OPINION PIECE BY Timothy A. Wise

First published by Food Tank on August 23, 2017.

In late July, a short article was published in a Malawian newspaper: “Press Release on Organization of Seed Fairs.” Issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Water Development, in conjunction with the Seed Traders Association of Malawi, the short statement advised the public that “only quality certified seed suppliers registered with Government to produce and/or market seed should be allowed to display seed at such events.” The release was signed by Bright Kumwembe for the Agriculture Ministry.

I received this news in the United States as I prepared a research trip to Malawi, and I was shocked. Malawi is in the final stages of a multi-year effort to reform its seed policy and laws, and the largest point of contention at this point is the failure of the draft policy to recognize and protect so-called “farmers’ rights” to save, exchange, and sell the seeds they grow on their farms.

Remarkably, the policy seeks to define the word “seed” as applying only to certified seed from commercial companies. Farm-saved seed is referred to in the policy as just “grain,” unworthy even of the word seed.

Some 80 percent of the crops grown in Malawi come from farm-saved seeds, and many of those seeds are displayed, exchanged, and sold at local seed fairs. These are often community events organized by local non-governmental organizations or district agriculture offices to promote seed improvement. Farmers show their most successful varieties, sometimes alongside seed from commercial companies that have bred, patented, and produced “improved” varieties that are then certified by the government for quality.

What this press release implied, in no uncertain terms, was that henceforth farmers would not be allowed to display their seeds. The formal and informal seed sectors have coexisted for decades. Why was the Malawian government, embroiled in a controversy over a still-unfinished seed policy, threatening to ban farm-saved seed from the market?

Sparking controversy

When I arrived in Blantyre, Malawi, I began asking everyone in the field about the seed policy debate and the seed fair controversy. Most were surprised that such a directive had come under the ministry’s signature. William Chadza of the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (CEPA) told me he had sent a letter to the ministry asking for clarification. He said that some people in the ministry were not aware of the directive and it was unclear if the government would crack down on farmers participating in seed fairs.

“Farmers are not the problem with counterfeit seeds,” he told me. “Farmers aren’t labeling seeds at all, just trading and selling them locally.”

Chadza was still hopeful that farmers’ rights provisions could be incorporated into the seed policy. “It is a huge opportunity to bring the informal seed sector into the policy.”

By the time I got to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, a few days later, I’d been in Thyolo visiting farmers who have developed and purified a native variety of orange maize, high in Vitamin A. Farmers seemed enthusiastic about this nutritious crop, and not just for its vitamins. It has high yields, even without applications of expensive fertilizer, and it matures early, making it resistant to erratic rains and to pests, like the fall armyworm that has devastated crops across southern Africa. It stores better than the hybrid maize varieties sold on the certified seed market by companies such as Monsanto. It tastes better, too, they said, and it “gels” into a large volume of nsima when cooked.

A recent academic study confirmed that on nearly all measures the native orange maize, which does not need to be purchased every year, outperformed one of Monsanto’s hybrid varieties, which farmers cannot replant but must buy every year.

The farm group, which is being supported as part of the Malawi Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology Project (MAFFA), has seen demand for its orange maize soar from neighboring farmers. They’ve been multiplying the seed to share the local wealth, even selling several tons of seed to Save the Children and Sub-Saharan Africa Family Enrichment for use in their feeding programs.

Mangani Katundu, Chancellor College professor, and coordinator of the Thyolo orange maize project, was mystified by the seed policy and this new restriction on farm-saved seed. “How can such a valuable native variety of maize not be a seed?”

That was the question I posed to Dr. Wilkson Makumba, Malawi’s Director of National Research Services and the person in charge of the seed policy. He was adamant. Farmers needed to be weaned off their “primitive ways” and forced to adopt commercial maize varieties. He said the seed policy was “final,” no more negotiations over farmers’ rights. He claimed not to be aware of the seed fair directive. Neither was Dr. Kesbell Kaonga, chief maize breeder.

Dr. Kaonga contacted me a few days later, though. “Only quality certified seed should be displayed during seed fairs as the press release states.”

John Chipeta, Policy Coordinator for the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi (NASFAM), one of the two large farmer organizations in the country, was critical of both the policy and the seed fair restriction. “The definition of seed should not override the common cultural understanding of the term,” he told me. “We should not be forced to abandon our own foods and seeds. Food sovereignty is critical, and seed sovereignty is part of that.” He called the definition of farm-saved seed as grain “an imported definition from the seed companies.”

Conflicts of interest

Over dinner that night, Tamani Nkhono-Mvula, longtime director of CISANET, the country’s umbrella network on agricultural policy, was defending the seed policy draft, even to the point of defending the definition of farm-saved seed as just grain. Many CISANET members had voiced objections to the group’s support for the government’s restrictive seed policy, arguing that it favored the seed companies over farmers in order to open markets for commercial seeds.

I told Tamani that there was no reason the policy needed to be so severe, to delegitimize the informal seed market. “The way the policy reads,” I told him, “it could have been written by Monsanto!”

There was a long pause. “Actually,” Tamani told me with a sheepish smile, “a Monsanto official was one of the two authors of the seed policy.” I would learn later that this was Mr. Paul Chimimba, Monsanto’s Country Manager in Malawi.

“It is a chilling revelation that the seed policy was authored by an ex-Monsanto employee,” said Blessings Chinsinga, Chancellor College professor, when I told him this news.

Indeed. It is difficult to imagine a more egregious conflict of interest than allowing a seed company executive to write a government policy that threatens to outlaw farmers’ saving and exchanging of seeds in order to open new markets for his company.

The government’s seed policy should go back to the drawing board, and those doing the drawing should not have a direct financial interest in the outcome.

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Timothy A. Wise, Senior Researcher, directs the Land and Food Rights Program at Small Planet Institute. He also directs the Research and Policy Program at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute.