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The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience

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Commentary:Putting Farmers at the Centre of the Strategy

The African Centre for Biodiversity is a South Africa-based NGO that carries out research, analysis, advocacy and information-sharing which informs and amplifies the voices of social movements fighting for food justice and food sovereignty throughout Africa.

1. What are the best ways to protect and strengthen community based seed systems?

“The best ways we know of to protect and strengthen community based seed systems are to build decentralized farmer seed networks to share seed and knowledge, with support from civil society organizations, government extension workers, researchers, technicians and others.”

The best ways we know of to protect and strengthen community based seed systems are to build decentralized farmer seed networks to share seed and knowledge, with support from civil society organizations, government extension workers, researchers, technicians and others. Wherever possible, make links between seed work and membership-based farmer associations, at all levels, with the aim of learning and sharing and building organization. Reallocate a share of public and development funds towards participatory processes of experimentation, sharing, learning and strengthening all aspects of farmer seed systems. Some concrete ideas are suggested below.

2. Beyond lack of funding, what are some of the blockages/barriers that get in the way of success?

Poverty and desperation lead many farmers to respond to pressing needs with short-term solutions (such as using hybrids and synthetic fertilizers) but this comes at the cost of long-term viability of farmer seed systems.

Restricted information flows: There is a lot of evidence and many widespread practices regarding farmer seed systems, but this knowledge is often very local and inaccessible to most farmers. Many farmers are not organized locally, yet local farmer organizations are the basis for sharing and learning.

Urbanization and modernity pose a major threat to farmer seed systems.

“Green Revolution” solutions in government policy, programming and budgeting have become so politically entrenched that even though many are aware of problems, they find it difficult to shift out of this relationship with farmers/citizens.

“The role of rural women and smallholder farmers in African society has been profoundly undervalued, despite the fact that around 80 per cent of Africa’s population is dependent on smallholder agriculture—the backbone of the rural economy—where women provide 70 per cent of the farm labour. When it comes to seed, women are the custodians at the centre of seed saving, with significant importance in ensuring food security and genetic diversity.”

The role of rural women and smallholder farmers in African society has been profoundly undervalued, despite the fact that around 80 per cent of Africa’s population is dependent on smallholder agriculture—the backbone of the rural economy—where women provide 70 per cent of the farm labour. When it comes to seed, women are the custodians at the centre of seed saving, with significant importance in ensuring food security and genetic diversity.

In many rural areas, women tend to manage complex production systems with multiple functions, purposes, and species. While being responsible for the nutrition of their families, they produce, handle and prepare food, and provide most of the labour for farming, from soil preparation to harvest. After harvesting, they are almost entirely responsible for operations such as storage, handling, stocking, marketing and processing. These production systems are not designed to maximize the productivity of any single crop but to ensure overall stability and resilience of the crops produced. Although these are crops of often minor commercial significance, they are key to household nutrition and food security.

This essential work carried out by women is often invisible and neglected by support agencies due to its diversity and lack of commercial value.

3. Where can funders intervene for greatest impact in the area of seed systems?

Funders can and should support the multi-disciplinary development of decentralized seed networks amongst farmers, CSOs, extension workers and technicians at various levels (local, national, and regional).

Ensure women remain at the centre of localized seed production systems and that farmers define needed improvements to seeds.

Provide technical support to link farmers with public sector research and development systems and in return they can draw and share lessons from the farmers’ practice.

Support the development of multi-stakeholder advocacy coalitions around farmer seed system support, such as: policies, programs and budgets at local, national and regional levels, and promote engagement in national and regional policy spaces and the linkages between those policy spaces.

4. What are some examples of success in community based seed systems that could be examples for others to learn from, and why?

In all places we have visited, farmers are actively involved in selecting and saving seed for later use. Diverse traditional techniques are widespread and operational. At the same time, there are very few places where everything is a success.

There is dwindling interest in diverse seed and food, seed quality is not always ideal, yields may decline over time and local gene pools can stagnate. The need for cash means an orientation towards cash-making activities can predominate, leading to the use of higher yielding varieties (mostly hybrid for maize, which recycles very poorly) and no longer producing seed whose products cannot be sold for much cash.

There is evidence of participatory plant breeding (PPB) and participatory variety selection (PVS) in Africa. These practices are important because they connect farmers to the formal R&D system and the resources available there.

However, participatory processes of variety development and seed improvement do not have to be commercialized, information on this has yet to be gathered, synthesized, and analyzed. Lessons have yet to be drawn and shared. The same can be said for in situ conservation and seed enhancement and multiplication practices. Success varies and these practices need to be considered in their diverse contexts.

The success of collective/community seed banks depends critically on how farmers participate and take ownership of the process. If work could be done with the relevant households/custodian or nodal farmers to increase diversity in their seed banks and facilitate connections between them and other households interested in expanding seed diversity and with local distribution networks, this could be a far more decentralized and resilient model. Despite this, so far there seems to be little donor interest in household seed banks.

“There are many traditional pest management practices for seed storage, such as smoking the seed, using mud and other methods. These practices can be learned and built on.”

There are many traditional pest management practices for seed storage, such as smoking the seed, using mud and other methods. These practices can be learned and built on.

5. How can researchers and farmers work together constructively to promote seed diversity?

Technical work could include linking farmers with formal R&D and extension systems; germplasm access; on-farm participatory seed enhancement/improvement, selection and multiplication; seed storage; and systems of local and long distance exchange.

Participatory action research methodologies could be explored further. For instance, gathering and sharing information and knowledge in participatory ways in which farmers are directly involved, based on relationships of sharing and cooperation. Research which includes the direct involvement by farmers, their organizations and other relevant organizations, is based on shared learning. The action part refers to the research being a tool towards planning concrete actions with partners. At the outset the research must be shaped by all participants so that it serves a purpose for them.

Researchers can play a key role in facilitating and coordinating the action learning process, encouraging and ensuring farmer participation, making connections through face-to-face interactions with farmers who are part of the research team with CSOs and even extension workers where possible. This provides a framework for synthesis, facilitating processes of prioritization for further work, drawing in other participants where relevant and possible. It also facilitates learning and sharing, including farmer exchanges, documentation and analysis. Building research links across sites and countries can also build farmer organizations, especially when farmers are directly involved in the research as a participatory process, and the research feeds into practical action.

6. What role can public health institutions playing, if any, in promoting seed diversity as a component of community health and nutrition?

Seed diversity leads to nutritional diversity. The wider diversity of food crops people grow, the wider diversity of nutrients they can access. A decline in seed diversity results in homogenization of diets, a narrowing of nutrient diversity in varied combinations and a focus on calorie intake as a measure of food security rather than nutrient intake.

Public health institutions can support seed diversity by popularizing the link between nutrition and seed diversity. This need not take the form of direct relationships with farmers, which is not the core competency of public health institutions, but by working in cooperation with agriculture departments and other relevant government departments to mobilize support for expanding seed diversity, especially local production and local farmers’ agroecologically adapted crops and varieties.

7. How can institutions learn from Indigenous and traditional cultures in regard to the central role of seed to promoting cultural resilience and spiritual health?

“Traditional knowledge has been denigrated and is being lost. By and large, the youth have less interest in looking backwards—as they might consider it—and more interest in exploiting the possibilities presented by urbanization and modernity. Traditional or indigenous knowledge is seen as somehow less than science because it’s less systematized. This knowledge mainly resides with the elders and is not being passed on.”

Traditional knowledge has been denigrated and is being lost. By and large, the youth have less interest in looking backwards—as they might consider it—and more interest in exploiting the possibilities presented by urbanization and modernity. Traditional or indigenous knowledge is seen as somehow less than science because it’s less systematized. This knowledge mainly resides with the elders and is not being passed on.

In most of Africa, local farmer varieties are widespread, with a relatively small but highly significant encroachment of hybrid maize and related crops such as soya. This encroachment has sped up the homogenization of diets and the narrow focus on maize and calories consumed. This results in fewer local foods being consumed, creating a circular effect of reducing demand for diverse crops and varieties and hence their seeds.

Culture and spirituality are very dynamic concepts, and they are not locked down into some kind of atemporal stasis. We need greater understanding of the impacts of urbanization on lifestyles, livelihoods and the role of seed in the society at different scales.

8. Is there a role for policy advocacy in regards to promoting community based seed systems? If so, why? At what level should funders support advocacy in this regard?

A key issue is the allocation of public resources. Currently, in many African countries, there is a huge diversion of public resources into subsidizing corporate expansion through the farm input subsidy programs (FISPs)1. Information and analysis is needed on how public and development resources are being spent, and an argument must be made for the reorientation of seed-related resources put towards supporting and strengthening farmer seed systems.

“Germplasm should be defined as a common good, since it is derived from centuries of crowdsourced human activity.”

The extension of intellectual property (IP) through UPOV 1991 and the limits this imposes—whether intentional or not—on farmers’ abilities to freely produce and exchange seed2, is another policy threat that requires ongoing monitoring and advocacy. These laws threaten to reduce agricultural biodiversity through marginalizing and outlawing traditional/farmer varieties and practices. This may occur through the imposition of registration procedures, limitations on the exchange or sale of seed, and inappropriate certification requirements. Germplasm should be defined as a common good, since it is derived from centuries of crowdsourced human activity.

Identifying policy spaces and priorities, working with farmers, their associations and other CSOs is required at local, national and regional levels. Building at these three levels, civil society and other stakeholders, including the public sector, could work towards a long-term vision of decentralized seed networks. The aim of this advocacy would be to secure official support for farmer seed systems in laws, policies, programs, budgets and projects.

This is achievable by promoting strong farmer based seed production and exchange networks; building a widely shared knowledge base through farmer, CSO and extension exchanges and documentation; CSO seed networks cooperating with governments and identifying ways to work together; and creating links to global policy spheres (e.g., La Via Campesina, FAO and others).

This work is nascent and funders could support advocacy at many levels, including strengthening farmer voices through organization and networks; building CSO networks looking specifically at seed in relation to agroecology; linking farmers with technical support and recording the processes to strengthen and learn from farmer seed practices, and links to wider farming systems and agroecology; enabling participation in policy creation by identifying and opening spaces for meaningful civil society engagement which has a tangible impact on government decision-making processes; using these spaces to hear the voices of farmers, including through their network associations and organizations; identifying points of possible intersection between policy and program monitoring and analysis at national and regional levels; and supporting networked analysis of developments that identify and can create practical solutions.

9. What should large development agencies and government institutions be doing to promote community based seed systems?

They should dedicate resources to building the institutions, expertise, knowledge, etc., that support and promote farmer seed systems. This can be phased in, beginning with multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary involvement in areas of experimentation. They should start with farmers on areas identified through a participatory process as priorities. Networks can connect these activities and permit learning and sharing.

Some subjects to consider include: the role of farmers in plant breeding and seed selection, sources of public sector germplasm and farmer access, repatriation and technical support to expand seed diversity, enhancement and production in the field, local seed storage, local (household or community) seed banks, in situ conservation, the need and use of indigenous knowledge, ways of resuscitating and building seed diversity; intersections with formal seed systems and possible benefits and threats to farmer seed systems, the role of extension services and farmer organizations in seed systems, seed exchange and sale (e.g., seed and food fairs, exchange visits, meetings, and local markets).

Farm enhancement (breeding) and seed production/multiplication are also important areas to develop, but are excluded from the interconnections indicated between the informal and the formal system (see Figure 1 of the opportunities report).

Development agencies and government institutions can also support learning and sharing amongst farmers, advocates and practitioners from multiple institutions.

Selected References
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African Centre for Biosafety, 2014. Running to stand still: Small-scale farmers and the Green Revolution in Malawi. http://acbio.org.za/running-to-stand-still-small-scale-farmers-and-the-green-revolution-in-malawi/

ACB, 2014. The African Fertiliser and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP): The ‘missing link’ in Africa’s Green Revolution? http://acbio.org.za/agras-scandalous-subsidisation-of-big-fertiliser-financial-and-agribusiness-corporations-in-africa/

ACB, 2014. The political economy of Africa’s burgeoning chemical fertiliser rush. http://acbio.org.za/the-political-economy-of-africas-burgeoning-chemical-fertiliser-rush-2/

African Centre for Biodiversity 2015. Nuanced rhetoric and the path to poverty: AGRA, small-scale farmers and seed and soil fertility in Tanzania. http://acbio.org.za/nuanced-rhetoric-and-the-path-to-poverty-agra-small-scale-farmers-and-seed-and-soil-fertility-in-tanzania/

ACB, 2015. Which way forward for Zambia’s smallholder farmers: Green Revolution subsidies or agro-ecology? http://acbio.org.za/which-way-forward-for-zambias-smallholder-farmers-green-revolution-input-subsidies-or-agro-ecology/

ACB/UNAC/Kaleidoscopio, 2015. Agricultural investment activities in the Beira Corridor, Mozambique: Threats and opportunities for small-scale farmers. http://acbio.org.za/agricultural-investment-activities-in-the-beira-corridor-mozambique-threats-and-opportunities-for-small-scale-farmers/

ACB, 2015. Declaration on Plant Variety Protection and Seed Laws from the South-South Dialogue. http://acbio.org.za/declaration-on-plant-variety-protection-and-seed-laws-from-the-south-south-dialogue/

Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), 2015. ARIPO sells out African farmers, seals secret deal on plant variety protection. http://acbio.org.za/aripo-sells-out-african-farmers-seals-secret-deal-on-plant-variety-protection/

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