BACK TO MAIN  |  ONLINE BOOKSTORE  |  HOW TO ORDER

Dear Friends and Colleagues

Africa’s Seed Policies Should Recognise and Support Farmer Seed Systems

The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) has prepared a policy discussion document in an effort to synthesise the policy issues emerging from its research on farmer seed systems in Africa. The document states that current seed policies and laws, as they are being developed across Africa, aim to construct and maintain a commercial seed sector, driven by multinational interests. They do not adequately consider the role of farmer seed systems in Africa, where the majority of seed for the majority of crops are maintained and improved by farmers themselves with little or no external support. Conversely, they impose many restrictions on farmers in terms of using, sharing, exchanging, and selling seeds.

The discussion paper is a call for the recognition of smallholder farmer seed systems and practices and flexibility in policies, laws and regulations to accommodate and nurture these systems and practices. ACB proposes a two-pronged response to the limitations of formal seed sector laws and regulations:

• Well-defined exemptions for non-commercial seed production and use and for designated commercial producer categories (defined at national level), such as smallholder farmers or smallholder farmer-owned enterprises, based on a defined commercial threshold, with non-commercial production governed by farmers’ rights as expressed in Article 9 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA); and
• Greater flexibility in regulations and standards, even above the commercial threshold for farmer varieties, especially with regard to registration – including distinct, uniform and stable (DUS) and value for cultivation and use (VCU) tests; and certification – including seed production quality controls, storage and packaging.

The proposal is to contain existing regulations to the commercial system, defined at a sufficiently high threshold to allow the development of small seed enterprises without unnecessary regulation, and to build flexibility into the system for farmer varieties sold above the commercial threshold, as well as to encourage their use, and facilitate adaptability. The paper offers proposals on exemptions and flexibility.

We reproduce below the Introduction to the paper, which can be accessed in full at https://www.acbio.org.za/en/seed-laws/publication/2018/seed-policy-paper-towards-national-and-regional-seed-policies-africa-0

With best wishes,
Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister
10400 Penang
Malaysia
Email: twn@twnetwork.org
Websites:http://www.twn.my/ and http://www.biosafety-info.net/
To subscribe to other TWN information services: www.twnnews.net
 


TOWARDS NATIONAL AND REGIONAL SEED POLICIES IN AFRICA THAT RECOGNISE AND SUPPORT FARMER SEED SYSTEMS

The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB)
23 March 2018
https://www.acbio.org.za/en/seed-laws/publication/2018/seed-policy-paper-towards-national-and-regional-seed-policies-africa-0

Introduction
This is a synthesis of reflections on seed systems policy, arising from ACB’s research and advocacy work, especially in Southern and East Africa, in recent years.

Our starting point is that seed policies and laws, as they are being developed across Africa and globally today neither recognise nor support farmer seed systems. Their primary objective is to construct and maintain a commercial seed sector, driven by multinational interests. Concentrated multinational corporations today dominate global commercial seed production, biotechnology and pesticides: Bayer-Monsanto, ChemChina-Syngenta, Dow-DuPont, BASF and others. The entire thrust of agricultural policy on the African continent is driven by these commercial interests through a combination of multinational public, private and philanthropic investments co-ordinated towards this end.

Farmer seed systems are entirely displaced from this picture. These systems are not recognised in formal policy except as being ‘outside’. Although, to a greater or lesser extent breeders and government officials ‘informally’ recognise these systems, for a long time they have been treated as backward, inferior, obsolete and destined for disappearance. However, more recent times have seen a growing recognition that farmer seed systems remain the foundation of agricultural production across Africa and in other places, globally, and are intricately linked to the ability to transition agriculture towards agroecology through supporting and strengthening biodiversity, with ‘downstream’ effects throughout the food system.

Worldwide, smallholder farmers are active in breeding, selection, management, processing, storage and conservation of plant resources. Smallholder farmers play a critical role in the maintenance and stewardship of biodiversity, including agricultural biodiversity. This role falls specifically to smallholder farmers, because survival strategies incorporate polycultures, including agroforestry. This is in contrast to large-scale commercial agriculture and Green Revolution approaches to agriculture in general, where mono-cropping is the order of the day, creating segregated zones of production with low levels of biodiversity. Crop husbandry and stewardship by cultivators themselves has been the bedrock of agriculture for thousands of years. Farmers have been actively involved in selecting, adapting, and enhancing agricultural biodiversity. Women, in particular, play a critical role in identifying and bringing wild plants into food systems, and women hold extensive and detailed knowledge about food, fodder and medicine.(1)

Only a few major crops amenable to scalable standardised industrial production, processing, packaging and shipping, such as maize, soya and commercial horticulture and other cash crops have been captured by the commercial sector. Even then, farmer varieties(2) flourish, for example, there are numerous farmer varieties of maize in active production across Africa, highly adapted and with special characteristics favoured in the areas of production. Public sector breeding for local conditions has played an important role historically. Germplasm is from the national gene banks and Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), who gather the material from farmers, and do in situ conservation to maintain vigour. This has contributed valued germplasm into local gene pools, and public sector research institutes have more adapted materials available on their shelves.

Commercial seed, including hybrids, brings with it an entire Green Revolution package of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and other high cost external inputs. Hybrids and other conventional varieties are mostly planted alongside farmer varieties. However, there is displacement of farmer varieties over time, as farming households and communities are pressured into cash crop production for diverse reasons. Lack of dedicated support to and strengthening of existing beneficial farming practices (such as maintaining and adapting diverse varieties for local conditions outside the commercial sector) contributes to biodiversity loss.

Current seed policies and laws do not adequately consider the role of farmer seed systems, especially in Africa, where the majority of seed for the majority of crops are maintained and improved by farmers themselves, with little or no external support. This goes beyond lack of recognition, and begins to have negative implications for farmer seed systems because the seed policies and laws apply rules that affect everyone handling genetic materials.(3)

Most notable are:
• Restrictions on use and exchange, including sale of some crops and varieties as a result of plant variety protection (PVP), especially those based on International Union for the Protection of Plant Varieties (UPOV) 1991 criteria;
• Restrictions on using and sharing genetic materials without passing through a series of tests designed for the commercial system, including:
- A restricted and rigid variety testing and registration process; and
- An inflexible quality control system for seed multiplication, storage and packaging.

This discussion paper is not a call for greater regulation of smallholder farmer(4) seed systems and practices. It is a call for their recognition and flexibility in policies, laws and regulations to accommodate and nurture these systems and practices. We feel it necessary to insert a reminder of the importance of smallholder farmers for ongoing agricultural and wider biodiversity maintenance and use in Africa and globally. This is integrally related to climate change and drought response, in Southern Africa, in particular.

In this discussion paper we propose a two-pronged response to the limitations of formal seed sector laws and regulations:
• Well-defined exemptions for noncommercial seed production and use and for designated commercial producer categories (defined at national level), such as smallholder farmers or smallholder farmer-owned enterprises,(5) based on a defined commercial threshold, with non-commercial production governed by farmers’ rights as expressed in Article 9 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA); and
• Greater flexibility in regulations and standards, even above the commercial threshold for farmer varieties, especially with regard to registration – including distinct, uniform and stable (DUS) and value for cultivation and use (VCU) tests; and certification – including seed production quality controls, storage and packaging.

The proposal is to contain existing regulations to the commercial system, defined at a sufficiently high threshold to allow the development of small seed enterprises without unnecessary regulation, and to build flexibility into the system for farmer varieties sold above the commercial threshold, as well as to encourage their use, and facilitate adaptability. The issue is that farmer varieties cannot be pinned down so neatly, as required in the laws and regulations. For example, the cyclical nature of farmer seed systems means that seed selection, production, harvest and dissemination interconnect as a seamless whole. In contrast, formal variety registration and seed certification processes require defined breaks, such as pinning a variety down to a specific set of ‘fixed’ and reproducible characteristics for registration purposes. This does not mean farmer seed is not of good quality. It just functions in a more integrated way with the socio-ecology and is not measurable in the same terms as the formal system requires.

This discussion paper has two main sections. The first looks at the (presumably mostly) unintended impacts of commercial seed regulation on farmer seed systems, looking at PVP, registration and certification. The second section offers proposals on exemptions and flexibility. The discussion can be read for both national and regional levels.

Endnotes

  1. Elias, M. 2013. ‘The importance of gender in agricultural research’. In S. Sthapit et al. (eds) Strengthening the role of custodian farmers in the national conservation programme of Nepal. National workshop proceedings, 31 July to 2 August, Pokhara, Nepal.
  2. Farmer varieties are defined as germplasm and seed either derived from indigenous landraces and their variations under continuous cultivation, or introduced varieties that have been maintained, adapted and absorbed into local seed and food production over time. We refer to conventional varieties, including hybrids, as seed varieties that enter the system from outside at the time of first planting. Thereafter, maintenance and adaptation of that seed over time becomes part of the farmer seed system and is a farmer variety. This is based on the principle that any proprietary claim on seed varieties should apply only to first planting. Thereafter, any product ceases to be the property of the holder of the exclusive rights (if any) on seed varieties.
  3. The term ‘genetic materials’ refers to germplasm, seed and vegetatively propagated material, such as vines. Germplasm is the breeders’ name for genetic materials that are prepared for scientific research. In farmer seed systems, the distinction between germplasm and seed is non-existent, because the harvest cycles back into seed/germplasm for ongoing selection and enhancement in the field. In this way, too, the distinction between seed and grain is non-existent in farmer seed systems, because the harvest from the best plants is saved for future planting.
  4. Following Cousins, we make a distinction between smallholder (land size) and small scale (enterprise size). Cousins, B. 2014. ‘What is a smallholder farmer in South Africa today?’ Paper for a workshop on ‘Opportunities, constraints and innovative approaches in small-scale agriculture in South Africa’, C3 Initiative on Strategies to Overcome Poverty and Inequality, Goedgedacht, 6–8 August 2014.
  5. Enterprises refer to individuals, partnerships and groups who breed, adapt, produce and exchange seed below the commercial threshold. This includes farmers and their associations and cooperatives.

 


BACK TO MAIN  |  ONLINE BOOKSTORE  |  HOW TO ORDER