Tomato seeds, environmental justice and globalization

Guntra Aistara. Image: Central European University

Guntra Aistara. Image: Central European University

By Eric Freedman

We often refer to the importance of planting seeds – the seed of an idea, the small acorn that births the giant oak. But can seeds, real seeds, germinate into a revolution?

That’s what happened in a grassroots – or tomato roots – uprising in Latvia, a West Virginia-sized former Soviet republic laying between the Baltic Sea to the west and Russia to the east.

Guntra Aistara tells the fascinating tale of Latvia’s Tomato Rebellion in a recent article that links a publicity-fueled protest over the sale of heirloom tomato seeds to broad issues of agricultural biodiversity, environmental justice, farmers’ rights and rural injustices, real or perceived. Aistara, who earned her PhD from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources, is an assistant professor of environmental sciences and policy at Central European University in Budapest.

The conflict began in early 2012 when a couple who grew more than 200 heirloom tomato varieties sold seed packets to two undercover government inspectors attending a tomato-growing seminar for amateur gardeners at their nursery near Riga, the capital. Authorities charged the couple with selling seed varieties that weren’t registered under a European Union (EU) directive.

Not surprisingly, the first stone – or first tomato – was quickly cast. News of the bust hit the media under the rallying cry of “Freedom for the Tomato!” Spontaneous protests took off. Activists took to the Web: “A tomato revolution – how beautiful!” one Internet commentator posted.

Officials eventually dropped the charges. Beyond that, Latvia’s parliament, the Saeima, changed the law last year to allow such sales, and the EU is reviewing continent-wide seed legislation.

Aistara observes that the tomato seed incident “continues a recent trend in rural protests in Latvia that have erupted against industrial pig farms, EU support payments and other issues that affect the quality and way or rural life in rural areas.”

The situation reminds me of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that farmers can be held liable for civil damages if they use patented seeds for more than one planting in violation of their licensing agreement with seed companies.

In what NPR described as a David vs. Goliath battle, agri-tech giant Monsanto successfully sued Hugh Bowman, an Indiana farmer “who regularly bought Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant soybean seed for his first growth and signed a licensing agreement promising to use all the seed and not to use any regenerated seed for future use.” But Bowman wanted “a cheap source of seed” for some plantings and bought it at a local grain elevator.” That unpatented seed also was resistant to Roundup, a powerful herbicide.

Monsanto, a Fortune 500 company, found out what Bowman was doing, sued and won an $84,000 judgment. In upholding the verdict, NPR’s Nina Totenberg reported, the Supreme Court  said that “Bowman’s actions amounted to illegal copying of a patented product, a sort of farming piracy.”

Soybean seed in the American Midwest. Tomato seed in Eastern Europe. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is the big picture that places both conflicts in the context of a wider, deeper interpretation of the environmental justice movement. In the United States, the phrase “environmental justice” traditionally conjures up images of incinerators and pollutant-spewing power plants being constructed in poor inner-city neighborhood and hazardous waste dumpsites being located in poor rural communities.

In Aistara’s article in the Journal of Baltic Studies, she offers a more expansive and contemporary interpretation of the phrase. Although she doesn’t refer to the Monsanto case, the same interpretation arguably applies there too: “Farmers’ rights to save, exchange and sell seeds are also fundamentally a distributive justice issue regarding equitable rights to seeds as resources, to biodiversity as an environmental good, to jobs and income as socioeconomic goods and the peasant way of life as a cultural good.”

She writes, “The brief tomato rebellion in Latvia brought to the fore a host of frustrations and political critiques that demonstrate the protests were about not only one farm’s ability sell tomato seeds, but a range of broader issue of public participation, distribution, recognition and sovereignty.”

Or in other words, who can predict what will grow from a small seed?

Eric Freedman is the director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.