Access to seed is access to food- Africa

In September 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Council decided that the newly negotiated UN declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas will be tabled for adoption at the UN General Assembly in New York.

This indispensable international instrument, once adopted, will become a powerful tool for rural populations to use in asserting their rights, in seeking justice and ushering in favourable national policies around food, agriculture, seeds and land.

Although this development is welcomed, in South Africa we are faced with a new seed system that will operate completely at odds with the international instrument convention and will have ramifications for the country’s rural population and their rights to food, agriculture, seeds and land. This new seed system will be created once the Plant Improvement Bill and the Plant Breeders Rights’ Bill are passed in Parliament.

Today, peasants and their families, representing a third of the global population, have insufficient recourse in the face of increasing violations of their rights and other challenges they confront when seeking an adequate standard of living.

With the adoption of the UN declaration, peasants and others working in rural areas are now a step closer to having their rights recognised and protected. The passing of this resolution is a commendable show of solidarity and political will by the Human Rights Council.

A decade after the 2007/08 food crisis, where an inflationary catastrophe triggered widespread concerns over the instability of agricultural commodity prices, and after 10 long years of negotiations in Geneva, this declaration will set a new standard for human rights.

It will promote food sovereignty and support the development and implementation of socio-economic policies that improve our food and agriculture system.

Globally, the vast majority of the poor and hungry live in rural areas and depend directly or indirectly on smallholder farming. However, decades of promoting export-led agriculture has slowly decimated smallholder livelihoods. Peasants forced into poverty migrate into cities, often living on the outskirts of urban areas in a state of hunger.

The resolution on the declaration is welcome. It comes as the major question that plagues the world is still:

Recent years have also seen a regression in the fight against hunger. Several reports claim that grain prices have been drastically inflated by manipulative financial speculation. Consumers in many developing countries, alarmed by increases in the cost of their staple foods, have started to demand policy responses from their political leaders.

The UN declaration will enable the populations concerned to assert their specific rights, such as the right to seed, and to participate in decision-making on agriculture and any issues affecting their livelihoods. At the same time, however, demonstrators continue to challenge the injustice, inequality and political repression that characterises today’s food regime.

The fear is that current trading has undermined the price-smoothing capacity of the agricultural futures market and increased the price risks encountered by consumers, producers and governments. Additionally, it appears that the urgent recommendation from global actors is for the world to produce more food and to do it quickly.

Presently, there are surfeits of small-scale farmers all over the world who produce 70% of the food that the world needs in the global food value chain1. The industrialised farming sector, on the other hand, only produces 30% (as reported in “Coping with food and agricultural challenges, Smallholders Agenda” by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), 2012).

Taking this into context, ActionAid’s report, Rising to the Challenge: Changing Course to Feed the World in 2050 says that the solution rests not in the rush to increase industrial food production as capital interests would prefer, but in supporting sustainable and productive farming practices among small-scale farmers — particularly women — in developing countries, while halting the diversion of food to biofuels and reducing the obscene levels of waste and spoilage that keep a third of the world’s food out of the hands of the two billion people who are starving globally.

It’s been noted elsewhere that by some estimates, we grow enough food to feed 10 billion people; more than the projected global population in 2050.

Conversely, industrialised agriculture produces agricultural commodities that serve as raw materials — occasionally consumed as food but more often used as animal feed — an output largely based on international prices for food commodities. Evidently, we can feed the global population in 2050 if we change course and stop focusing only on producing more agricultural commodities which have never solved the hunger problem.

Countries such as ours need to urgently increase the availability of land and food by reducing biofuel production, getting more of the food we grow to the supper table by reducing food waste and, more importantly, by investing in the most important food producers in the world: small-scale and peasant farmers.

Unfortunately, South Africa is one of the few countries globally where the agricultural sector is predominately operated by major commercial companies wherein 90% of food grown comes from a commercial farmer.

Due to this, the country operates on an import and export system of food. The primary reason for this commercial dominance in the agricultural sector is our legal and regulatory structure that is geared to solely provide assistance to major capital interests.

As a result, the smallholder farming sector is dogged by its ability to grow and feed the people of South Africa. Livelihoods and communities are being threatened by the expansion of global agribusiness, which is grabbing their land and seeds and destroying the environment they rely on for food production.

For smallholder farmers in South Africa, one of the major areas of contention within the agricultural sector is the issue of seeds and access to genetic resources.

Presently there are two major pieces of legalisation (the Plant Improvement Act and the Plant Breeders Rights Act) which regulate access to seeds and how the seed system operates. These two laws are meant to complement the country’s standing commitment to the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants of 1978 (UPOV1978), which the country ratified in 1977.

It follows that seed as a primary input into agriculture plays a pivotal role in linking agriculture and biodiversity to food sovereignty. As a base for our agricultural sector, the seed system plays an important role in determining the type, quality and cost of seed supplied to the country’s farmers.

By extension then, it also somewhat determines the type, quality and the cost of food sold to the country’s citizens. Ownership of seed, protected through plant breeders’ and intellectual property rights, is a contentious issue.

Debate on international and national levels has been focusing on possible health issues related to consumption of genetically modified food, ethical considerations around ownership of plant life, monopolisation of seed markets, and the implications of biodiversity loss for food (in)security and climate change adaptation.

On the 23 and 24 October 2018, the South African government, via the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, will consult national stakeholders in Pretoria on its considerations around signing on to a revised UPOV termed “UPOV1991”, and the country’s decision to accede to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

These national consultations come at an opportune moment for activists who are determined to stop the government from signing on to the UPOV 1991, which will lock South Africa into a plant breeding system with major implications for our agricultural system and will lock out smallholder farmers and their seed systems — preventing access to seeds, which is in effect access to food.

Historic and current international and domestic power relations continue to shape the “modernistic” direction of South Africa’s seed systems, which is now dominated by two US-based multinational companies (DuPont and Monsanto2).

These “hidden” faces of power have predetermined the path of the system, whom it benefits and whom it excludes.

It is time for human rights defenders to challenge this. Civil society must contest the credibility of corporate consolidation in the South African seed system on the basis that it is inappropriate, given the country’s challenges around biodiversity loss, climate change adaptation and food insecurity.

At present, the country’s food system is at odds with the progressive ideals of resilience, inclusivity, increased productivity and sustainable agricultural practices, which are outlined in relevant South African government policies3. DM

Busiso Moyo is a Right to Food Researcher affiliated to the Legal Resources Centre (LRC). Lucien Limacher is an attorney working on the Right to Food, affiliated to the LRC. The views of authors published by Daily Maverick are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation/s.




Farming Diary


07.15.2020 - 07.17.2020


08.11.2020 - 08.14.2020


10:00 am 09.09.2020 - 11:00 am 09.11.2020

Travel Brand Africa

Don't cancel your African Safari! Postpone & Travel later.