Key Issues emerging from the dialogue between CSOs and SADC, African governments

August 2020

The registration of farmer varieties is a controversial issue. On the one hand, it is argued that registration facilitates accessible opportunities and benefits for local farmers, such as increasing visibility of varieties, promotion and protection of indigenous knowledge, and opportunities for farmers and their communities to participate in regional seed trade and national markets.

On the other hand, the discourse remains subsumed to formal seed laws and commercial standards to the extent that static varieties are recognised on the basis of Distinct, Uniform and Stable (DUS) criteria designed for the formal/commercial seed sector. Whereas farmer seed is best characterised as being diverse, dynamic and evolving populations under direct custodianship of producers in their fields. Registration of farmer varieties through formal sector procedures and standards excludes the vast majority of smallholder farmers – many of whom do produce and exchange quality seed of diverse crops through farmer and community-based systems. Hence, the central issue is about wider recognition of farmer seed and quality control practices, because farmers may never register their seed but they may want to sell these and engage in trade.

The South Africa Development Community (SADC) together with Plant Genetic Resource Centre (PGRC), Seed Services, and CSO actors showed support to smallholder farmers in a regional dialogue hosted by the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) and Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Zimbabwe, which took place from the 3-4 December 2019.

The main objective was to facilitate constructive exchange of information and ideas between smallholder farmers, civil society actors, SPGRC and seed officers from the region, with regard to understanding the registration process of farmer varieties and how best SPGRC would support, strengthen and protect seed and knowledge systems.

There is a desperate need for farmers to understand the registration process and its intentions. Without this transparency, local famers may be exposing and organising their seeds for commercial capture without knowing it.

A variety is defined on the principles of botany. Even populations should be characterised … We should agree on what we call farmer seed and farmer variety. They could be populations or distinct varieties selected. At what level do we want to register? We are in a global system and definitions should have the same view and understanding at international level.

– Claid Mujaju, Zimbabwe Seed Services Institute (ZSSI)

If variety means diversity, the registration for farmers varieties discourse does not seem to accommodate diverse and evolving population of seeds to promote ecological diversity.

One of the easiest ways to define a seed is by the characteristics: how does it look, what does it do, what is its description and value – whether value for cultivation and use (VCU) or not – but the value the seed is giving the environment. You can only know the seed from the farmer’s perspective. That description is what you will use to define it. We will not be able to define farmer seed without working with farmers on how to describe the quality parameters around it.

– Claid Mujaju, ZSSI

Another area for further consideration is on the potential impacts of registration of farmer varieties on ecological/ agricultural diversity. The registration process only favours ‘elite’ seeds and displays contradictory views on ownership, biopiracy and biodiversity. This could accelerate the narrowing of crops and varieties in use, leading to reduced agricultural biodiversity over time.

There are questions on who owns farmer seeds. When we talk of ownership, there is a different understanding between Western capitalist and customary African society. It becomes difficult to define ownership. It doesn’t reflect the true character of the notion as it functions in practice, or as it should exist to best serve the needs of a specific society. Property is an absolute and individualist right from the Western viewpoint.

– Regis Mafuratidze, CTDT Zimbabwe

In moving forward, a great deal of work is still required to support and strengthen farmer seed systems and implement farmers’ rights. This also includes focus on farmer led/developed quality control practices for the production of good quality farmer seed that can enter local, national and regional markets. Policy support and public support for farmer seed systems and practices need to be scaled up and scaled out.

It was agreed that SADC would support extensive consultations between member states and all stakeholders before agreeing on guidelines for the process of registration of the farmers’ varieties.