South Africa: Small-scale farmers defend traditional seed systems (IPS)

| April 30, 2012

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Selinah Mncwango opens a big plastic bag and pulls out several smaller packets. Each contains a different type of seed: sorghum, bean, pumpkin, and maize. The seeds are her pride, her wealth, and the “pillar of my family,” says the farmer from eastern South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province.

Sixty-five-year-old Mncwango comes from a family of small-scale farmers in the village of Ingwawuma. The crops she grows today come from seeds that were handed down from generation to generation. Other seeds come from exchanges with neighbouring farmers. She says, “My seeds are very important to me. I hope the day will never come when I have to buy seeds from a shop.” Her five children and eight grandchildren largely depend on her harvest.

Ms. Mncwango is keenly aware that seed saving, storage and exchange promote crop diversity, save money and provide small-scale farmers with a safety net in case of harvest failures. But she feels that the policies of her government will mean the end of traditional farming and seed-saving. She explains, “The government keeps forcing seeds on us. We’d rather have support with fencing, farming equipment and better access to markets.” Farmers like her tell the government they don’t want seeds. But, she adds, “… they just don’t listen.”

Rachel Wynberg is a policy analyst at the Environmental Evaluation Unit of the University of Cape Town in South Africa. She says, “The sector is dominated by commercial seed companies and industrial agricultural production.” She believes that small-scale farmers have been systematically pushed out of the system by those who put profits before food security and biodiversity. She adds, “There is a poor understanding of small farmers’ rights. Traditional agricultural practices have thus been eroded over decades.”

In 2006, the United Nations developed an international treaty to protect farmers’ indigenous knowledge. The treaty demanded rewards for farmers’ contribution to maintaining crop diversity, ensured their participation in decision-making about genetic resources, and guaranteed their right to save, use, exchange and sell seeds. Yet South Africa and many other African U.N. member states have not signed the treaty.

Rachel Wynberg continues, “South Africa’s policy framework on farmers’ rights is unclear. Commercial programs are promoted that contradict and undermine traditional farming practices.” According to Ms. Wynberg, government support of small-scale farmers lacks funding, lacks capacity and often ignores farmers’ needs.

Small-scale farmers agree. Mncwango is appalled at the South African government’s drive to sideline them. She laments, “The Department of Agriculture regularly comes to give workshops. They hand out GM and hybrid seeds and tell us to throw away our traditional seeds.”

According to Mncwango, farmers often realize too late that GM seeds cannot be saved for the next season, and that they contaminate traditional seeds. Farmers have had to learn the hard way that hybrid seeds are of inferior quality. She says, “They don’t store well and they rot easily and have less nutritional value.”

South Africa’s Department of Agriculture denies these accusations. Julian Jaftha is the department’s director of genetic resources. He says, “Replacing traditional seeds with commercial varieties is not an official government policy.” He says that the Department supports both traditional and commercial farming methods.

Mr. Jaftha acknowledges, however, that national policy has not always been implemented correctly. He says, “Unfortunately, it does happen at provincial level that farmers are not given a choice. We know that there is still a lot of work that needs to be undertaken.”