A first-ever national seed dialogue in South Africa strengthens the push-back against the bulging muscles of corporate and state control over seed and food production. UFRIEDA HO reports.
There are seven giant seed and agro-chemical companies in the world, millions of smallholder farmers locked into buying from this monopoly, and billions of us, dependent on the food farmers grow.
It adds up to a skewed global food production system that’s mirrored in South Africa. Local activists and a growing voice of small-scale farmers say the continued industrialisation and commercialisation of the seed system threatens bio-diversity, food security and indigenous knowledge. It also widens inequality gaps and leaves the world with damning contradictions of food surpluses and wastage alongside starvation and malnutrition.
They are calling for a revision of the system, taking aim in particular at two pieces of legislations that govern plant breeders’ rights and plant improvement that are currently before the NCOP (National Council of Provinces).
At the weekend the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), a non- profit research, analysis and advocacy group gathered together over 100 participants for a national “seed dialogue” at the Women’s Gaol at Constitution Hill.
Mariam Mayet, executive director of ACB, says the gathering was a way to have a collective, alternative conversation about the future of food production, protection of seed from corporate monopolies and to raise awareness for the rights of smallholder farmers and other players, including organic and subsistence farmers.
Mayet adds: “The proposed revisions to the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act and the Plant Improvement Act currently before the NCOP are too restrictive and have the potential to lock out smallholder farmers from being able to collect and trade in their own seed.”
Mayet says if the legislation gets the President’s signature of approval it will entrench corporate control of seed, confine commercial opportunity to a monopoly of seed companies, narrow the focus of research and development funding to industrialised seed companies and potentially criminalise farmers who under the new legislation may be found to be transgressing new rules on seed trading. The legislation will favour breeders by extending their rights to their seed variety by an additional five year to 30 years.
The proposed legislations, ACB says, also sets up barriers to entry for traditional seed breeders. The registration and certification processes as well as criteria governing standard produce measurement – such as DUS (distinct, uniform and stable) or disease and pest control regulations – are costly and inappropriate for smallholder farmers.
“The architecture of the legislation is inflexible and restrictive and because it heavily protects plant breeders in takes away rights from farmers to reuse and harvest seed as they see fit.
“Smallholder farmers cannot be expected to meet the same criteria as those in the formal seed system and they can’t be expected to pay the same fees if they want to register or certify one of their varieties.
“We support standards, safety and best practices, but we’re also saying there needs to be alternatives written into the legislation that cover the needs for smallholder farmers, home growers, subsistence farmers and organic farmers,” says Mayet.
Joan Sadie, Registrar of Plant Improvement at Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), says specifics of what the revisions to the two pieces of legislation will ultimately govern will only be thrashed out once they are approved by the President. Submissions and comments closed in the middle of the year. Sadie says these will be taken into account in determining specifics of scale, size, variety and quantity for trading limits and exemptions.
“The two revisions to the act as well as the acts themselves were never meant to interfere with smallholder farmers. It was aimed at large-scale farmers who may be profiting off selling farmed saved seed without paying breeders who have developed the seed,” she says.
Protecting breeders’ rights and legislating around standards she says is necessary to satisfy consumer expectation and to raise the game for breeders who are scrambling to develop seeds that will stand up to extreme weather conditions in an era of climate change.
“The seeds being developed include traditional crops and the processes can be from natural selection or be hybrids and those that are genetically modified,” she says.
“In working out the details we do want to make sure that we cater for all sides – those who want to continue as they always have and those who want to do something different with their seeds,” she says.
For Mazibuko Jara of Ntinga Ntaba KaNdoda, an NGO that promotes sustainable rural development in Keiskammahoek South in the Eastern Cape, the legislation and its revisions miss the point completely.
“Seed is not just seed, it is about power and the structures of power. There is a sacredness in the seed and this legislation means that smallholder farmers are not real actors in our democracy,” Jara says.
He also criticises the legislation’s focus on a “technological fix” and industrialised farming as a remedy for modern maladies of food security and adapting to climate change.
“Indigenous seed knowledge understands things like nutrition and understands how to save seed, share seed and share the knowledge,” he says.
Smallholder farmers and subsistence farmers suffer from the paradox of being huge in numbers, but having a thin, dispersed voice that still proves to be anaemic in standing up to seed giants and to lobby government.
According to Professor Rachel Wynberg, Bio-Economy Research Chair at the University of Cape Town writing in The Conversation in October 2016, South Africa has an estimated 2,3-million small-scale farmers who cultivate a combination of traditional crops that include grains such as millet, sorghum, and maize. There’s also a variety of legumes like mung beans, cow peas, peanuts and jugo beans and indigenous leafy vegetables like morogo that make up the traditional crops basket.
It speaks to huge numbers of small-scale food producers who in turn feed millions. It also speaks to a wealth of traditional crops that don’t benefit from exposure to mainstream markets or are afforded more money or attention for research and development.
Mayet’s warning is that with ever diminishing interest and protection of indigenous seeds, seed companies have since the mid-1990s been able to push harder for hybrid and genetically modified (GM) seed.
It’s a disruptor. Hybrid seeds and GM seeds cannot be replanted and new seeds need to be bought each season. Farmers enter into contracts with seed companies that prescribe how the crops must be grown. The seeds are sold along with the companies’ agri-chemicals products engineered to work specifically with the seeds. The promise though is higher yields and drought and pest resistant crops. But GM technology remains controversial and continues to be shunned by the likes of the European Union and the risk-benefit debate rages on.
Still, while the talking goes on, the seed companies gain ground and cash in. The Heinrich Boll Foundation, the German Green Political Foundation reported in October this year that “the narrowing of the oligopoly from six or seven to three members (transnational seed companies) will bring Bayer-Monsanto, DuPont-Dow and ChemChina-Syngenta closer to their objective of dominating seed and pesticide markets and dictating products, prices and quality standards”.
The mergers squeeze out competitors and push up profits. The foundation reports that the expected global turnover of seed and pesticides will increase from $85-billion in 2015 to $120-billion in 2025.
It makes the story of our food – the story of us – one that’s increasingly being told in numbers, or rather the gulf in the numbers. DM