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“We are selling off the Kumato Tomatoes AT COST because it has come to light that they are grown from patented seed. For ethical reasons we do not support patenting of seeds, therefore we will not be ordering Kumato Tomatoes again. If you are curious about this, put the words “kumato tomato syngenta” into a search engine or speak to [the managers].”

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Today I saw this on my shift at Great Oak Foods in Llanidloes, in Powys, in Mid-Wales.  I am one of a community of people who give time working in the shop which we believe to be part of a local solution to many global-food conundrums.  The shop, as a community enterprise, aims:

1. To be a retail outlet for organic fresh foods and associated products to provide the opportunity for customers to make sustainable lifestyle choices.

2. To create opportunities for a local market for organically grown produce and to provide the means for sustainable employment in the community, ecologically and economically.

3. To support the local economy through a local purchasing policy and to make available a wider range of products in the area, and to reduce dependency on importing products, with associated food miles.

4. To encourage social investment in sustainable enterprise and to empower members of the community to become actively involved in issues surrounding local food and ecological sustainability.

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My first feelings, reading the notice above about Kumato Tomatoes, were joy and pride to be living in community with people with similar commitments to social and ecological justice in the food system, and who act from a place of personal conscience .  And yet I wanted to investigate the issues involved to be sure that I wasn’t forming a knee-jerk opinion.  And to write about it on this blog as a document/ reflection of a kind of moment in time where local people (in this case, us) were asked by a situation to grapple with a wider social food issue, and how it might play out.

I spoke with the managers, and one shared with me his belief that patenting “discovery” was a different ethical issue to patenting an “invention”; he just couldn’t come to terms with the idea that something like a seed and varietal crossing could be patented– and he did note that this was not a case involving genetic modification, for which he could see a better case for patenting.  Which is not to say, obviously, that we support GM in any way.

One could make the case that Syngenta has developed a variety of tomato — through careful, old-fashioned, year-to-year testing and experimenting — that consumers want and desire for the special eating qualities it offers. And that Syngenta deserves to profit from its innovation and investment, and profit is the engine of technological and agricultural “progress.”  (Cringe.)

We learn from Wikipedia Kumato that “Syngenta maintains ownership of the variety throughout the entire value chain from breeding to marketing; selected growers must agree to follow specified cultivation protocols and pays fees for licenses per acre of greenhouse, costs of the seeds, and royalties based on the volume of tomatoes produced.”  Is the word for this vertical market integration?

This manager wrote an enquiring email to our wholesale supplier (which deals in organic foods, operates regionally, and is a much much smaller player than supermarket level), who responded with many perfectly justifiable points including: that Syngenta’s business strategy represents the  “club” approach which has gone on with the development of trees and shrubs and potatoes in a smaller business scale; this represents only a temporary market consolidation  because it’s so difficult to monitor and police; that customers want “good quality”;  growers need prolific and disease resistant varieties which can yield, for organic, a competitive price…

So what to believe?  Maybe we should just relent on this issue– even though, and this did niggle, the tomatoes somehow posture themselves on a shelf as if they are heirlooms or a local variety, seed carefully nutured by seed savers and cottage gardeners, and usurp the aesthetics the new food movement has created/ recreated.

I looked to my gut instinct.   We as a community around  “The Veg Shop” (as it’s affectionately called) share a vision of a food system gone wrong — in terms of the concentration of power in agribusiness and supermarkets, the overuse of pesticides unhealthy for people and biodiversity, the climate impacts of food miles and unseasonal eating.  We support organics, local food, local growers, the use of non-chemical pest management, small producers and fair-trade as a step towards justice for food workers far and wide.  We see agriculture within ecological and political contexts and support a horticultural scale we believe can be a part of building a new and better system.

Syngenta  is also a major player in pesticides, in a world in which bees and other insects are so perilously at risk and the Precautionary Principle is called for.  Syngenta also promotes GM crops, which represent health and ecological worry to many as well as a dangerous privatisation of seed stock and concentration of power in the big players.

There is also the on-going  battle in the EU to regulate seeds, plants and plant materials that can be sold; the big agriculture players punch hard, with their piles of money, and can pay the fees to register their own goods, while smaller breeders and gardeners are edged out.  The Wales-based Real Seed Company does great campaigning work on this issue— am looking forward to ordering some seeds from them.

We support the enfranchisement of the small players, for so many reasons: ecological, social, anti-hunger, food security, and more. The Seed Freedom folks often operate from the point of view that we need a paradigm shift; Jose Luis Vivero Pol argues really eloquently for “a re-commonification” of food—or, in other words, a transition where we work toward considering food as a commons as ..essential … in light of our broken global food system.”  Seeds are where food begin.

This article by Charles Eisenstein also delves into what’s wrong and how we can think about food differently in order to oppose hunger and food inequality and create a juster world, better ready for climate instability.

I’m not a Luddite really, nor particularly anti-innovation, and willing to keep an open mind towards different aspects of biotechnology– but I do have a different vision for the food system that needs to be developed to correct this one.  This to me is the basis of why I support the managers at Great Oak Foods– it’s not whom we’re against, so much as  it’s what we are for…

And I AM DEEPLY INTERESTED IN WHAT OTHER PEOPLE HAVE TO SAY ON ALL THIS.  PLEASE COMMENT!!!!!!

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