03 November 2023, The Tablet

We urge the World Bank to ensure that seeds are a common good

by Tom Neylon

Even though small farmers are not growing food for export, they find themselves caught up in the drive for profits by multinational corporations.

We urge the World Bank to ensure that seeds are a common good

Cafod supporters deliver “Salina Letters” with signatures of 70,000 Catholics from England and Wales to the London offices of the World Bank.

It’s autumn, the harvest season, when we might give a thought, even say a prayer, for the farmers who produce our food. Here in the UK we are used to eating produce that might have come from any part of the world, but for millions of small farmers in poorer countries, life is very different.

These farmers are seeking to feed their own families and community, but they cannot escape the impact of the outside world. The climate crisis – for which we, not they, are responsible – has made their task infinitely harder, by causing drought, flood and fire. And even though they are not growing food for export, they find themselves caught up in the drive for profits by multinational corporations.

Producing food starts with seeds, which God created for the abundance of all.

For generations, small farmers have freely shared a wide variety of seeds that grow best in their fields, but in many countries that is no longer possible. Why? Because in some cases the World Bank, which was set up to help the world’s poorest, gives financial support to these countries if they pass laws restricting the seeds available to their farmers.

Small farmers in Asia, Africa and elsewhere face increasing pressure to buy their seeds and fertilisers from one of four giant agribusiness corporations, which are only interested in a handful of profitable crops. Diversity of seeds is eroded; so is resilience to climate events.

Salina, a small farmer and seed-saver in Bangladesh, describes the results: “When there is heavy rain,” she says, “the chemical farmers who bought seeds from outside don’t have any options… They have already spent their money and cannot buy new ones. Seeds should be in the farmer’s house, so there is always a backup… If one crop is damaged, another crop will survive.”

Salina has written a letter to the World Bank, calling for small farmers like herself to be allowed to use their own varieties of seeds. It was delivered to the World Bank’s annual meeting in Morocco this October by Cafod and its partner in Bangladesh, UBINIG, which works with Salina. I have added my name to Salina’s letter, alongside 17 other Catholic bishops from England and Wales, and over 70,000 of our parishioners.

“Seeds are life,” the UN special rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, said last year. “To control seeds is to control life.” It cannot be right that small farmers like Salina are caught in a huge power imbalance with large agribusiness. Even their rights to their own seeds, passed down from generation to generation, are being threatened. Instead of fulfilling its mission to help the world’s poor, the World Bank is pushing policies that harm those most in need.

Earlier this month Pope Francis issued a rousing call to action in Laudate Deum, in which he seeks to provoke governments, business and citizens into desperately needed action, warning that the “world in which we live is collapsing”. He is direct in his condemnation of profit at any cost and of institutions that aren’t working for the common good, saying: “It is no longer helpful for us to support institutions in order to preserve the rights of the more powerful without caring for those of all”.

This rallying call follows his encyclical Laudato Si’, eight years ago, when Pope Francis urged us to heed “the Cry of the Earth, the Cry of the Poor”. Both would be answered if the World Bank agreed to stand with farmers like Salina, who produce a third of the world’s food, instead of siding with big business.


Bishop Tom Neylon is an auxiliary in the Archdiocese of Liverpool.

Visit the Cafod website to find out more about the Fix the Food System campaign.

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