Why Smallholder Farmers Want to Share Indigenous Seeds — Global Issues

Smallholder farmers pose for a photo outside a community seed bank after undergoing training at the Seed Savers Network headquarters in Gilgil, Kenya. Credit: Jackson Okata/IPS
Smallholder farmers pose for a photo outside a community seed bank after undergoing training at the Seed Savers Network headquarters in Gilgil, Kenya. Credit: Jackson Okata/IPS
  • by Jackson Ambole (nairobi)
  • Inter Press Service

Rural smallholder farmers in Kenya rely on informal farmer-managed systems to acquire seeds through seed saving and sharing but the Seeds and Plant Varieties Act is limiting them.

Kenya’s government enacted the law in 2012 with the aim of developing, promoting, and regulating a modern and competitive seed industry, but farmers are pushing for its review.

The informal farmer-managed seed system allows farmers to store a portion of their seeds after harvesting, which guarantees them seeds for the next planting season.

In the legal battle, filed in September 2022, smallholder farmers want the court to compel the government to review the law, which punishes offenders with a prison sentence of up to a maximum of 2 years, a fine of up to KES 1,000,000 or both.

Richard Opete, who led the farmers in filing the petition, argues that the current seed policy “has robbed farmers of the right to use their indigenous seeds freely’’.

“The law gives multinational seed companies power to control our biological resources and this has led to decreased food production by smallholder farmers’’ says Opete.

Further, Opete explains that seed sharing among Kenyan communities has always been a cheaper option for farmers who cannot afford expensive certified seed and fertiliser.

“With seed sharing, every farmer has something to plant and in turn something to harvest and this safeguards communities from food insecurity shocks’’

“A farmer who does not have money might not access certified seeds but they can freely get indigenous ones from a neighbour who has a surplus,’’ says Opete.

Seed Sovereignty 

Elizabeth Atieno, a food campaigner at Greenpeace Africa says “the current seed law favours  big multinationals by giving them room to exploit local resources and that the law sold Kenya’s food system to the highest bidder’’.

Atieno adds that the current seed regulations have forced Kenya’s smallholder farmers into “overdependence on seed companies for seed supply. The effect is a disrupted and unstable food system because the certified seeds come at a cost and at times the supply fails to meet the demand.”

Greenpeace Africa hopes the court case will pave way for the integration of the farmer seed management system into the law to enable smallholder farmers to share and exchange indigenous seeds freely

Veronica Kiboino, a farmer from Baringo County, west of the capital Nairobi, observes that she cannot afford to purchase certified seeds for every planting season.  “Seed sharing is our culture and way of life. The tradition of seed sharing does not require money and this means that I can still plant and harvest food even when money is not available,” says Kiboino.

For farmers like Francis Gika, the traditional ways of preserving and multiplying indigenous seeds are something that “the government should help improve rather than criminalise them.’’

“The seed law is selective, oppressive, and anti-smallholder farmers. A poor rural farmer cannot afford the Kshs. 200,000 (about USD 1,302) to register and get certification for a seed variety as the law demands,” he says.

Gika warns that the punitive law has a direct effect on the economic wellbeing of smallholder farmers because “without seeds, they cannot produce enough food to sell and make money.”

Francis Ngiri, a farmer, wants the seed law to document all Kenyan indigenous seed varieties “to protect their sovereignty and history.”

“What the Seed Act should be focusing on is protecting the sovereignty of indigenous Kenyan seeds from exploitation by multinational seed breeders who are out to make profits.”

Damaris Kiloko Mutiso, a farmer from Machakos County east of Nairobi, says, “Seed sharing is an old-age tradition passed on from our forefathers. Unlike certified seeds, the use of indigenous seeds is cost effective as it does not require the use of chemical-based inputs.”

Protecting Indigenous Seeds from Extinction

Seed Savers Network Kenya is a grass-roots network working with smallholder farmers to establish community seed banks across Kenya. The organisation has been helping farmers trace and preserve indigenous seeds at risk of extinction through the promotion of seed sharing.

The network has so far established 51 community seed banks, serving over 60, 000 smallholder farmers countrywide.

Dominic Kimani, Advocacy Officer at Seed Savers Network, argues that smallholder farmers have “for long been custodians of indigenous seeds and should therefore be supported by the government by enacting laws that protect them.”

“Criminalising informal seed exchange and sharing has a direct effect on farmers’ livelihoods. It encourages biopiracy and reduces plant genetic diversity, which greatly affects the resilience of smallholder farmers and their families,’’ notes Kimani.

Limiting the rights of farmers to share, exchange, and sell seeds in the informal seed sector, according to Kimani, “reduces diverse seed access and  aggravates food and nutritional insecurity in the country.”

Kimani adds that forcing farmers to rely on hybrid seeds poses a big threat to food biodiversity and traditional food cultures.

Biodiversity Conservation

Ben Wanyoro, an agronomist, says indigenous seeds are naturally adapted through the influence of local environmental factors in their growing environments.

“Indigenous seeds and foods are resilient to threats arising from pests, disease, and human interventions and are heterogeneous and polymorphic,” added Wanyoro.

Wanyoro argues that “promoting and supporting indigenous seed sharing assures sustainability not only of the food system but also of natural resources.”

The Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya National Coordinator Anne Maina says a review of the law will ease restrictions hindering the circulation of indigenous varieties, which are rich in nutritious value compared to exotic imports.

“The Seed and Plant Varieties Act prohibits the selling of uncertified seeds, thereby technically locking out the indigenous varieties from the market,” says Maina.

Maina notes that a repeal of the restrictive act will allow small-scale farmers to freely share homegrown seeds, which will help preserve the country’s endangered biodiversity.

“Indigenous seed varieties have unique traits that are well-suited to local climatic conditions, making them resilient to pests and diseases, which can lead to a loss of biodiversity,’’ she says.

Dr. Felista Makini, the Deputy Director at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), agrees that indigenous seeds and traditional African crops have high resilience to climate change and drought.

KALRO operates the Genetic Resources Research Institute (GeRRI), which seeks to safeguard traditional seeds and prevent the loss of genetic resources. The gene bank has over 50,000 plant varieties.

Stakeholder Push

Rosina Mbenya from Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) says the move by farmers to file the petition was critical to ensuring that indigenous seed varieties are protected.

‘Special attention must be accorded to the farmer-managed seed system because they have the capacity and knowledge to nurture indigenous seeds and any prohibitive laws should be scrapped to allow continuity,’’ Mbenya said.

In October 2022, Kenya’s government approved the use of genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds, citing “the need to address the effects of drought and improve food security through the adoption of crops resistant to pests and disease,”  a move that was criticised by organic farmers in the country.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Kenya’s agriculture sector contributes 33 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and another 27 percent of GDP indirectly through linkages with other sectors. Agriculture employs more than 40 percent of Kenya’s total population and 70 percent of Kenya’s rural people.

The case is ongoing.
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© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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