Dear Friends and Colleagues
Africa’s Seed Policies Should Recognise and Support Farmer Seed Systems
The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) has prepared a policy discussion document in an effort to synthesise the policy issues emerging from its research on farmer seed systems in Africa. The document states that current seed policies and laws, as they are being developed across Africa, aim to construct and maintain a commercial seed sector, driven by multinational interests. They do not adequately consider the role of farmer seed systems in Africa, where the majority of seed for the majority of crops are maintained and improved by farmers themselves with little or no external support. Conversely, they impose many restrictions on farmers in terms of using, sharing, exchanging, and selling seeds.
The discussion paper is a call for the recognition of smallholder farmer seed systems and practices and flexibility in policies, laws and regulations to accommodate and nurture these systems and practices. ACB proposes a two-pronged response to the limitations of formal seed sector laws and regulations:
Well-defined exemptions for non-commercial seed production and use
and for designated commercial producer categories (defined at national
level), such as smallholder farmers or smallholder farmer-owned enterprises,
based on a defined commercial threshold, with non-commercial production
governed by farmers’ rights as expressed in Article 9 of the International
Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA);
The proposal is to contain existing regulations to the commercial system, defined at a sufficiently high threshold to allow the development of small seed enterprises without unnecessary regulation, and to build flexibility into the system for farmer varieties sold above the commercial threshold, as well as to encourage their use, and facilitate adaptability. The paper offers proposals on exemptions and flexibility.
We reproduce below the Introduction to the paper, which can be accessed in full at https://www.acbio.org.za/en/seed-laws/publication/2018/seed-policy-paper-towards-national-and-regional-seed-policies-africa-0
TOWARDS NATIONAL AND REGIONAL SEED POLICIES IN AFRICA THAT RECOGNISE AND SUPPORT FARMER SEED SYSTEMS
African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB)
Our starting point is that seed policies and laws, as they are being developed across Africa and globally today neither recognise nor support farmer seed systems. Their primary objective is to construct and maintain a commercial seed sector, driven by multinational interests. Concentrated multinational corporations today dominate global commercial seed production, biotechnology and pesticides: Bayer-Monsanto, ChemChina-Syngenta, Dow-DuPont, BASF and others. The entire thrust of agricultural policy on the African continent is driven by these commercial interests through a combination of multinational public, private and philanthropic investments co-ordinated towards this end.
Farmer seed systems are entirely displaced from this picture. These systems are not recognised in formal policy except as being ‘outside’. Although, to a greater or lesser extent breeders and government officials ‘informally’ recognise these systems, for a long time they have been treated as backward, inferior, obsolete and destined for disappearance. However, more recent times have seen a growing recognition that farmer seed systems remain the foundation of agricultural production across Africa and in other places, globally, and are intricately linked to the ability to transition agriculture towards agroecology through supporting and strengthening biodiversity, with ‘downstream’ effects throughout the food system.
Worldwide, smallholder farmers are active in breeding, selection, management, processing, storage and conservation of plant resources. Smallholder farmers play a critical role in the maintenance and stewardship of biodiversity, including agricultural biodiversity. This role falls specifically to smallholder farmers, because survival strategies incorporate polycultures, including agroforestry. This is in contrast to large-scale commercial agriculture and Green Revolution approaches to agriculture in general, where mono-cropping is the order of the day, creating segregated zones of production with low levels of biodiversity. Crop husbandry and stewardship by cultivators themselves has been the bedrock of agriculture for thousands of years. Farmers have been actively involved in selecting, adapting, and enhancing agricultural biodiversity. Women, in particular, play a critical role in identifying and bringing wild plants into food systems, and women hold extensive and detailed knowledge about food, fodder and medicine.(1)
Only a few major crops amenable to scalable standardised industrial production, processing, packaging and shipping, such as maize, soya and commercial horticulture and other cash crops have been captured by the commercial sector. Even then, farmer varieties(2) flourish, for example, there are numerous farmer varieties of maize in active production across Africa, highly adapted and with special characteristics favoured in the areas of production. Public sector breeding for local conditions has played an important role historically. Germplasm is from the national gene banks and Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), who gather the material from farmers, and do in situ conservation to maintain vigour. This has contributed valued germplasm into local gene pools, and public sector research institutes have more adapted materials available on their shelves.
Commercial seed, including hybrids, brings with it an entire Green Revolution package of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and other high cost external inputs. Hybrids and other conventional varieties are mostly planted alongside farmer varieties. However, there is displacement of farmer varieties over time, as farming households and communities are pressured into cash crop production for diverse reasons. Lack of dedicated support to and strengthening of existing beneficial farming practices (such as maintaining and adapting diverse varieties for local conditions outside the commercial sector) contributes to biodiversity loss.
Current seed policies and laws do not adequately consider the role of farmer seed systems, especially in Africa, where the majority of seed for the majority of crops are maintained and improved by farmers themselves, with little or no external support. This goes beyond lack of recognition, and begins to have negative implications for farmer seed systems because the seed policies and laws apply rules that affect everyone handling genetic materials.(3)
This discussion paper is not a call for greater regulation of smallholder farmer(4) seed systems and practices. It is a call for their recognition and flexibility in policies, laws and regulations to accommodate and nurture these systems and practices. We feel it necessary to insert a reminder of the importance of smallholder farmers for ongoing agricultural and wider biodiversity maintenance and use in Africa and globally. This is integrally related to climate change and drought response, in Southern Africa, in particular.
this discussion paper we propose a two-pronged response to the limitations
of formal seed sector laws and regulations:
The proposal is to contain existing regulations to the commercial system, defined at a sufficiently high threshold to allow the development of small seed enterprises without unnecessary regulation, and to build flexibility into the system for farmer varieties sold above the commercial threshold, as well as to encourage their use, and facilitate adaptability. The issue is that farmer varieties cannot be pinned down so neatly, as required in the laws and regulations. For example, the cyclical nature of farmer seed systems means that seed selection, production, harvest and dissemination interconnect as a seamless whole. In contrast, formal variety registration and seed certification processes require defined breaks, such as pinning a variety down to a specific set of ‘fixed’ and reproducible characteristics for registration purposes. This does not mean farmer seed is not of good quality. It just functions in a more integrated way with the socio-ecology and is not measurable in the same terms as the formal system requires.
This discussion paper has two main sections. The first looks at the (presumably mostly) unintended impacts of commercial seed regulation on farmer seed systems, looking at PVP, registration and certification. The second section offers proposals on exemptions and flexibility. The discussion can be read for both national and regional levels.