Puerto Rico's Stolen Seed Future
by Sadhu Govardhan
Already in 2001, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization was sending out warnings that too many plant species are disappearing at an alarming rate. While in the past over 10,000 plant species were used for food, today no more than 120 cultivated species provide over 90% of our plant based food.
The global genetic loss in the last few decades is indeed frightening: over 80% of the world’s original forests are lost; in the Amazon alone over 2000 trees a minute are killed. Our rainforests, which could be referred to as “our womb of life,” are the home of thousands of food crops – but all of them are disappearing at the same rate the rainforest itself is disappearing. This means that on a yearly basis, hundreds of tropical fruits and vegetables are becoming distant history, partially never even documented or known outside their region of origin.
In the last few decades, dedicated fruit and vegetable seed collectors around the world have begun to systematically collect as many species as possible in order to save them from extinction and to guarantee food security for the future. For them, there is no better preservation than spreading these seeds as wide and far as possible. They have understood the devastating effects of the current genetic erosion, caused by irresponsible governments and corporations. They are fully aware that the direction agriculture has taken in recent times is lethal when it comes to protecting genetic diversity. Ultimately, there is no safer way to preserve genetic material than by spreading it as far and wide as possible.
Instead of acknowledging the important work of the private sector to save and preserve countless species, every year there are more laws passed to discourage and prevent free seed and plant trade. In order to justify these oppressive restrictions, fear of new diseases or the dogma of “invasive food crops” is sold to the public. If we look at the statistics of crops that are affected by serious diseases, we find that only crops that are commercially overproduced in monocultures fit into that category. There are no “invasive food” crops that can cause any environmental damage when responsibly planted in polyculture settings. Furthermore, open pollinated seeds of fruits, herbs or vegetables very rarely are carriers of diseases, provided the seeds are properly cleaned and surface sterilized.
Instead of being encouraged to diversify their crops, the farmers of today are indoctrinated to make their living with a handful of cash crops. Here in Puerto Rico, the government mostly promotes coffee (which is a stimulant but not a food crop), citrus, bananas and plantains. All of these crops are over-cultivated and therefore plagued by pests and diseases.
Instead of having just a handful of tropical food crops, we could have hundreds or even thousands. This diversity would not only give a farmer more opportunities to survive but would also help us to restore the loss of genetic diversity.
In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for farmers or gardeners to obtain high quality seed material because most available seeds are hybrids. The vast majority of seeds imported to Puerto Rico are neither from tropical regions, nor open pollinated or heirloom seeds. Unknown to most, massive consolidations have led to three major seed companies (Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis) whose control over the global seed market increases on a daily basis. The seeds they offer are either genetically modified or hybrids that contribute to the loss of genetic diversity.
While these corporations get all the government support required to expand their empire of greed and destruction, environmentally conscious small-scale farmers or private collectors are practically treated as criminals just because they want to exchange healthy seeds of lesser known crops.
Famous fruit researchers of the past, like Popenoe or Fairchild were considered to be heroes who brought new food crops to the west. Today, a person who wants to bring new seeds to Puerto Rico (or the U.S.) is viewed and treated like a suspect with criminal intent by the regulating government agencies.
In theory, the law requires that one acquires a small lot seed import permit which can be applied for online. The agency that issues the permit after verifying the identity of the applicant, is APHIS/USDA and the permit is for free. Since this new permit does not require a phytosanitary certificate on the exporter’s end anymore, it seemed to be a better permit than the old one for most applicants. But that has unfortunately not been the case as is evident in these recent cases.
There are increasing reports from permit holders (hobby growers, farmers, researchers) that the permit is not being honored in the way it is supposed to be. Here some practical examples:
1) Puerto Rican permit holder “A” buys seeds from a South American country. All permit requirements are met: the botanical name is included; the species is authorized; the seeds were professionally cleaned and surface sterilized. The seeds never arrive. Instead, a notice from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) stationed in Miami, FL, arrives: the seeds were destroyed because the seeds were “unknown material, not authorized”, “material infected or infested”. In this particular case, the seeds didn’t even make it to APHIS/USDA, and the permit wasn’t even looked at (it remained unopened in the attached pouch). After an additional investigation it turns out that the name of the species was written before the name of the genus. This is like writing “Joe Gonzalez” instead of “Gonzalez Joe” – already sufficient reason for seeds to get destroyed.
Unknown to most Puerto Ricans, ALL packages sent by regular mail or via Express mail couriers from South and Central America, as well as most Caribbean islands, go through Florida, and are generally intercepted there. Once they are intercepted its almost certain that they get destroyed.
2) Puerto Rican permit holder “B” buys seeds (three different packages) from another South American country. All permit requirements are met again but the seeds are sent to an address that doesn’t match the address and name on the permit. All three packages are seized and the seeds destroyed. It does not occur to the officer that people can share a physical address or P.O.B. and that people may send seeds to their spouses, friends or shared P.O.B. holders with a different name.
3) Permit holder “C” gets a seed donation from Asia. The seeds are sent from an agricultural scientist to the UPR in Mayaguez with an express mail courier. Permit holder “C” gets a notice after one week that the seeds have been intercepted by APHIS and are being held in CA. Next, he gets notice that the seeds were forwarded to APHIS Miami. A week later, he gets a notice that the seeds were sent to APHIS San Juan. Another week passes and he gets notice from APHIS in San Juan that the seeds were sent back to APHIS Miami. After a month, he gets the seeds – all of them dead. They, like most tropical seeds, had a very short viability and the money spent on the express mail courier as well as the seeds are lost.
4) Permit holder “D” gets free seeds from another fruit collector in South America. The seeds are intercepted by APHIS in San Juan. The permit holder is requested to explain and pick up the seeds in person. Driving time: 6 hours. A high price for a handful of seeds!
5) Permit holder “E” trades seeds with a fruit collector in South America. The seeds never arrive. Instead, what arrives is a notice from APHIS in Miami, saying that the import permit was not attached. The permit holder asks the sender who says that not only was the permit attached, he watched his assistant not only insert the permit in the package but staple it to the bag of seeds.
The problem here is that the “small guy” has no rights and can’t possibly provide any evidence while the government agency can say or do whatever they please without requiring evidence or worse, they can make up any reason why they won’t honor the permit. What is the value of a permit that is not honored by the people who issue it?
Particularly since the beginning of 2009, the interception and destruction of seeds sent to Puerto Rico has become systematic and thorough.
When I mentioned some of these unfortunate facts to a local APHIS officer, his response was a confirmation: “This happens to many people here in Puerto Rico”.
Is it really necessary for a government agency to be that oppressive when dealing with small amounts of harmless and beneficial fruit or vegetable seeds? It all reminds so much of a line of one of Bob Marley’s songs: “Every time you plant a seed, they kill it before it grows”.
Private people have less and less rights while governments and corporations become increasingly oppressive and dominant. Agricultural laws are always written in their favor and never in favor of a private person or small-scale farmer. The farmers of today are essentially told what they can and what they can’t grow. In the light of these injustices and sad facts it is not surprising that agriculture is considered to be in danger of extinction in Puerto Rico.
When the Spaniards conquered Puerto Rico, they recorded six fruits that were growing here. Over time, over four hundred new species have been introduced to the island – none of the ones introduced in the form of seeds have ever caused any problem; contrary to this, all of them have benefited tens of millions of people over several generations. Just imagine for a moment that APHIS or the U.S. Customs and Border Protection would have been around at the time of the Spanish invasion – we would most likely still have only a few dozen fruit species here instead of over four hundred.
The future of seeds is directly linked to the future of our food and food security. Seeds have become one of the most coveted global resources and the small farmer or private seed collector is paying the price. Although he follows the already oppressive and unnecessary law, his seeds are still being stolen and destroyed, often on the grounds of a technical mistake; other times without a solid reason or worse, a false reason.
Puerto Rico desperately needs more food crops. Only about 6% of the food consumed locally is also produced here. Our agriculture has a blatant lack of biological and genetic diversity. Our farmers need help and not oppression. Our fruit, herb and vegetable collectors are not dubious suspects but heroes.
Despite the massive government propaganda that conventional farming is solving the problems of the world, over 1 billion people on the planet go hungry every day and millions starve to death. Hundreds of plant species that are either in danger of extinction or that have been extinct could have easily be saved if seed trades would be encouraged instead of oppressed. Think about it: if your grandmother wants to send you 5 seeds of her favorite fruit, she can’t do that if she doesn’t have a permit or doesn’t know its botanical name.
It could legitimately be argued that it is a crime to unnecessarily cripple Puerto Rico’s agriculture by confiscating harmless and beneficial seeds, even such quantities as small as five or ten seeds. If no one ever fights this injustice, Puerto Rico will lose whatever little biological and genetic diversity is left. In other words, if we don’t act, we allow others to steal our’s and our children’s future.
If you ever experienced any similar abuse by APHIS or the U.S. Customs & Border Protection, you are welcome to share your experiences with me and write to firstname.lastname@example.org
© Sadhu Govardhan, 2009