Celebrating seed sovereignty

Celebrating seed sovereignty

Date: 9 September 2014

African farmers’ ability to freely save and trade their seeds is under increasing threat from powerful seeds companies and a variety of complex new laws.

“Keeping our seed is a collective responsibility. Seed is our wealth. It is neither hers nor mine. It is ours. So we have a joint responsibility. The modern seed is like a stranger or a guest, just like you are. You may indulge us for a day or two, but when you leave tomorrow, it is us who will remain. Just like that, our local seeds will never leave us”

Mohammed, farmer from the Wollo region of Ethiopia. From Seeds of Freedom

African farmers’ ability to freely save and trade their seeds is under increasing threat from powerful seeds companies and a variety of complex new laws. Earlier this year, the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) moved to sign up to an international convention known as UPOV 1991 which essentially prevents farmers from exchanging and selling their own seeds. The convention will also help big corporations to claim ownership of seed varieties and tie farmers in to buying GM and hybrid. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a group of farmers promoting small scale family farming, issued a press release urging ARIPO to consult with smallholders and rewrite the draft protocol so that it puts much more emphasis on farmers’ rights, and sustainable farming and seed systems.

While governments try to close the lid on farmers’ ability to trade their own seeds and bypass larger seed corporations, Monsanto, who control 23% of the world’s seed market, recently applied for a permit to sell genetically modified Bt cotton in Malawi. At the moment Bt cotton is only grown in South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Sudan, and a number of other countries have carried out GM field trials. Farmers in Burkina Faso have been planting Bt cotton since 2007 and there are now over 150,000 farmers growing it in the country. Official documents claim that yields from Bt cotton were almost 20% higher than conventionalin 2013 and gave farmers almost $100 more per hectare.

But the experience of farmers on the ground paints a different picture. Abdou Nignan, the president of the union of cotton farmers of Sissili province in Burkina Faso, says that initial yields were high but have since dropped considerably. The cotton plants were destroyed by insects despite supposedly being resistant to these sorts of problems, and to top it off, the seeds cost around 27 times more than conventional seeds.

Of course not all farmers are being swept up in tide of hybrid and GM seed planting thanks in part to organizations like the international peasant movement La Via Campesina, the increasing strength of the food sovereignty movement, and countless community-led projects. One of these projects is the Climate Seed Knowledge (CSK) initiative run by the NGO RAINS in northern Ghana.

The initiative was set up to help revive local knowledge and farming practices which could help the community adapt to climate change. Working in 5 communities in the Savelugu-Nanton Municipality, the initiative has been able to help farmers grow their own indigenous seed varieties, select seeds which were best adapted to local conditions, and then promote and distribute these seeds in neighbouring communities. The initiative has also helped farmers to visit other communities and share their knowledge about which seed varieties do better in different situations. As a result of selecting and breeding their own indigenous seed varieties, about 80% of the farmers involved in this project reported improved yields and better nutrition.

Laws like UPOV, and the increased use of hybrid and genetically modified seeds, are a means for corporations to increase their control over the food system. By stopping farmers from replanting, saving, exchanging, selling and developing their own seeds varieties, they are a way of reducing farmers’ ability to achieve food and seed sovereignty and build more resilient communities. Reviving the use of indigenous seeds also  empowers women since they tend to play an important role in seed selection and storing, as well as household food security. 

On 11th and 12th October, The Great Seed Festival will take place at the Garden Museum in London.  This will be a great opportunity for people to learn about seeds, seed saving, and seed sovereignty. WDM will be contributing to workshops during the weekend.

Find out more at: http://www.greatseedfestival.co.uk/