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The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience

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Commentary:Building a Strong Farmer Movement to Protect Seeds in Zimbabwe

Nelson Mudzingwa is a farmer, a graduate of Mlezu Agricultural College of Zimbabwe and a founder of the Shashe Agroecology School. Mudzingwa is the National Coordinator of the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmer Forum (ZIMSOFF), and a member of the International Operating Secretariat of La Via Campesina, an international movement of farmers’ organizations working to defend small-scale sustainable agriculture.

The value and sacredness of seed

“Supporting and enhancing traditional practices on seed saving, especially as practiced by elderly women, who have bred seed freely in partnership with each other and with nature, will further increase the diversity of that which nature gave us, for biodiversity and cultural diversity mutually shape one another.”

Seeds are the first link in the food chain and the repository of life’s future evolution. As such, it is our inherent duty and responsibility to protect them and to pass them on to future generations. The protection and strengthening of community seed systems is derived from the understanding that seed was given by the Creator and it is the farmer’s basic right to keep seed. The growing of seed and the free exchange of seed among peasant farmers has been the basis of maintaining the stability of biodiversity and the source of food security. Supporting and enhancing traditional practices on seed saving, especially as practiced by elderly women, who have bred seed freely in partnership with each other and with nature, will further increase the diversity of that which nature gave us, for biodiversity and cultural diversity mutually shape one another.

The diversity of traditional seeds saved by peasant farmers is rooted in the knowledge that seeds are the foundation of life, and more than a source of food—they are a history and culture handed down by our ancestors. They hold a special place in the struggle for food sovereignty. These small grains are the basis for the future hence their diversity is a solution to the climate crisis. They shape, at each life cycle, the type of food people eat, how it is grown, and who grows it. This holistic thinking about the value and sacredness of seed over the past generations has been the basis for sustaining diversity and hence stability, in the surrounding environment.

Agroecology and seeds

Agroecology has emerged as an alternative to the industrial food regime. It is a social and political process that struggles for the integral recovery of food sovereignty and genuine agrarian reform. It is valued for its integration of scientific advances with the traditional knowledge of our people. This is the integration of humanity, in harmony and in equilibrium with nature and is the defence of local and traditional seeds. Agroecology gives us a deeper scientific understanding of how ecological processes work at the level of soils, living seeds and living food.

Through ecology and the new biology of our local and traditional seed systems, farmers know that life is self-organized complexity, life makes itself, and it cannot be manufactured. This also applies to food production through the new science of agroecology. Peasant farmers are deeply knowledgeable about their relationship to nature, the living world, the living soil and the living seeds.

The sacredness of food and consumer habits

“Very large trees are grown from very small seeds. These seeds are so small we can break them with a finger, but that illustrates the value of small seeds. That is symbolic of the peasant farmers’ respect for the sacredness of seed, and that experience is not mechanical. It is how the ancestors have lived with seeds for hundreds of thousands of years.”

Food is a sacred gift from the universe. That means it is not a commodity, and it is not there for profit or for commerce. This fundamental understanding has been lost, and now food is being produced, packaged and marketed, losing its spiritual value. There is another growing trend. The majority of consumers know very little about their food system, including its nutritional value. The only thing they hear is that food is a fuel that you put in the body like you put fuel in the car, so to drive the body you need food. When we lose contact with the food system, we lose contact with the soil. Losing contact with the food and the soil means losing contact with the seed as well. It is the seed which is the source of life and all the food we eat. Very large trees are grown from very small seeds. These seeds are so small we can break them with a finger, but that illustrates the value of small seeds. That is symbolic of the peasant farmers’ respect for the sacredness of seed, and that experience is not mechanical. It is how the ancestors have lived with seeds for hundreds of thousands of years.

We farmers are very aware that the control by a few has strangled the space between those who eat and those who produce that food; like a balloon being squeezed in the middle. The control of the food system is coming with the control of the seed and the privatization of our food systems. This is the time to put aside the panic of immediate threats, extend the limit of the horizon far beyond the sight, and forget about forced balances and stocks. Instead, open and reconsider the immediate surroundings, try the diverse native seeds, ecological contours and the local foods systems. It is an opportunity to try new ingredients and different recipes and bring back ecologies and economies into a more promising shape by carefully redrawing the way.

Living examples of protecting community seed systems

We farmers are conscious that life on Earth has diversity, not monocultures. Modern technology seems to have forgotten that, and it has designed monocultures for the profit of large multinational corporations while peasant farmers have continued to save, reuse and exchange this beautiful creation of God.

ZIMSOFF advocacy work at local level

Members of the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF) have created a movement that can connect them to the very origin of their being through saving, reusing and exchanging their traditional and sacred seeds to protect their future well-being. The members are advocating for a world that allows the future of saving our own traditional seeds in alignment with the earth and life in abundance. Recognizing diversity in a deeper sense protects the earth because diversity is unique and self-sustaining. The foundation of social justice is ecological justice so whatever peasant farmers are doing, they are thinking of how their actions will create social and ecological benefits for future generations.

The experience of ZIMSOFF members has been that it is only from grassroots households that change should be influenced, horizontally and vertically. Households know each other and can easily connect; they can learn from each other, they can easily exchange seed and protect household seed banks of quality seed which they constantly monitor. They have noted that change will not happen via one person at a time so there is a need to work together as organized groups, try new ways of doing and commit to making a difference in the environment. Through networking and relationship-building they develop a common understanding. Members have continued to multiply their diverse traditional and open pollinated seed varieties, organizing best farmer field days, seed and food fairs, campaign workshops and exchange visits to build capacity of the practicing farmers.

The Zimbabwe Seed Sovereignty Program (ZSSP)

Seven organizations with vast experience in agroecology and seed diversity conservation have designed a collaborative and strategic multi-year program on strengthening community based seed systems in Zimbabwe towards seed sovereignty. The organizations include ZIMSOFF, the Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Zimbabwe, Towards Sustainable Use of Resources Organisation (TSURO) Trust, Chikukwa Ecological Land Use Community Trust (CELUCT), Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre (FPC), Farmers Association of Community Self Help Investment Groups (FACHIG) Trust, and Practical Action. The program constantly refers to the principles below to evaluate its performance. The principles also assist in planning and decision-making.

Zimbabwe Seed Sovereignty Program Principles
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1.0 Farmer-led

1.1 Opening, creating and promoting spaces for farmers to express their views, concerns, achievements and issues;
1.2 Ensuring farmers’ rights and capacity to produce, exchange and trade seed;
1.3 Shifting research towards farmer-driven research.
1.4 Ensuring a farmer-led approach to planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the program.

2.0 Strengthening Sustainable practices

2.1 Recognition and enhancement of local and indigenous knowledge and innovations;
2.2 Promoting and upholding ecological practices;
2.3 An emphasis on conserving and evolving traditional and OPV seed varieties of high quality (that are not genetically engineered)

3.0 Collaboration

3.1 Having a trusting and learning partnership of equals based on clarity of roles and transparency;
3.2 Reaching out to collaborate with other initiatives and stakeholders, wherever relevant, in Zimbabwe and beyond.
3.3 The partners recognize the importance of commitment to the program by the whole organization (not just certain individuals).

4.0 Inclusivity

4.1 Ensuring access to OPV and traditional seed of high quality by marginalized and vulnerable people.

5.0 Contextual understanding

5.1 Working towards a deeper awareness and understanding of socio-cultural, political and economic issues around seed at all levels.

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Barriers to Success

The threat to community seed systems impacts the very fabric of human life and the life of the planet. The promises made by the biotechnology industry—increased yields, reduction of chemical use and control of weeds and pests through their monocultures—have not been kept. Meanwhile, we see greater environmental degradation, while indicators of climate change and poverty are growing.

The impact of the Green Revolution

Despite efforts by peasant farmers to save, reuse and exchange their traditional seed varieties, the Green Revolution continues to hold sway in terms of how African governments approach agriculture. The Green Revolution strongly favors the interests of large multinational corporations and the more powerful nation-states in the global system. The impact is visible from the African Union (AU) down to the individual government extension officer who interfaces directly with farmers through providing training on conventional methods that emphasize the use of hybrid seed, fertilizers and toxic chemicals. As a result, extension officers continue to advise farmers to buy certified hybrid seed maize in particular and to do away with farmer saved seed, regarding this practice as primitive. The myth is that to achieve high yields, farmers must buy only certified seed at a profitable rate for the corporation.

“Currently there are hundreds of crop types and untold varieties in the farmer seed system. These are not recognized in policy or law, and are not given public support despite their critical social and ecological functions.”

Public resources have been pulled into supporting this, from subsidies to hybrid seed maize, to seed research and development favouring corporate agendas. Across the region, there is hardly any recognition of farmers’ ongoing seed reproduction practices that are absolutely critical to the maintenance of agricultural biodiversity across Africa. Currently there are hundreds of crop types and untold varieties in the farmer seed system. These are not recognized in policy or law, and are not given public support despite their critical social and ecological functions.

Harmonization of seed laws

Harmonization processes currently underway in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) attempt to impose a blanket set of regulations for all seed producers, regardless of whether they are multinational corporations in large markets or individual farmers reproducing seed on their own land. The harmonization process relates to commercial seed production. But it encroaches on farmer’s rights as defined in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources (ITPGRA), to which most countries in the region are signatory. Historically, farmers had the right to recycle any seed in their possession as long as it was used on their own land, and there were no restrictions on farmers selling seed informally.

“Harmonized laws threaten to criminalize any sale of seed by peasant farmers that has not gone through the formal certification process and does not meet formal regulations for seed production and storage. These include farmers’ own seed, thus imposing a standardized legal model inappropriate to the context of long histories of local exchange and trade.”

The secretariat and 19 member states of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) have been developing a harmonized law called the Protocol on Plant Variety Protection (PVP). This protocol is based on UPOV 1991 and was adopted in Arusha, Tanzania, in July 2015. The ARIPO PVP Protocol puts in place a regional PVP system that favours only commercial plant breeders and undermines the rights of farmers to freely use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed of a protected variety. It gives powers to the ARIPO office to grant very strong plant breeders’ rights (PBRs) to commercial breeders. It makes PBRs granted by the ARIPO office valid in all ARIPO member states. All this makes it very easy for foreign seed companies to take over Africa’s seed systems and illegally use local varieties and replaces national PBR laws and systems.

Harmonized laws make the recycling of varieties protected by PVP illegal. They threaten to criminalize any sale of seed by peasant farmers that has not gone through the formal certification process and does not meet formal regulations for seed production and storage. These include farmers’ own seed, thus imposing a standardized legal model inappropriate to the context of long histories of local exchange and trade. While this may or may not have immediate material effect on farmer practices, it represents a significant reduction of farmer seed security by opening the door for criminalization of farmer practices.

Potential funder interventions

Focus area 1: Advocacy for farmer seed rights
Increase the understanding of socio-cultural political issues by peasant farmers so they may advocate effectively against this process being pushed by the Green Revolution, which has the greatest impact on the security of community seed systems. The Green Revolution process is top-down, and promotes breeders’ rights over peasant farmers’ rights. It is a one-size-fits-all system in our region and based on UPOV 91 (a centralized system meant for the EU Trade Systems). The information on the processes is regarded as confidential, and there is very limited, if any, non-market access to smallholder farmer seeds, as the process is based on the distinctiveness, uniformity and stability (DUS). It is difficult for peasant farmers to access the technology required for breeding. The farmers’ role under this regime is just to be growers, not innovators or stewards of their heritage. And, most importantly, policies based on the Green Revolution are not ecologically and economically viable.

Focus area 2: Infrastructure of seed systems
There is a need to strengthen seed production and conservation infrastructure at the household and community level, and to re-establish these where they have been lost. Formal dialogues, using exercises such as the Community Technology Development Organization’s (CTDO) Diversity Wheel, to assess the seed situation in the participating countries, are envisaged. This process will also lead to the identification of lead seed farmers who will be strengthened as seed producers. This strengthening will cover seed production, selection, harvesting and storage. The strengthening will also combine local knowledge and some technical input from outside where necessary.

“Support from funders should influence a movement towards agroecology and seed sovereignty, including Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) setups for community seed systems and adequate documentation of good practices.”

Focus area 3: Trade and exchange
It is important to stimulate greater trade and exchange of a variety of seed amongst farmers within communities and between communities. Support from funders should influence a movement towards agroecology and seed sovereignty, including Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) setups for community seed systems and adequate documentation of good practices.

Focus area 4: Capacity-building
One of the key areas that requires support is capacity-building within farming communities and support services to increase knowledge and skills in relation to diverse community based seed systems. This includes carefully designed exchange visits, the development of farmer-friendly seed handbooks, and the circulation of learning materials.

Focus area 5: Research
Strengthening links between farmer led research and national and regional institutions under the auspices of Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) is of paramount importance. The support will guarantee quality and quantity of seed produced and recycled among peasant farmers.

Focus area 6: Consumer education on health food styles
There is need for awareness. Many people across the world are beginning to ask questions about diet, nutrition and food generally. This is a very good base to work from, to change consumer perceptions to think favourably about traditional and organic foods, and to increase the knowledge among consumers about the benefits of eating traditional and organic foods. There is also a need to increase farmer knowledge on the benefits of producing traditional and organic foods, as well as to influence governments to incorporate the promotion of traditional and organic foods in relevant policies and strategies.