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Richness in diversity December 3rd, 2017 by

For decades, new crop varieties have been bred by relying heavily on farmers’ knowledge and the local landraces they grow. Landraces have provided a major gene pool readily used by breeders to make crops better adapted to drought, floods, pests and diseases. But with increased pressure from the private sector and insufficient support from the public sector, many rural communities struggle to maintain their diversity of crops and food, as I recently learned in Malawi.

When Marcella and I were asked by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR) to make a video on Farmers’ Rights to seed, we only had a faint idea of how strong the debate raged among development organisations, policy-makers and farmers. We were surprised to learn that in Malawi, a draft seed policy had been written that would force farmers to buy commercial seed only.

Driving from Lilongwe to the northern town of Rumphi we passed many fields with dried stubble, where maize and tobacco had been recently harvested. Beyond these bleak fields lie rolling, dusty hills, but decorated during the dry season by trees flowering in white, orange, purple and other colours. But the beauty of the landscape doesn’t stop one from seeing the dire poverty in which the people live.

Maize is the staple food and many farmers grow it as a cash crop, encouraged by government fertilizer subsidies. Farmers who accept the subsidy are obliged to plant only hybrid maize seed.

Families growing tobacco for multinational companies have basically sacrificed their lives to the crop, but unlike the fluctuating world market price for tobacco over the years, their living conditions have remained stubbornly low at all times.

The reliance on these two key crops is beginning to change. Recent development efforts have started to take crop and food diversification seriously. As I talked to farmers over the next few days, it dawned on me how much effort is required for farmers to preserve local crop varieties that have been nurtured over many years. Many families have abandoned their traditional crops and dishes and the current generation of farmers has little idea of how to grow anything else apart from maize and tobacco.

On our first day of filming we visited the community seed bank in Mkombezi. As member farmers arrived in small groups, we filmed the shelves lined with glass jars full of seeds of local varieties of sorghum, millet, maize, beans, groundnuts and Bambara groundnuts.

“We keep seed of our local varieties and multiply them to share with our members, and also to supply non-members. At this moment we have 14 tons of seed in our store room,” proudly explains Shadreck Kapira, secretary of the seed bank.

Outside the seed bank more farmers have gathered. With the support of a local NGO, some eight farmers from southern Malawi have travelled over 600 kilometres to meet fellow farmers in the north. The next day, they will all attend a seed fair to exchange and sell seed of their food crops. The visiting farmers proudly display small plastic bags, each containing precious seeds. Each lot is poured onto a red, blue or green plastic plate and a label attached with the name of the farmer and seed variety.

During the group discussion the farmers from the north show great interest in the sorghum varieties on offer by their colleagues from the south. With the changing climate the hybrid maize varieties do not perform as well as they used to. If rains are not good, a farmer risks losing her entire crop. Some of the local sorghum varieties mature in just 2 months, a month earlier than the hybrid maize, and they can better withstand drought.

Farmers also talk about how they use different crops to prepare food and drinks for special events, such as weddings or the nomination of village chiefs. Millet is one of their favourite crops. It produces a porridge which is not only more nutritious than that made from maize, but can be prepared with less water and without cooking, so there is no need for fuel wood. Millet is also an essential ingredient of traditional sweet and sour beers.

The next morning we leave early, just before dawn at 5 o’clock, to reach Mpherembe on time for a seed and food fair. The local community has fenced off an area near the water well and tied bundles of local grasses to sturdy poles to keep out the dust-laden wind. Local NGO staff register each farmer, the type and amount of seed they bring to the fair. Women have also prepared a diverse range of foods and when I peek under the lid of the occasional plastic bucket I find millet beer, an important part of a fair.

According to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, signed by over 140 governments across the world, every farmer has the right to exchange and sell their local seed. When we interview Bena Phiri, she is very explicit: “My rights, I can say that my local crops that I grow are mine and no one can have control over my seed. I have the right to sell them at my own will and no one can say anything because they are mine.”

However, a draft seed policy wants to force farmers to buy all their seed at agro dealer shops. If approved, it would spell disaster for local crop varieties. Most agro dealers have few varieties for sale, and hardly any are local. The stores mainly sell hybrid maize from Monsanto, Syngenta and perhaps one or two other multi-national companies. Fortunately, pressure from development agencies and farmer organisations has delayed the new regulation and the draft seed policy has not yet passed Cabinet.

We hope that our video on Farmers’ right to seed, available in English and two Malawian languages (Chichewa and Tumbuka) will help to raise farmers’ awareness across the country. Distributed by Access Agriculture and its diverse partners in Malawi with the support of GFAR, the videos will soon be shown in farm clubs, on local TV, and aired on the radio. We also expect many farmers will view the video directly on their inexpensive mobile phones.

It is ironic that wealthy people are now able to access more food diversity than ever, at a time when the poor could have many of their local crop varieties wiped out by misguided laws. The media has a role to play in raising awareness among farmers, legislators and consumers and to ensure that local cultures based on a rich diversity of crops and foods is maintained.

Further viewing

Watch the training video Farmers’ rights to seed

Related blogs

Bolivian peanuts

Forgotten vegetables

Forty farmer innovations

Homegrown seed can be good

Meeting the need for groundnut seed

Onions from Agadez

The sunflower: from Russia with love, and oil

We share

Quinoa, lost and found

Further reading

Van Mele, P., Bentley, J.W and Guéi, R.G. (eds.) 2011. African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. CABI Publishing, UK, 256 pp. Download chapters here.

Timothy A. Wise. 2017. Did Monsanto Write Malawi’s Seed Policy? https://foodtank.com/news/2017/08/monsanto-malawis-seed-policy/

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR). Support in Malawi was kindly provided by the Development Fund of Norway, Biodiversity Conservation Initiative and the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy.

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