The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) is deeply concerned that South Africa’s draconian corporate seed Bills were approved by the Parliamentary Select Committee on the 22nd May 2018, with no substantial changes being made. This despite a number of provinces having rejected the Bills entirely on the basis that they did not adequately serve the interests of smallholder farmers, while other provinces proposed amendments to accommodate concerns before supporting the Bills. Indeed, Provincials came under heavy fire by farmers, non-governmental organisations and the public at large because the Seed Bills ignore and undermine the significant role that smallholders can and do play in the development, maintenance and conservation of genetic and agricultural biodiversity, and in food production and provision. Beyond this, the Bills criminalise the historical practices of saving, exchanging, and selling of farm-saved seed, and farmer varieties, instead of ensuring the protection of these systems, and ensuring that support is provided to strengthen these systems.
Mariam Mayet, Executive Director of the ACB asks “These Seed Bills are still based on apartheid style legislation and do not embed the transformative and empowering policies required by the country. The Seed Bills laws fail to concretely protect and promote smallholders and small-scale seed enterprises, and to support social justice and ecological integrity.”
For the ACB and the food sovereignty movement in SA, it has been an extremely disappointing journey, illustrating the passivity, unwillingness, or pure inability by the South African government to create policies and legislation that respond to the large and deepening inequalities that continue unabated even in a democratic South Africa.
The ACB has engaged with these two Seed Bills and participated in the public consultation process at the provincial levels along with hundreds of farmers and other members of civil society. Smallholder farmers were brought to the provincial hearings under false premises. In one case those present were livestock farmers and were not given the appropriate information about what the Bills covered. Farmers were dissatisfied and felt there was no meaningful public consultation as information was hidden from the public. However, small holder farmers spoke out clearly that these Bills were not in their interests, and rather protected – exclusively – corporate and profit-making interests.
Linzi Lewis, researcher and advocacy officer at the ACB, who made presentations at the Gauteng provincial public hearing says “The Gauteng Provincial hearing was the only case where government officials offered a detailed analysis of the Bills. In all other cases, across the country, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) made standard, uninformed presentations. They provided little information on the Bills themselves, instead offering a few buzzwords, repeating the jargon we are familiar with in South African policy contexts, such as “job creation”, “empowerment”, “equality” etc, yet these Bills are counter to these objectives, and in fact further marginalise the poor.”
There remain deep concerns regarding both Bills. For example, the Plant Improvement Bill will require farmers – or black- or women-owned small seed enterprises who want to produce commercially, to comply with the onerous and prohibitively costly requirements of the Bill on the same footing as multinational seed companies. This is clearly outrageous.
As to the Plant Breeders’ Rights Bill, if farmers recycle and share popular open-pollinated varieties (OPVs) that are protected in the law, they are liable to prosecution, unless they are producing for private AND non-commercial purposes only, i.e. on their own holdings and for the sole use of the household.
According to Mayet “we believe these Bills, which are designed for the commercial seed and agricultural sector, do not consider farmer seed systems and the positive work being done by farmers in conserving and nurturing agricultural biodiversity., By default the Bills restrict and criminalise smallholder farmers’ activities. These corporate laws fail to recognise the extent that these skewed laws prevent the realisation of farmers rights, and the potential damaging effects this may have of the future of food systems and the need to support small holder farmers and their seed systems as being part of equitable and socially just food systems in the country in a meaningful way.”
It is with this in mind that the ACB aims to engage with national and provincial departments to develop a separate policy framework on farmer seed systems. This should acknowledge the critical role farmers’ seed systems play in food production, nutritional and livelihood security, and maintenance of genetic diversity. It should provide opportunities to support and strengthen these systems.
Notes to Editors:
The Seed Bills are meant to replace the current the Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) Act of 1976, and the Plant Improvement Act of 1976.
For further information and interviews, please contact:http://www.nda.agric.za/docs/plant_breeders_act/Act15.htm  See http://www.nda.agric.za/docs/plant_improvement/plant_improvement_act.htm