seed distribution and knowledge exchange network that empowers Thai farmers to keep their seeds in their own hands. As the network grows, SFP plans to establish regional hubs and farms where seeds can be collected, stored and grown.
Should farmers wish to sell their seeds, they may do so through the social enterprise, which will handle sales operations so that farmers can focus on their seed-keeping and seed-breeding practices. “The system has taught farmers to feel that they cannot do this work – that seed breeding is the work of scientists and researchers and experts, not villagers. But actually, they are the ones at the heart of this work – because those researchers depend on village farmers to do that work,” explained Jandai. SFP seeks to reclaim these skills, uplift farmers’ knowledge, and “return seeds to the people” because “if we can bring seeds back to the commons, we can maintain and build our self-determination.”
In September 2022, SFP hosted their first gathering and seed keeper training workshop. During the opening evening, I sat on the floor with thirty farmers who had arrived from all regions of the country to build strength, biodiversity, resilience, self-reliance and resistance through a farmer-led seed network.
Lively chatter encircled the long tables in the dimly lit dining area of the Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance in Northern Thailand. And even after the buzz of voices hushed, the air continued to hum with energy as each person introduced themselves and shared their motivations for joining the first cohort of SFP seed keepers. From these introductions, seed stories and agricultural knowledge exchanges, strategic planning discussions, and interviews emerged a common set of values guiding these farmers’ work. Seed is food, food is life, and life cannot be owned.
Seed is food, food is life: seed self-reliance for social, economic and ecological stability
Many participants at SFP’s first workshop echoed the idea that farmers cannot have true stability without food self-determination and seed self-reliance. Several spoke of the relationship between seed self-reliance and their health – the stability that comes from knowing how the foods they eat affect their body.
For Indigenous Karen seed keeper Pon, many traditional foods are forms of medicine. Being able to keep traditional seeds in his own hands allows him to continue growing and using herbal medicines which are increasingly rendered obsolete under the hegemony of western medicine and pharmaceutical corporations. Pon is in the process of gathering traditional seeds from a network of Karen communities in order to preserve indigenous seed diversity, self-determination and culturally significant medicinal practices. “Seed diversity is beautiful and it keeps us healthy. We don’t need to take the doctors’ medicine. But now, whatever the ailment, everyone takes paracetamol... Most people today don’t eat food as medicine anymore. People eat medicine as food... So I am trying to find and keep as many [seeds] as I can… [because] food is our best medicine.”
Present loss of traditional Thai seed varieties is plainly evident in the diets of consumers. The most commonly consumed foods in Thailand today are rice, chicken, pork, morning glory, kale and cabbage. This represents a dismally small fraction of the many traditional and local ingredients native to the country. SFP farmers like rice breeder Kooti hope to bring the abundant diversity of traditional foods back on Thai consumers’ plates by increasing seed diversity and promoting the foods they produce. Kooti currently cares for 100 traditional rice varieties that plants and keeps seed for every year. “These days... traditional varieties are not very popular in terms of flavour... [but] what we have already is very valuable. It’s just that we’ve lost the knowledge to understand its value or how to uplift its value... But we have the opportunity to bring interest and appreciation of those flavours back to the market again.”
While many consumers are disconnected from these traditional flavours, SFP represents a collective of eaters who believe in the importance of revitalising the relationship with these foods and the seeds from which they grow. When asked why diverse flavours and seeds are important to him, Kooti returned to SFP’s core values. “Seeds are important to everyone’s life – not just mine... We eat them, so we have to follow them... I think that seeds care for our lives. The day that seeds disappear will be the day humanity reaches its end.”
SFP also thinks of seed diversity in terms of environmental health. As industrial agriculture infiltrates Thailand and shifts farmers towards monocultures oozing in chemical fertilisers and herbicides, plant varieties become weaker and less well adapted to the specific ecologies in which they grow. In the face of challenges such as climate change, Jandai stressed the connection between seed self-reliance, seed diversity and ecological resilience. “Saving a diversity of seeds is critical preparation for confronting this crisis. If the season is dry, we will have drought-resistant varieties. If it floods, we will have varieties that can withstand flooded fields. If there is an outbreak of disease, we will have varieties that can fight those diseases. But today, we have not prepared for that... This is instability. Therefore, saving seeds and developing seeds to increase diversity is the path to stability in our lives.”
Seed cannot be owned: farmer-led knowledge exchange networks as sites of resistance
When I spoke to SFP’s farmers about their perspectives on seed patenting laws and the rise of seed privatisation, there was almost a sense of shared incredulity. The growth of corporate seed control stems from a logic of domination that does not fit into the paradigm informing their agricultural practices and relationships with seed. “Plants have been growing on their own long before we [humans] were alive, and we have received their seeds from ancestors following their natural laws, without patenting laws or anything else obstructing that... I don’t think seeds should be controlled by anyone or anything. Seeds should have their own independence,” expressed Aim. This principle, that seeds cannot be owned, guides SFP’s efforts to protect farmers’ seeds from privatisation. Helping farmers become seed self-reliant ensures that their seeds remain open-access; they can be freely exchanged and shared, grown and lived with.
SFP’s model for building farmers’ seed self-reliance and seed privatisation resistance begins with decentralised education and knowledge exchange. Once the first cohort of SFP seed keepers have developed their skill sets and situated their practices, they will lead the next series of workshops, mentoring and nurturing the second cohort of seed keepers in their respective regions. Participants of SFP’s trainings will learn not only about seed keeping and seed breeding techniques, but also about current seed legislation and its impacts on their ways of life. Seed laws are often intentionally opaque, so developing literacy in these areas is an important part of effective resistance. Each new cohort passes along what they’ve learned, contributing to an accumulation of seed keeping knowledge amongst farmers and a cascade of knowledge exchange across the country.
SFP farmers also hope to gather and preserve knowledge for their descendants. “We can teach our children how to plant and how to save seeds. So our ways of living cycle with growing and harvesting and eating. We pass that on. And they can pass it on to others,” said Chung Dum. In this system, there is not a center of knowledge that proliferates down, but a web of knowledge that proliferates out and allows local agricultural knowledges to emerge from unique place-based experiences.
SFP is the first organisation to build a national network of seed keepers and seed distribution hubs in Thailand, collectivising their power through a web of rooted resistance. SFP’s first cohort of seed keepers are optimistic that the network and the movement of seed self-determination in Thailand will grow. Tot is among those hopeful that other farmers are looking for a sense of community and support – a network through which they can exchange not only seeds and knowledge, but also strength and empowerment. “If we come together and grow our circle, it will be a good way to build our power – especially the young farmers who are joining us here. It feels like they have energy to bring to the movement and they already have their own networks to connect to. This is a great source of strength for the fight against corporate capture.”
Re-rooting a way of life
Since their first gathering, I often find myself returning to the words SFP’s farmers shared with me. Seeds care for our lives. Seeds are what give us life. Seeds should have their own independence. Seeds grew up with us. I’ve been embracing and soaking in the paradigm that brings these words forth; it is a paradigm that understands seeds as their own beings with whom we hold vital partnerships. A witi chiwit.
Few people may be directly and intentionally relating to seeds in the caring ways SFP’s farmers do, but nearly every human and more-than-human being on this earth is intrinsically connected to seeds. The health of seeds, the care of seeds, the respect we give seeds flows through our bodies. Our stories are intricately, messily and wondrously intertwined. And the awareness of this relationship was alive and loud at SFP’s first gathering. It was a reminder that the resistance against seed privatisation is much more than a fight for farmers’ rights; it is a fight for life.
There are farmer-led seed movements building biodiversity, socio-ecological resilience, situated knowledge and farmer self-determination all across the world. The ongoing emergence of grassroots projects like Seeds for the People are inspiring demonstrations of farming communities reimagining, reclaiming and strengthening relations with their food systems. These farmer-led efforts are where our stories with food are being written and transformed – they are the soul of food sovereignty movements around the globe.
And though we may not all be able to practice the same intimacy with seeds that these farmers do, we can give them (both seeds and farmers) more attention and support. We can be better listeners to their stories and needs. We can be more curious about the seed relationships and seed care projects happening around us. We can be more critical of systems and policies that benefit large profit-driven seed corporations over life-driven farmers. We can ask ourselves what we can learn from those who are creatively and diversely collaborating with our seed relatives. How can we bring their lessons into our ways of life? What awarenesses [re]awaken when we begin wondering - who are the seeds present in our lives? What innate but perhaps forgotten bonds and becomings with seeds might we remember when we give them our attention? What are they teaching us about creating regenerative, reciprocal, rooted food systems? What are the seeds saying with, to and through us? I assure you, they are there. The seed keepers of SFP would tell you the same.
So as SFP grows and enters this movement, let us hear and share their message, let us remember and learn from the soul of their story – seed is food, food is life, and life cannot be owned.
That wraps up our instalment for this week! I hope that learning about the story of Seeds for the People leads us to reflect on what seed signifies to each of us, and what actions we can take to ensure that our right to grow the food we want to grow is not stripped from us. We’ll keep you updated on Seeds for the People as they grow, and we’ll be sharing some of the stories of seed savers who are part of the first cohort on our Instagram.
This week, I asked Aubrey to share a few pieces of media that have inspired her in her work. Here’s what she shared:
This essay by Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabeg), titled "Wild Rice: map, genes and patents." In this chapter of Recovering the Sacred: the power of naming and claiming, renowned activist, ecologist, economist and water protector LaDuke shares the story of the relationship between Ojibwe and manoomin. Through this story, Laduke examines the impacts of biotechnology and seed privatisation on biodiversity and Native American rights and food sovereignty .
This video from GRAIN on the history of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) and its threat to small farmers and their food sovereignty. It breaks down "how UPOV tries to to appropriate and privatise seeds that have been developed over thousands of years by communities around the world, and why we should resist it and demand that it be dismantled."
This podcast episode from For the Wild with Sophie Strand, titled "Myths as Maps." It brings curiosity to human and more-than-human relationality, the dangers of eco-preciousness narratives, and the generative possibilities of embracing our decay and compostability.
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