Calls to decolonise our seed system at Gauteng public hearings on the Plant Improvement and Plant Breeders’ Rights Bills. Are there alternative systems that put farmers at the centre, do not reduce genetic and agricultural diversity, and support agroecology, seed and food sovereignty and resilience?

South African smallholder farmers, consumers, academics and civil society at large are finally taking up the cudgels against two pieces of legislation that regulate South Africa’s seed. The Plant Improvement Act and Plant Breeders’ Rights Act, promulgated in 1976, have entrenched and buttressed our industrial, corporate-controlled agricultural system. Over the decades these laws have systematically eroded our food sovereignty and our indigenous seed and related agricultural knowledge, ultimately giving rise to our inequitable and flawed food system that currently leaves more than half of South African households food insecure. The amendment of these laws (now Bills) brought an opportunity to transform the laws and reshape the food system. Instead, the laws are becoming more draconian.

On 26 May 2017, the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) travelled by bus to Tarlton, Krugersdorp with smallholder farmers associated with the University of Johannesburg’s Izindaba Zokudla initiative, to attend two Gauteng public hearings on the amendments held by the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). The discussion on the bus was lively as the farmers spoke about their struggles as small, urban food producers and the extensive hunger experienced in their communities and gained more knowledge about the impact of the laws under scrutiny at the public hearings.

On arrival, the car park was filled with cars, buses and tractors and the hall was filling up with farmers, community members, members of the legislature and councillors from the surrounding area. The unanticipated deluge of people created a delay in the proceedings, in order to accommodate everybody and distribute translation devices. The Plant Improvement and Plant Breeders’ Rights Bills have undergone a process of development for the last four years. They have passed through the National Assembly and are now with the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), which is currently canvassing public opinion.

The Plant Improvement Bill regulates the certification of seed, defining an array of criteria that seed must meet in order to be sold and traded both domestically and across borders. The Plant Breeders’ Rights Bill is concerned with the intellectual property rights over seed and defines how farmers may recycle, sell, exchange and share protected seed varieties. Both Bills contain a strong bias toward seed that is appropriate for industrial, large-scale monocropping systems. The bills effectively close down the space for agro-ecological systems, in which social capital, sovereignty, soil health and diversity are highly prized. In the hearing, the official line was in favour of the direction these laws as they provide the best means to deal with private investment in agriculture and plant breeding, climate change, job creation and poverty alleviation.

With enthusiasm, the legal officer stated that the amendments seek to facilitate the role of smallholder farmers and ensure “radical economic transformation”. However, in reality, so many had gathered at the hearing to caution government that the Bills are in no way radical or transformational. Despite the post-apartheid rhetoric used by regulators during both hearings, such as “inclusion” and “transformation”, these Bills do not cater for the entry of small-scale enterprises in the seed sector and fail to acknowledge the role of small-scale farmers and their farmer managed seed systems (FMSS).

In our presentation, the ACB highlighted how valuable FMSS are: they represent a treasure trove of diversity and adaptability, linked to deep skill and knowledge. However, the role of smallholder production in providing nutrition to local communities is currently undervalued, and public resources in the form of institutional and extension support, and research and development go only to the commercial and corporate seed sector.

The ACB emphasised that the DUS criteria of the Bills (seed varieties must be “distinct, uniform and stable”) destroy diversity, adaptability and viability of seed: essential seed qualities for smallholders, who need their seed to be adaptable and resilient and who want to save, select, replant and share their seeds. These activities have benefitted humanity over millennia, and are the very basis of our nutrition, sustenance and food cultures worldwide. Not only do these Bills not recognise or support farmers’ seed, but they direct South Africa’s criminal justice system and public resources to policing farmers, in order to enforce commercial breeders’ rights.

Surely there is something very wrong here? Smallholders at the hearing demanded to know why the Bills only promote one system of agriculture and the elite stakeholders that own it. What was very clear was that farmers could not see their reality being taken into account, or their needs being protected by these laws, and feelings of anger and discontent were beginning to form. Importantly, farmers stated that it is useless talking at length about seed when many of them still do not have access to land.

They said they felt isolated from these Bills and that the discussion did not speak to the vast black population who remain oppressed and who remain invisible to our policymakers. Day 2 of the hearings, in Mayerton, saw a greater participation of farmers from the Izindaba Zokudla Initiative. An increased number of farmers gathered at Soweto to travel to the hearing and they were also joined by farmers from the Eastern Cape, who were in the area attending a conference on Community Seed Banks. Day 2 followed a similar format to Day 1, with presentations from regulators on the two Bills.

There were also similar concerns coming from the floor. People were shocked by the lack of transparency in the presentation of the Bills, illustrating the importance of an informed public in the participation of such a process. In essence, delegates expressed dismay at how the Bills breach human rights: the way in which they deal with seeds destroys the core of food production. It became clear that power is skewed to the people who already have power, and that the current government is replicating the same power patterns as the oppressive apartheid government.

Key demands from the hearings included: Farmers must be given the right to reuse all seed and harvested material in the manner they choose, including seed from protected varieties. Farmers must be able to freely cultivate, distribute, exchange, propagate and trade in their own seed varieties. Seed laws must ensure that farmers’ seed systems are able to function without any hindrance. Apartheid has produced a concentrated and racially skewed economic structure, where most of the population have been forced into subordinate roles in the economy, based on high levels of exploitation and oppression.

These Bills must contribute to transforming the underlying structure that persists and must ensure that participation in the economy is widened beyond the elite. Our government needs to adopt a holistic approach to agriculture, taking into account issues of land and other necessary resources, and to consider the contexts of the most marginalised producers, instead of trying to impose a one-size-fits-all solution on all farmers. As a developing country, and one of the most unequal countries in the world, South Africa should not be passing more corporate-friendly laws. It should transition out of industrial agriculture towards food systems that are socially just and ecologically sustainable, built upon the principles and practices of agroecology and food sovereignty.

After two days of intense engagement with our government on the Plant Improvement Bill and Plant Breeders’ Rights Bill, we sincerely hope that the NCOP has taken up our central question: Are there alternative systems that put farmers at the centre, do not reduce genetic and agricultural diversity, and support agroecology, seed and food sovereignty and resilience?

Such systems do exist, and we need to start adapting and integrating them within local contexts, to protect our seeds. Hopefully, the final planned public hearing due to possibly take place on the 10th of August 2017 in Gauteng will witness greater mobilisation and participation from the public at large. We are here to protect our seeds and the future of our food. Aluta continua!

*Linzi and Sibusiso are with the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB). We are grateful to Haidee Swanby for her contributions. The ACB is committed to dismantling inequalities in the food and agriculture system in Africa and believe in peoples’ right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

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