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The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience

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Commentary:Supporting Authentic Farmer Managed Seed Systems

Maryam Rahmanian is a Research Associate at the Centre for Sustainable Development (CENESTA), an NGO based in her native Iran, where she initiated and led a national program on participatory plant breeding. Rahmanian is the Vice-Chair of the High Level Panel of Experts of the Committee on World Food Security and an advisor to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on agroecology and biodiversity.

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

In my experience, establishing autonomous networks related to seeds which are controlled by peasant farmers is key.

Community based seed systems are obviously the result of a collective endeavour—no individual could undertake this work on their own, so it’s the collective nature of the seed system that has to be at the heart of any effort to protect and strengthen them.

This collective work is best undertaken in networks that could, for instance, be national networks of local seed-saving organizations. I clearly distinguish the autonomous farmer networks from networks controlled by NGOs or technical experts (including well-known or “celebrity” defenders of seeds).

The networks need to be led by people whose livelihoods depend on the continued use of local seeds. Their dependence on these seeds gives them knowledge of both technical aspects of seed saving and knowledge of the kinds of policies they need. This knowledge can be supported, but not replaced, by the knowledge of technical, research and NGO experts.

These networks need to have the scope to work on several fronts: save and exchange seeds, research (whether participatory research with breeders or their own research), analysis of regulations, laws and policies and engagement with policy makers and legislators to develop more favourable policies as needed.

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

“Sometimes farmers are challenged to speak the language of donors and policy makers, and so NGOs often become their interlocutors. This can be a very important source of support for local farmers, but all too often the experts (sometimes subtly) lead the process.”

a) As suggested above, experts—including researchers and NGOs—tend to become the de facto leaders of efforts to strengthen community based seed systems because local farmers often lack the resources to do all the work that they would like to do. Also, sometimes farmers are challenged to speak the language of donors and policy makers, and so NGOs often become their interlocutors. This can be a very important source of support for local farmers, but all too often the experts (sometimes subtly) lead the process. This is particularly risky when policy and legislative issues are at stake, because in many cases experts/NGOs take more toned-down positions. I think it is easier for them to make compromises precisely because their livelihoods do not depend on the outcomes.

b) Another barrier is that powerful economic players are involved in the seed sector. Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs), Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and other emerging technologies are the most controversial and politicized issues in agriculture, although land is also an important and politicized asset. It is challenging to get institutional support, which may include funds but is certainly not limited to that, to organize any activities that challenge powerful economic interests, such as the major seed companies.

“Despite substantial evidence on the negative environmental and social impacts of Green Revolution technologies (including high-yielding varieties), the emphasis is still very much on increasing production at all costs. Hence for many researchers and policy makers, local and traditional varieties are relics of low-yielding production systems.”

c) These powerful economic interests (the major seed companies and the organizations that defend their interests such as UPOV) are very influential in shaping the thinking of national policy makers and research institutions. They have the resources to develop powerful communications tools and organize a large number of meetings through which they promote policies that benefit them. For example, they often advocate for a larger role for the private seed sector and a lesser role for public breeding. They also promote plant variety protection and seed laws that can impact farmers’ rights to save and exchange their seed. National public research institutes and seed policies and laws should, in theory, support community based seed systems (since most farmers rely on them) but most do not.

d) Productivist narratives have a massive influence on science and policy. Despite substantial evidence on the negative environmental and social impacts of Green Revolution technologies (including high-yielding varieties), the emphasis is still very much on increasing production at all costs. Hence for many researchers and policy makers, local and traditional varieties are relics of low-yielding production systems.

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

a) Supporting collective action of organized peasant farmers (rather than working with individual farmers or groups of farmers through NGOs)

b) Supporting both field-based activities, and policy analysis and advocacy in an integrated way (i.e., each farmer seed network should be doing both)

c) Supporting national, regional and global level seed networks/platforms controlled by peasant farmers

d) Supporting exchanges between policy makers and national focal points to relevant international conventions (ITPGRFA, CGRFA) and peasant seed network leaders and other advocates for community based seed systems

e) Supporting trainings of farmer leaders on policy and regulatory issues