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How The Not-So-Free Seed Market Affects Small Farmers

Traditional food crops that have adapted to climate change and poor soils hold the key to food security, but is enough being done to conserve them?

12/12/2016 18:29 SAST | Updated 13/12/2016 08:57 SAST
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Our food security may be controlled by a small group, of fewer than 10 very large corporations.

From 16 percent 20 years ago to over 70 percent today. Our food security may be controlled by a small group, fewer than 10 very large corporations. They decide prices, varieties, conditions of growth. They manage patents and intellectual property rights. They make agreements with governments and public institutions. And they have a strong influence on regulations, laws and treaties.

Back in the 80s there were thousands of independent seed companies around the world. Many of these had stories that went back to the end of the 19th or early 20th century, intertwined with the history of the region where they were operating. Most of them are not there anymore. Sometimes the brands have survived, maintained just to give a semblance of historical bond. But the real power is in the hands of few multinational companies. In less than 20 years, they have engulfed hundreds of smaller companies and hold the rights to most of our commonly eaten staples. They promote monoculture (huge fields of one type of crop) and they are turning the seed industry into a monoculture too.

Diversity is the key to survival. Seeds with many traits — drought resistance, early ripening tendencies — make for more ability to adapt to change, including the new threat of climate change. Relying on just a few varieties is dangerous. And having to pay royalties to the holders of those food varieties, doubly so.

Our food security may be controlled by a small group, fewer than 10 very large corporations. They manage patents and intellectual property rights. And they have a strong influence on regulations, laws and treaties.


READ MORE: Our dummy's guide explains how multinational corporations force farmers to buy new seeds each year, putting farming and food prices out of reach for many.


2016 has been a particularly busy year for the seed sector with three big movements on the table. In the past few months a number of acquisitions and merges have been initiated by the main players in the agricultural sector. Dow and DuPont merged and the deal was sealed and officially registered on June 9th 2016. Swiss company Syngenta has been bought by state-owned ChemChina for $43 billion — about R588 billion. The transaction still has to receive the approval of antitrust authorities in several countries. The EU, particularly, has pushed its final stand to the end of March 2017.

In September 2016, Monsanto accepted an offer by Bayer for $66 billion (R903 billion), the highest price ever offered in this field. Monsanto itself had been trying for a while to buy Syngenta but finally succumbed to a bid by the German chemical giant. Again, the deal has not been sealed yet since the merge is under investigation by global antitrust authorities and a number of US state attorneys general. Many local and international organizations of farmers and consumers have expressed their concern and fears for the impacts of these massive merge both on farmers revenues and on consumers choices and options.

On the other side, many farmers, both in Europe and in South Africa, are experimenting and finding ways to remain independent, to enhance agro-biodiversity and to build value and opportunities for consumers who prefer to have more and not fewer choices. These are some of their stories.


READ MORE: South Africa might need to import four million metric tons of maize this year due to drought, and food prices are on the rise across the region. Oxpeckers' Michelle Nel tells us what local farmers are doing to conserve traditional food crops.


Seeds and farmers stories

"Currently under South African law a business like mine is actually illegal. We've been given an exemption by the registrar in charge of plant improvement to allow us to trade," says Sean Freeman. Freeman grew up in Pretoria, South Africa. He studied and worked as an engineer but always collected seed. In 2009, almost by chance, seeds became his livelihood. Together with his wife Nicola he has built a successful family seed business, at his farm in Henley on Klip, not far from Johannesburg. He reproduces seeds in his fields and sells over 600 varieties online to small South African gardeners and farmers. He now employs eight people full time.

On Freeman's farm, Livingseeds, the growing season starts in September, and the harvest in November. First the beans, then the tomatoes, and by the end of May the chilies. Seeds are collected, cleaned, dried and then packed and sold. Sean only deals with open pollinated varieties and not with hybrids. A hybrid is formed when different parents are crossed. In order to retain the special qualities of the new variety you have to keep going back to the original parents to cross breed. This keeps the intellectual property in the hands of the plant breeders.

All of our seed is open pollinated. It's heritage seed or heirloom seed. None of our varieties are registered on a variety list.Sean Freeman

Freeman's business has proved his point that there is a demand for open pollinated seed. But why are there so few other producers investing in the field?

"There's always room for more competition. Competition sharpens each company, is good for seed purity and for the seed industry in South Africa," says Freeman. "The biggest problem with the small-scale seed producers is poverty for two main reasons which are strongly interlinked. They rarely have the chance to work on value creation. Secondly, the regulatory seed system makes it more expensive for small players to stay in the market."

In these conditions it takes great determination to be able to put on track a successful project. To find another such great story, we leave Johannesburg and move towards Limpopo. Mankweng is a township in the Capricorn District. Ma Anna Molala has a thriving food garden and she grows seedlings to support over 100 gardens in her community.

Seeds and seedlings are very important for me. They are like children.Anna Molala

Molala's life changed when she met the agronomist John Nzira, who trained her in permaculture (a system of sustainable food gardening). In a few years, this charismatic woman has inspired many other women in her community to begin their own permaculture gardens. She has trained 147 families in permaculture and over 1000 people are now food secure. She received a climate change award from local municipality for her work. Her garden demonstrates a system of managing the environment, whilst producing food and generating income.

"When we plant, we create food and seeds for the coming year," says Molala who has saved 31 varieties of seeds. They include mealies (maize), pumpkins, millet, beetroot seeds, African beans, spanspeks (sweet melon), watermelon, African watermelon, okra, cabbage and yellow melon. Her friend, Maria Sebopa is another community member with an established permaculture food garden.

Molala and her community show how key ingredients of food security are access to seeds, and training in sustainable management. This helps small farmers find a way towards good quality, high-value products.

Struggles with poverty and food security are common to many rural areas around the world. Traveling to Sulcis, the south-western province of the Italian region of Sardinia, about 12,000km away from Molala's village, we find similar stories. Sulcis has one strong natural resource: coal. Mining was the primary activity here from the mid 19th century to the early 1970s. Now largely abandoned, the coal mines are still visible in the landscape, as remnants of a richer and busier past. But no other investment has been made here and today, Sulcis is one of the poorest places in Italy.

Life moves slowly and little offers a future to young generations. And yet, traditional wheat and fruit varieties might represent an asset for building an innovative value chain based on high food quality and diversification. There is one big problem: the seeds of these traditional varieties have been almost entirely lost. Only a few of them are still available on remote farms. Thanks to a small group of determined people, a quest for heirloom seeds has begun. This has been aided by local institutions and universities which have offered their seed collections and expertise to start new field experiments.

Boosting farmer-managed seeds

According to the director of the African Centre for Biodiversity (AcBio) Mariam Mayet, there is an urgent need for research institutes to partner with small farmers to boost farmer-managed seed systems.

"Currently laws criminalise small farmers, the government gives them no support, and they're in danger of becoming obsolete. Farmers will tell you about many varieties that have been lost. They want to reclaim them," says Mayet.

There's a lot of goodwill in public research institutions and in academia for farmer-managed seed systems.

"The national gene banks empathise with farmers," says Mayet. "They would love to give farmers access to seed. But for anything concrete to happen, NGOs like ourselves and small farmers will have to lobby strongly to create a clear agenda."

SeedControl.eu / Oxpeckers.org

SEEDcontrol is a transnational project crossing two continents, and many countries. It is a collaboration between Oxpeckers and Formicablu, an Italian science communication agency, funded by the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme of the European Journalism Center with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.