Zimbabwe unlikely to ratify controversial seed treaty

by Jeffrey Gogo, The Herald | 10 Jan 2017


Breeding their own seeds helps farmers create varieties suitable for their specific regions and climates (Photo: The Herald)

By breeding their own seed, farmers are able to create varieties that are suitable for their specific regions and climates, helping them cope better with the increasing shifts, experts say.

Zimbabwe is unlikely to ratify a treaty that could strip small farmers of the right to breed and plant their own seed, at least for the time being, The Herald Business reveals.

Sources close to the developments told this paper last week that Government would not handover matters of “national sovereignty” to the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation’s (Aripo) Plant Variety Protection Protocol without exhaustive consultations.

Adopted in 2015, the protocol aims to transfer the control of seed from small farmers to multinationals and governments by creating a harmonised regional plant variety protection system that favours corporate seed producers.

Farmer seed independence is considered crucial to avoiding food losses that are climate changelinked. By breeding their own seed, farmers are able to create varieties that are suitable for their specific regions and climates, helping them cope better with the increasing shifts, experts say.

“Zimbabwe has not yet ratified the protocol, it is still engaging, being a member of Sadc, Comesa as well as Aripo,” said a source that cannot be named for professional reasons.

“But within the Aripo plant variety protocol system there are issues that infringe on national sovereignty. “For example, if the regulations are adopted, it would mean undermining the role of the national seed services department, which oversees the entire process of seed certification for breeding.

“As long as issues of national sovereignty are not adequately addressed, we do not see Zimbabwe adopting the seed protocol anytime soon.” No comment could immediately be obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture.

In December, Zimbabwe hosted a special meeting of the 19 Aripo member countries seeking to adopt regulations that would enforce implementation of the contested protocol, a meeting in which farmer organisations and the civil society was barred from attending. Still, Zimbabwean authorities have stayed away from ratifying the protocol, although a few countries like the Gambia and Sao Tome and Principe have already done so.

Sources say Zimbabwe’s seed and agriculture laws were keenly developed to prevent influences of big capital running over small farmers, compared to other countries within Aripo making the ratification of any new international seed laws here not only a rigid and rigorous process, but thorough also.

“Compared to other Aripo member states, Zimbabwe has in place systems and policies that are functional, systems that regulate seed and how it operates,” said the source. “Because of that, Zimbabwe will not ratify without taking into consideration issues that really matter.

For other countries that are new to the Aripo system, they do not even have legislation in place as far as plant variety protection is concerned. So its easy for those countries to ratify.”

As climates change, big global seed companies have tried to force through plans that compel farmers to buy only their patented seed, usually genetically modified seed, on the promise of increased agriculture yields. But that’s facing resistance, especially in view of the UN­backed fact smallholder farmers are currently responsible for 70 percent of the world’s food output, done through traditional methods.

Sinister plan

The Aripo protocol has faced criticism from farmers, experts and the civic society who see it as a trick by multinational seed companies to privatise seed varieties for own profit, dis­empower small farmers and takeover Africa’s agriculture.

Getrude Pswarayi, country co­ordinator at Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Zimbabwe, a farmer advocacy organisation, said the proposed seed treaty ignored concerns of farmers, who should be the centre of development in an agro­based economy like Zimbabwe’s.

“The protocol is draconian in nature and the regulations greatly undermine the rights of smallholder farmers, robbing farmers of their right to freely save, re­plant and exchange seeds,” Pswarayi said, by telephone Friday. “We urge (Aripo) member states to consider the views of the civil society which really depict the voice of smallholder farmers. Whenever policies are being made, smallholder farmers’ voices need to be represented and there is also need for wider consultation.”

Taking away farmers’ freedoms and choices undermines food security on the basis that Zimbabwe’s economy is agriculture­centred where small­scale farmers grow their own food mostly from farm saved seed or seed obtained through exchanging with others, she said.

With about two thirds of the 13 million people in Zimbabwe directly dependent on agriculture, the bulk of them rural farmers, the protocol risks “disrupting the functioning of the informal seed system. . . which have ensured access to and the maintenance of a diverse pool of genetic resources by farmers themselves.”

Diversity is key to ensuring food security, long­term sustainability and providing farmers with resilience to natural disasters and the negative effects of climate change, say experts. They say indigenous seeds are a viable adaptation option, helping farmers to cut costs on seed purchases, yet at the same time putting to good use their wealth of traditional knowledge on seed breeding, seeds that can tolerate harsh climates.

“There are massive commercial interests behind this (the Aripo) seed treaty),” John Wilson, a Harare agro­ecologist, has cautioned previously on the online platform, FoodMattersZimbabwe. “Anyone who raises questions about it is accused of wanting to keep people in poverty. The same cliché that gets used by those who question the promotion of genetic engineering. It seems to me crucial that the Zimbabwe Government raises questions about the promotion of this Protocol, as it’s really not in the interests of Zimbabwe seed sovereignty.”

Nelson Mudzingwa, a local farmer, has in the past described ARIPO’s plans “as a new wave of colonialism over food systems” which will only create seed monopolies that disadvantage small farmers.

God is faithful.

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Author: Jeffrey Gogo, The Herald
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