Saving and exchanging seeds is an age-old practice in many parts of the world. In Africa women are more connected to seeds as they are the majority of food producers. With seed selection at the hands of smallholder farmers, appropriate seeds were selected based on suitability to local climate, suitability to local soil and the existing food culture.In Africa 80% of seeds come from farmers’ seeds or indigenous varieties which are adapted to the various ecological zones.
Seed diversity is of great importance because it provides diversified nutrition, varied taste and as well as culinary diversity.Indigenous seeds are currently under attack by multinational corporations which push Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability (DUS) as characteristics applicable in seed certification and plant variety protection.
Locally developed seed varieties also known as Farmer Managed Seeds(FMS) are often deemed as backward but this is the same seeds that provide food that feeds the bulk of the global population and not industrial food systems. The process of saving and exchanging indigenous seeds is sophisticated and varies from community to community. This is also anchored on the traditional practices and rituals of a given community. Seed accompanies human life from birth and during at burial where it signified the end of life. Some communities bury their dead with seeds and some African communities’ seeds are given as gifts to the newly born. Seed preservation practices have been handed over from generation to generation. The practices include covering seeds with ashes or cow dung to preserve them and storage of seeds in specially designed granaries.
With the so called modernisation, granaries have disappeared and with the disappearance of granaries which were in essence seed stores, seed varieties are also disappearing .26th of April is recognised as the International Seed Day. This day is endorsed by activists, farmers and organic food advocates around the world to advocate for patent free seeds, biodiversity and farmers’ rights. Conversely, the same day is considered as the World Intellectual Property Day.
There are many potential dangers when intellectual property covers seeds. With intellectual property saving, sharing and exchange of seeds is curtailed under legislations mainly Food Acts and Crops Act as well as Genetic Materials and Benefit Sharing Acts across different countries in Africa. What this does to smallholder farmers is that it criminalised exchanging of seeds by putting up heft fines which the farmers cannot afford in the first place. They criminalise sharing of seeds because with patenting for someone to use seeds which are considered patented, they must pay royalties to the owner of the patent. The question is how many smallholder farmers can afford to pay royalties? When some cannot even afford farm inputs.
Patenting also opens ways for exploitation of indigenous varieties. A representative of a Transnational Corporation can come to a village in Africa, pick genetic material, modify and parent it, the ownership of the genetic material therefore transfers from the community to be new owner who has done the patenting.
With patenting, farmers are no longer be allowed to share seeds because multinational want to make profits derived from the royalties, smallholder farmers are also not allowed to sell seeds because their varieties are deemed to be “backward “. In some instances, it is assumed that with patenting some elements are added to make the seed thrive better than when it was in its original or indigenous form. But all this is a fallacy because a comparative analysis on the origin of seed clearly indicates that indigenous seeds are more compared to “improved seeds “and that they are resilient to climate change which is a crisis grappling many parts of Africa today.
As documented by the African Centre for Biodiversity(ACBIO), seed sovereignty which means farmers having control over and being at the centre of their seed systems means that they have the right to : sow , breed, save and exchange all seeds and planting materials, continue with their cultural practices in relation to seeds , have access to seeds, be protected from being sold, fake and inappropriate seed and participate in decision making on seed improvement, breeding , pricing , production , distribution , standards and diversity. With patenting, seed sovereignty is dismantled in that farmer’s rights and control over their seeds is restricted or completely lost. Take for instance a farmer who goes to an agrovet to buy seeds, he or she does not have control on how the seeds being sold at the agrovet selected, the quality is restricted to fever varieties because the seed producer who is a multinational and want’s to capitalise on economies of scale in marketing anchoring their seeds on Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability. With uniformity, biodiversity is largely restricted because the seeds are mass produced in a controlled environment and have to be of the same size. A look at indigenous seeds in Many African communities shows a multi-coloured maize cobs some purple others maroon others yellow. Indigenous seeds speak to diversity which is fully absent in industrially produced seeds.
With industrial produced seeds, farmers have no say about how these seeds are produced and their qualities. Conversation with smallholder farmers reveal that many a times what they buy from the agrovets end up not yielding the desired crop or fail before maturing. Additionally, industrial seed systems have adopted marketing strategy where rural farmers are bombarded “miracle” seeds that thrive in every environment. There have been incidences where farmers complain of buying fake seeds
With industrial seeds, you can only get them in designated places which are agrovets, however for indigenous seeds, you can get them from your next door neighbour at no transport cost or from the local market or from networks of indigenous seed producers. Industrial seeds are devoid of culture because the aim of planting these seeds is to make profit. Africa is a mystical and cultural continent. Planting of indigenous seeds comes with libations to the ancestors seeking a good crop, to thanksgiving to the gods to bring rain during drought. But when planting industrial seeds, you will never see any farmer pouring libation or appeasing the ancestors during planting.
In indigenous seeds there is ownership. These seeds have been in existence in given communities for years, they are well understood, with this knowledge which is more often passed on from generation to generation, selection of the highest quality of seeds is maintained. Factors which are considered when selecting seeds include early maturity, resistance to pests and diseases.
When one buys indigenous seeds, the challenge of the seeds being fake is eliminated. This is because indigenous seeds are resilient and thrive well despite changing weather patterns. In indigenous seeds, farmers are thus automatically protected from seed related exploitation be it through pricing or quality. In indigenous seeds because they are locally produced, farmers can exchange seeds with each other at no cost. The process of saving, exchanging and multiplication of seeds also contributes to building local knowledge which is very beneficial during learning and exchange as farmers are able to share with fellow farmers and others about what the produce and how they produce it. It also enables enhancing biodiversity at the local level.
Farmer Managed Seed Processes are empowering, they give farmers the freedom to control their seeds and the power to exchange seeds. This is largely missing in an industrial food system where the production process is largely done by machines and laboratories.
Indigenous seeds promote biodiversity through multiplication of seeds and careful selection. For example, in Kenya, the Seeds Savers Network multiplies indigenous seeds. Woe unto you if you are found with traces of patented seeds when there is cross pollination because you can be taken to court to explain the source of your seeds and another problem is that in Africa farms cannot be zoned and we depend on bees, butterflies and other insects for pollination. There are reported cases of farmers being taken to court and sued because of seeds.
Indigenous seeds are available throughout the year at almost no cost whereas as a farmer if one does not have money to buy seeds, they may end up not planting anything during that season. Parenting also paves way for bio-piracy where farmers’ varieties can be stolen, modified and brought back to the same farmers to buy at prices many cannot afford.
Talk to any grandmother or grandfather in any village in Africa and they will tell you the story of seeds and how seeds were kept in special places. They will also tell you how the seed varieties are disappearing and they will also reminisce the golden days when crops grew without fertilisers and the soil was healthy all year around.
We all need to be cautious about the misleading narrative being peddled that Farmers’ seeds are backward, archaic and disease ridden. Furthermore, African governments should be lobbied now more than ever not to give in to corporate pressure which undermines farmers’ seeds.
Cover photo credit @World March of Women
 Both ENDS, UPOV 91 and Trade Agreements: Compromising Farmers’ Rights to Save and Sell Seeds, Discussion Paper October 2018