Notes from the Field: Protecting, Nurturing, and Building Resilient Seed Systems
Guest contribution by Faris Ahmed, independent research consultant on sustainable food systems, and Beatriz Oliver, Director of International Programs at SeedChange.
In October 2018, the Global Alliance hosted a strategic convening on resilient seed systems in Oaxaca, Mexico. The choice of location was significant — Oaxaca is a globally important centre of origin for food and other crops. The gathering brought together farmers, Indigenous Peoples, policymakers, the private sector, researchers, and donors, as well as diverse organizations and institutions.
As the Global Alliance celebrates its 10th anniversary, Deputy Director Lauren Baker reflects on the convening with Faris Ahmed, an independent research consultant on sustainable food systems. Beatriz Oliver, Director of International Programs at SeedChange, also shares what she thinks comes next for protecting, nurturing, and building resilient seed systems.
Lauren Baker: Faris and Beatriz, thank you for joining me today. Faris, let’s start with you. How did you come to be involved in the resilient seed systems dialogue in Oaxaca?
Faris Ahmed: I was Policy Director at SeedChange and very involved with global networks on seeds, biodiversity, farmer’s rights, and agroecology. The right to seeds and genetic resources is foundational to all of these. Agricultural biodiversity and farmer and Indigenous knowledge are at the heart of agroecology and food systems, but often get sidelined in food policy negotiations. There’s also a huge concern that seed systems are undermined by government policies that criminalize seed savings and exchange; and are captured by corporate interests.
Many of us were excited about a global convening on seeds. There was also a compendium of perspectives on resilient seed systems produced for the convening, which was very informative and laid out the state of play in seeds and seed systems.
LB: What was your biggest takeaway from that strategic convening?
FA: I left the meeting with an even greater sense of urgency! Seed systems resilience is central to so many of the crises we face today, whether it’s biodiversity loss and livelihoods, growing food and climate resilience, or the increasing control of genetic resources by a handful of transnational companies.
I felt fortunate to have conversations with peers about the kinds of collaborative actions and strategies we want to work on as a community. I think it was the first such convening for the Global Alliance, and its leadership to bring people together to think about shared frameworks was welcomed.
Since then, the Global Alliance has played a catalytic role in areas such as seeds, agroecology, climate change and other pressing issues — particularly through its publications. As a trusted ally among peers, the Global Alliance has shown its great convening power, an ability to bring key actors to the table, and a willingness to support the collective actions and policy proposals that come out of these gatherings.
The convening also underscored how hard it is to expect big, clear, resounding strategies or frameworks to come out of a single meeting! These processes require so much effort, trust, and relationship building. This is even harder when you have multiple actors at the table. One has to think carefully about follow-up, particularly at the regional and national levels. We need to consider what kind of support role can be played by those who were at the initial gathering, and how we can bring the learnings from actions on the ground to this larger global group.
LB: Beatriz, how is SeedChange connected to the outcomes of the convening?
Beatriz Oliver: SeedChange works in Canada and with local partners in 10 countries to support farmers’ seed systems and advocacy for farmers’ rights and women’s rights. The organization helped create the Seeds of Survival Program in the late 1980s, which organized international training exchanges on community seed banks, participatory plant breeding, participatory guarantee systems, and other methodologies.
Following the Oaxaca convening, SeedChange helped facilitate a working group focused on resilient seed systems and participatory plant breeding. As part of its Resilient Seed Systems Shared Action Framework, the Global Alliance provided funds to advance the priorities of this working group. In 2022, the working group shared experiences and collectively guided the use of funds for five community initiatives in China, Nicaragua, Nepal, Zimbabwe, and across South Ameria (Argentina, Chile, and Colombia).
Next steps include sharing the initiatives, seeking potential support for vital initiatives that were not funded, and deciding on future actions of the group. One of our goals is to generate greater visibility for the working group. There are amazing regional networks working on seed sovereignty, and SeedChange would like to contribute to the much-needed knowledge-sharing among them.
LB: What is the situation today when it comes to protecting and nurturing resilient seed systems?
BO: The challenges remain critical. Farmers in many countries face infringements on their rights to freely save, exchange, and sell their seeds, and they face increased privatization of seeds. The joint effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and conflicts are exacerbating the pressures affecting communities. Much of the dominant discourse focuses on increasing productivity rather than addressing the root causes of food insecurity which are due to inequality.
However, we feel hopeful about opportunities for collaboration and advocacy for the recognition and support of farmer seed systems. The increased ability to hold virtual meetings is being seized by many organizations. There is also renewed attention on seed sovereignty and exciting work being done by regional networks. Among SeedChange partners, we see advances in local seed certification by farmer cooperatives that seek to earn income as agroecological seed producers and improve the distribution of locally-adapted, diverse seeds.
LB: At the Global Alliance, convening diverse systems actors is a key part of our food systems transformation strategy. We believe it’s a powerful tool to help us better understand current realities, co-create solutions, and inform action. Can you both reflect on the value of convening around issues like resilient seed systems?
FA: In my experience, there are tremendous gaps between actors in the food system. Civil society rarely has a chance to sit at the table with, say, agribusiness players, and there is great distrust on both sides.
When we do encounter each other, it’s often in a charged setting. So naturally, our stances are polarized because we don’t share the analysis of what actually causes hunger nor do we share perspectives on what should be done to address these underlying causes. So there is great value in convening and creating a respectful space where all actors can meet and talk without the pressure of a negotiation.
Convening diverse (and often divergent) groups requires treading carefully! Successful conversations often start with explicitly naming some of the ‘elephants in the room,’ such as power asymmetries and critical questions of equity and justice.
BO: We must share knowledge on seed policy work, as well as methodologies and strategies. Convening is an opportunity to bring our strengths together. Seeds are intricately connected with land, knowledge, food, and cultures. And they’re of special importance to social movements and their allies working for food sovereignty. There are so many negative pressures on local seed systems coming from global corporate interests. We must continue to convene internationally to help change that.