Seeds for Life

Acknowledgement: This article was first published in Farmers World (January 2014), by Agriculture Non State Actors Forum (ANSAF), Tanzania. It is based on a report, Seeds for Life: Scaling Up Agro-Biodiversity, published by Gaia Foundation, Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and African Biodiversity Network (

Over 200 years ago, the first president of the United States of America, George Washington said: “It is miserable for a farmer to be obliged to buy his seeds. To exchange seeds may in some cases be useful, but to buy them after the first year is disreputable.” His words indicate that farmers at that time were generally self-sufficient, only buying enough seeds to get started. But all that has changed. Nowadays 98% of American farmers buy their seeds every year from commercial seed companies.

According to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), 90% of Tanzanian farmers get their seeds for planting from the farmer-saved seed system. They do so by keeping seeds from their harvest or exchanging and buying seeds from other farmers in the village. Only 10% of them get their seeds from the commercial ‘formal’ seed system.

Guardians of biodiversity

For thousands of years, generations of farmers across the globe have been observing, selecting, nurturing, breeding and saving seed so that with every generation agricultural diversity has increased. Farmers have creatively cultivated ever more crop varieties to deal with many different challenges of soils, climates, nutrition, flavour, storage, pests and diseases. Across Africa women have always played a valued role in their communities as the custodians of seeds.

The last century has seen a dramatic decrease in global seed diversity, as corporations have moved aggressively into the agrochemical and seed industry. The companies are seeking to create new customers from the world’s billions of farmers, to the point where now three corporations control over half of the worlds’ commercial seed market. Farmers’ rights to save, breed, exchange and sell seed have diminished as many countries’ laws have favoured corporations and criminalised farmers’ traditional activities.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report published in 2010 estimates that 75% of the world’s crop diversity has already been lost. The erosion of agricultural biodiversity continues. Across much of the industrialised world traditional seed diversity and related knowledge are no longer passed on, as farmers are encouraged or pressured to purchase seeds.

The shift from indigenous local crops grown for nutritional content, to just a few staple crops grown for yield has contributed to a loss of nutrients in diets and to global malnutrition. Low prices for crops in the global marketplace mean that many farmers find themselves in debt to pay for seed and chemical inputs. Across Africa, many farmers have been forced to sell their land and to become labourers on large plantations of feed, fuel and fibre cash crops.

In spite of these pressures, and the myth that large-scale industrial agriculture is more efficient, small-scale farmers currently feed 70% of the world’s population, using only 30% of the land, according to ETC report published in 2009.

Resilience to Climate Change

By growing and saving dozens of seed varieties, farmers have traditionally spread their risk and guaranteed a harvest – even if they faced late or early rains, droughts, floods, pests and diseases. Additionally, by ensuring genetic diversity, farmers also increase the likelihood that a portion of seeds will germinate under difficult conditions. Their in-depth knowledge and understanding of crops, seed selection and local conditions has meant that they have created a wide range of germplasm, from which they can further breed and adapt new resilient and nutritious varieties.

But as the impacts of climate change hit farming, the problems with industrial agriculture are becoming clear. Farmers are increasingly finding that their supposedly high-yielding crops no longer perform as well in the face of unpredictable rains and temperatures, floods and droughts. Meanwhile, extensive use of fertiliser undermines natural health, water-holding capacity and resilience of soil to climate change. In addition, the industrial food system is estimated to contribute half of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

Without their traditional seed diversity, farmers are losing the tools and resilience to deal with these challenges. Farmers, communities and the entire global food system are thus highly vulnerable to climate change due to the erosion of the world’s agricultural biodiversity.

Corporations can only develop seed by breeding from a common heritage of varieties that have been developed and freely shared by farmers for generations. Far from being the inventors of the seed, the corporations are profiting from farmers’ ingenuity, while undermining those to whom they are indebted.

To ensure that farmers and our food systems have the capacity to adapt to climate change, we urgently need strategies and policies that support them to revive their seed diversity and related knowledge.

Seed, Spirituality and Religion

All religions and spiritualities, including Christianity, recognise humanity’s role as guardians of biodiversity and God’s creation. Seed is at the heart of nature’s biodiversity, and symbolises the capacity of life to regenerate itself. Seed is often at the heart of community rituals performed to bring rains and healing to the land and territory, as well as thanksgiving after a good harvest. It is our responsibility to protect these seeds from extinction, and to revive their bountiful diversity. We must recognise and give thanks to previous generations of farmers for enhancing and passing on their seed heritage and knowledge, and value the knowledge and skills of the world’s small-scale farmers today.

Recommendations for Policy and Practice

In our advocacy and actions for a resilient food system and for food sovereignty, we should:

ท Reform our food system towards supporting small-scale farming, agro ecology, seed diversity and local markets.

ท Rejectthe introduction of more restrictive intellectual property standards.

ท Reject patents on seeds and living organisms.

ท Rejecttechnologies that impact negatively on biodiversity and the lives and livelihoods of farmers and consumers.

ท Nationalisethe African Model Law on Farmers’ Rights, which ensures farmers’ continued access to and control over their plant genetic diversity.

ท Promoteparticipatory plant breeding in collaboration with farmers, to further enhance seed diversity and meet their different needs.

ท Support networks of farmers and seed savers, and processes for them to share seed, knowledge and experiences.

ท Support community seed banks that ensure local seed supply.

ท Celebrate and support communities’ seed diversity and seed saving with seed festivals and fairs.

Urgent action is needed to ensure that farmers can grow resilient crops and nutritious food for us all, in the face of climate change and other challenges. Farmers’ complex farming knowledge and their right to save, adapt, exchange and sell seed must be recognised and protected in policy and practice. Otherwise who will feed us in the future?
Michael Farrelly, Programme Coordinator, Tanzania Organic Agriculture Movement

Date : 01 April 2014


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