Trying to protect farmers’ rights to save seeds only has an economic importance in low productivity systems where the benefits of specialization haven’t kicked in. By and large modern farmers don’t save seed because it isn’t a good use of their time and it would yield an inferior seed. If the pre-breeder’s rights seeds were so great, they would still be around to save and share.
If saving seeds is an economical use of a farmer’s time, that’s a bad sign. Energy and resources should be invested to help them raise productivity going forward rather than a backward looking approach of trying to preserve traditional farming. The right to save seed should be protected, and it’s hard to imagine instances where it won’t be. There may be improved seeds that come with strings attached, but if farmers don’t find those a fair bargain, they should be able to fall back on seed in the public domain or covered by more permissive agreements that allow for seed saving.
The bottom line is that if farmers are mired in such unproductive farming systems that saving and cleaning old seed is an economical use of their time, that should be seen as a sign that they need access to better infrastructure, risk management, non-predatory credit. It shouldn’t be a call to arms to defend low productivity farming.
But saving seed exerts a strong pull on the imagination of pastoral sentimentalists. There is a very appealing parsimony and self sufficiency associated with saving seeds. But in reality it’s a parsimony and self sufficiency forced by bad circumstance, not embraced through the farmer’s individual agency.
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