Introduction: Seed is life
Farming started when local communities started collecting, planting and selecting seeds – modifying them to meet their needs in the process. Today’s seed also embodies centuries of knowledge about how to conserve, change, plant and guide it to fruitful expression. Seed is about culture, tradition, spirituality, cooperation and diversity. And finally, seed is about survival, about getting diverse and healthy food on the table every day. If Africa has such a tremendous rich diversity of food crops and other plants, it is thanks to local farming communities collecting, conserving, developing and exchanging seeds for millennia.
But seed is also about control. Ever since the giant corporations started to gain control of the seed market globally, seeds have also been about making money, big time. Uniformity replaced diversity as the standard. Monopoly control based on property rights increasingly took over from sharing as the new system of seed distribution. And seeds have been turned into a global commodity in the service of industrial farming and huge corporations, with short shrift given to local adaptedness to the specific methods, ecosystems, and needs of family farms.
The picture often painted for us is that we need corporate seeds to feed the world: they are alleged to be more efficient, productive and predictable. Locally developed farmer varieties are painted as backwards, less-productive and disease-ridden. But those of us with our feet on the ground know that this is not the reality in Africa. Just to start with a sobering fact: the vast bulk of food produced on the continent comes from homegrown farmers’ seeds (some studies put the figure at 80%). If these seeds are so “backward,” what moves farmers to keep preserving and planting them? What benefits do they derive from them? What challenges do they encounter in this effort? How must they be supported so that they can do their work more effectively?
AFSA and GRAIN decided to find out. We work with numerous partner organisations across the continent, many of them involved in local seed diversity activities. AFSA along with many other civil society organisations (CSO) on the continent have adopted the term farmer-managed seed systems (FMSS) to acknowledge certain practices that have been dismissed as “informal” by some.
We proposed a collaborative research project to these CSOs designed to answer these questions, involving interviews with the farmers they work with in order to document their responses. We also asked them to assess the policy situation in their country: what policies are being pushed and implemented, by whom, and to what end? What policies are actually needed? This on-the-ground work was complemented by a literature review and further reflections on the subject.
*The views of the above article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Africa Speaks 4 Africa or its editorial team.