Simangele Siko, a member of the central committee at Izindaba Zokudla, in her thanks to ACB after the workshop said, “The farmers have got power, immense power, but you have just unearthed the power!”

Who can claim to own a seed? In these kernels lie the genetic wisdom of millions of years, co-created within specific environments by millions of organisms, including humans. Seeds also contain the future: the potential for life, nourishment and pleasure for generations to come. Taking on different forms around the world, the Seed Movement has been gathering momentum for the last 20 years or more, through the work of devoted seed-keepers tending to their precious collections and dedicated activist networks collectively working to defend seed sovereignty and resist corporate capture of seeds. The energy around the Seed Movement has been amped up in the last few years in response to a number of governments in Africa – including Ghana and Tanzania – that are pushing to pass laws that criminalise the saving and exchange of seed, as well as aiming to have increased control over the harvests of seed that are protected by plant breeders’ rights.

For the last two years in South Africa there has been a proposal to update two pieces of legislation around seed that were passed in the 70s: The Plant Improvement Act (PIA) and the Plant Breeders Rights Act (PBRA). Updating apartheid-era legislation sounds like a good thing, right? Surely the legislation will be designed to create inroads for emerging farmers to participate and grow in the sector, and to support a diverse network of small- to medium-scale farmers in their efforts to create a food system that favours resilience, decentralisation and diversity – the things that work in nature to ensure abundance and healthy ecosystems? Surely the legislation will be designed with small-scale, black farmers in mind, historically dispossessed and shunted out of this conversation before and during apartheid and burdened with legislation that cripples their ability to work the land in ways they have done for generations, stigmatising them as incapable? Surely the proposed legislation will actively address stereotypes and structural inequalities to bring community and small-scale farming back into the centre of conversations about food? Surely any proposed amendments will acknowledge the dangerous influence of mega-corporations – formed by the merger between the giants, ChemChina with Syngenta and Dow with DuPont; and the proposed amalgamations of Monsanto with Bayer – on our already dysfunctional food system, which currently fails to feed up to half of the population adequately, despite being a food secure nation?

If we pay attention to the rates of starvation, malnutrition and stunting in children in South Africa, we cannot ignore that we are in a food crisis. So, surely the obvious links between seed and food sovereignty would mean that any changes to seed legislation would address the interlocking issues that are creating a perfect storm? But, no. For the most part, this legislation protects corporate interests, tightens “loopholes” where “farm-saved seed could threaten the seed industry”, makes false claims about enabling new entrants into the sector and increases the criminal penalties faced by farmers who contravene the law. The legislation has been carefully designed to not interfere with human rights. But human rights are central to the conversation about seed and food. The heart of these bills should be around protecting human rights, promoting food sovereignty and supporting small-scale farmers and a decentralised seed industry with a diverse range of participants operating at various scales. So if, as claimed, the government is the “servant of the people”, then let us start by putting human rights at the centre of these bills and entrenching famers’ rights to freely save, exchange and sell farm-saved seed and harvested material.

Let us acknowledge that, if adequately and effectively supported, small- to medium-scale agroecological farming has the ability to produce the majority of food our country needs, and, at the same time, to open up countless opportunities along the value chain to support livelihoods. Agroecological farming methods are healthier for humans and ecosystems than pesticide- and fertiliser-intensive monoculture farming, and – in the face of the unpredictable effects of climate change – can improve resilience for generations to come. Small-scale farmers must be at the centre of these bills if we are going to ensure the abundance, resilience and diversity that is the inheritance of thousands of years of farmer-bred seed varieties. We are at a crucial moment in our history where what is at risk is so staggering that if we do not stand up now, all will be lost. Some of it will be lost immediately thorough these amendments, and the rest will be lost gradually, as more and more pieces of legislation follow this precedent, bowing to corporate interests and favouring short-term profits over consideration for long-term access to food and the survival of generations to come.

It is heartening that during the last few months there has been a nationwide up-swell of civic awareness around the value that stands to be lost in the farmer-saved seed stock, due to the proposed amendments. Resistance to the amendments seems to be a central node for a number of related issues: a dysfunctional food system, evidenced by a high rate of childhood stunting due to malnutrition, as extensive as 25%; land sovereignty and the rights of small-scale farmers; and concerns about GMOs, glyphosate and the mega-mergers of the six major global agricultural corporations. This resistance, coupled with dynamic coalitions developing between small-scale farmers and civil society organisations, seems to have created a critical mass that has united to speak truth to power through attendance at provincial public hearings and a large number of written submissions from all sectors of society. Earlier this month, ACB facilitated a meeting at Izindaba Zokudla, a farmers’ school and innovation hub in Soweto, spearheaded by Naudé Malan at the University of Johannesburg. The meeting consisted of a screening of the film, Seeds of Freedom and a presentation from ACB on how the issues raised in the film are specifically playing out in South Africa. This was followed by a session facilitated by Mabule Mokhine from the Greenhouse Project and aimed at strengthening farmers’ voices, so that they would feel confident to present their views on the amendments at the government-hosted public hearing in Bronkhorstspruit on 12 August. The session provided an opportunity for people to trial their oral submissions and receive feedback. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Simangele Siko, a member of the central committee at Izindaba Zokudla, in her thanks to ACB after the workshop said, “The farmers have got power, immense power, but you have just unearthed the power!”.

The following week, ACB arranged a bus for the farmers to make the three-hour round trip from Soweto to Bronkhorstspruit. By 8am the bus was full; around 75 people from Izindaba Zokudla attended the hearing. And when the time came to respond to the proposed legislation, the hall resounded with the clear and confident voices of small-scale farmers stating their objections to the bills that neglect the profound role they play, instead attending to the interests of large plant breeders and major corporations. The farmers feel that the laws restrict their ability to grow from subsistence to commercial farmers – especially, but not exclusively, in the seed sector – and threaten systems that have fed Africans for thousands of years.

Clearly the workshop and support from ACB in attending the hearing has made some sort of impact, but are such interventions, located within a small group of 100 or so farmers, merely a drop in the ocean? I don’t think so. I think that a latent political consciousness is beginning to awaken. We have a burgeoning culture of acknowledging the beauty and diversity of seed, and its integral relationship to traditional and indigenous knowledge systems; and a sense that farming – particularly small-scale agroecological farming – is a political act that holds within it the seeds of change.

A politicised food movement is about building the alternatives while challenging power structures at every level. Increasingly draconian legislation can shock people into action and lead to a moment of uprising. Facing such legislation is perhaps an opportunity to take up government’s rather reluctant offer of public participation through the formal channels; at the same time demonstrating the kind of society we want to see through the everyday work of actively building life-affirming alternatives on our farms, in schools, in our homes and in public spaces where the work can be seen, and, through building these models of other ways of living, we can provide glimpses of what is possible.

Claire Rousell is an artist and activist with a particular focus on the relationship between humans and nature.