12/12/2016 19:25 SAST | Updated 13/12/2016 09:17 SAST

A Dummy's Guide: Why Farmers Can't Afford The Seeds To Grow Your Food

We publish a large environmental investigation today but what does it mean? Read our quick explainer.


From 16% twenty years ago to over 70% today: Our food security is controlled by fewer than 10 very large corporations, the environmental investigation we carry today reveals. This international collaboration looks at how countries like South Africa are trying to change that and restore independent seed companies with strong ties to local communities and land. We spoke to Fiona Macleod, the founder of the Oxpeckers Center for Investigative Environmental Journalism and one of South Africa's foremost environment journalists, to take us behind the story.

They criminalise small farmers who propagate their own seeds, and force them to buy new seeds every year.

In brief, what is this story about?
Seed diversity is key to food security, particularly in this era of climate change. Our 15-month-long transnational investigation shows that fewer than 10 large corporations control who can plant seeds, what they can plant, and how much they can charge.

What role do seed producers play in food security?
The global scenario has an impact on local small-scale farmers, who provide about 70 percent of the seed for food eaten in sub-Saharan Africa. Some of their traditional seed varieties have evolved drought resistance and can be saved for re-use from year to year.

I thought farmers just grow produce on their farms – do they actually have to buy seed?
If mergers put on the table in late 2016 go ahead, only three companies will control the market. Our laws and regulations are designed to protect the intellectual property of the big commercial companies. They criminalise small farmers who propagate their own seeds and force them to buy new seeds every year.

Why is it a problem for a few companies to control the market?
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.

Is it bad for our health or bad for the economy?
Both. South Africa needs to import up to four million metric tons of maize by the end of 2016 due to drought, and food prices are on the rise across Southern Africa. The large multinational companies promote monoculture (huge fields of one type of crop), genetically modified seeds, fertilisers and pesticides — all of them bad for our health.

Who are the big players?
Monsanto owns 26 percent of the market, DuPont owns 19 percent, Syngenta 8 percent, Dow 4 percent and Bayer 3 percent. In 2016, Dow and DuPont merged, Syngenta was bought by state-owned ChemChina for $43 billion, and Monsanto accepted an offer by Bayer for $66 billion — the highest price ever offered in this industry.

Are our farmers under threat?
They are in real danger of being pushed out and becoming obsolete. The government-run farmer subsidy programme supports hi-tech solutions such as mono-crops, fertiliser, pesticides and genetically modified seed. The big companies get a secure market, but little is left over for sustainable farming and the small farmers are sliding into debt.

Are there opportunities for small-scale farmers?
The legislative process is still evolving, and there are chances to protect the small farmer seed system in new laws. Farmer networks are teaming up to promote agro-biodiversity, and there are food chains that focus on distributing their produce. Our investigation includes local examples of successful innovation in the field.

What does this mean for consumers in South Africa?
Food prices will continue to soar, the availability and diversity of foodstuffs will continue to shrink, and consumers will have to live with the long-term negative health effects of pesticides and chemical residues. These also have negative impacts on the environment, soil and water resources.

What happens next?
In 2017 we will know if the anti-trust authorities in several countries will give the go-ahead for the mergers that will see three giant companies monopolise the global seed market. In Africa regulations are being drawn up to implement the controversial Arusha Protocol, criticised by civil society because of concerns about access, benefit sharing, food security and human rights.

In the hills near Thohoyandou, women farmers learn the special skills needed to grow maize for seed collection. Watch the video.