Draft seed policy risks marginalising smallholder farmers

In this three-part series on seed policy in Malawi, we will look at the debate around the draft National Seed Policy and the impact of weak seed legislation on smallholder farmers in Malawi, a country dependent on agriculture. This week contributors, RACHEL BEZNER-KERR and BLESSINGS CHINSINGA analyse the risks of the policy.

Bayer’s $60 billion offer for Monsanto does not just matter for the titans on Wall Street. The merger to form the world’s largest life sciences company will impact the smallest seeds in one of the world’s poorest countries—Malawi.

Malawi’s draft legislation assumes that farmers are not capable of producing seeds
Malawi’s draft legislation assumes that farmers are not capable of producing seeds

What Bayer wants to buy is not just Monsanto’s chemical factories and laboratories. Monsanto’s staggering market valuation reflects its ability to shape legislative environments to suit its products the world over. Its reach runs from the White House to Lilongwe to rural Malawi where the majority of the farmers struggle for subsistence especially in the context of rapidly changing climate.

Seeds are crucial for Malawi. Most of its citizens are farmers with small landholdings, who grow their own food for their families. A draft seed policy before the Government of Malawi would, in its current form, restrict farmers from saving and recycling their own seeds. The policy would also prevent farmers from selling their local varieties without first registering the variety, a process well beyond the means and capacity for the majority of family farmers in Malawi.

The consequences of this policy framework would be quite substantial for Malawi’s fragile agriculture where the majority of small farmers, estimated at 80 percent, depend on the informal sector for their seed requirements even after two to three decades of input support programmes.

The government justifies this legislation by pointing to the need to harmonise Malawian seed legislation with other countries in the region, aligning them with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc), Africa Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (Aripo), and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, an agreement endorsed by the United States (US) government along with many others.

Related to this argument is one of quality— in order to be saved, recycled and sold, seed must be registered and certified by a formal institution. Farmers alone cannot determine whether something is truly a ‘seed’ or whether it is in fact just ‘grain’ and thus not worthy of the seed designation.

This does not make much sense. Yet research shows that Malawian farmers have over the years played a critical role in preserving seeds that have provided food from generation to generation. If the proposed policy comes into effect, Malawian’s farmers and the abundant knowledge they have nurtured are bound to be trampled over in the process, threatening Malawi’s already fragile food security. Moreover, innovation in African agriculture has proceeded through collective community processes drawn from customary practices based on sharing.

Scratch the surface, and you find a slightly more complex story. Monsanto is one of a handful of international seed companies which dominate the small purchased seed market in Malawi – along with Pioneer, Seed Co and Pannar—all multinational seed companies, whose focus is largely hybrid maize seed, with a sideline in vegetable seeds. Monsanto dominates the market, making up over 50 percent of all purchased seed sales. As Wikileaks and public records requests have shown, Monsanto gets help from the US Department of State in selling its wares. But what if the poor don’t want it?

At the moment, most seed in Malawi is saved and recycled by farmers, drawing on centuries of farming experience, improved over generations. Most rural Malawians live on less than $2 (K1 444) a day, and cannot afford to purchase seed annually. They exchange and share seed amongst family and friends, and keep seed from the harvest for the next growing season.

Banning farmers’ ability to save, share and sell locally produced seeds threatens their food production and puts the entire country at greater risk of food shortages. Some crops, such as sorghum, pearl millet and Bambara nut— all indigenous drought-tolerant crops—have already been squeezed out of local markets because the government has predominantly subsidised maize.

These crops would be further threatened by a seed-saving ban. The last two years of droughts in Malawi are a troubling reminder of the importance of having a wider portfolio of crops, beyond maize, to rely on for poor rainfall years.

In addition to simple food supply, preventing farmers from saving seed also threatens the nation’s nutritional security. At the moment, the government’s priority is simply to grow more food. Yield is the main priority trait. Growing a wider range of crops, however, increases the number of foods that Malawian families can eat, which we have shown improves their overall health and well-being. There are many spin-off benefits as well—improved soils, income and greater yield stability, to name a few.

Some of these crop varieties are threatened by the emphasis of governments in the last few decades on hybrid maize. Mtinkinya, a local orange open-pollinated variety of maize, for example, has been shown in our research to have significantly higher levels of provitamin A, an important nutrient which prevents night blindness and builds strong immunity systems in children. This variety has been saved by local farmers for decades, without any formal certification process. The proposed seed policy would make it harder for farmers to save a broad range of nutritious foods for their families, like local orange maize.

Malawi’s draft legislation assumes that farmers are not capable of producing seeds, that this task should be moved entirely to the private sector. But farmers’ rights, knowledge and abilities must also be respected. The Government of Malawi has a responsibility to protect and honor the generations of farmers in Malawi who have tended and cared for a diverse range of varieties, and maintained this diversity despite droughts, floods, government policies and poverty.

Bayer’s buy-out price for Monsanto is steep, but they know where Monsanto’s strengths lie. To be able to turn self-sufficient farmer innovators into annual consumers is the kind of legislative trick that’s worth $60 billion. Even if the farmers themselves have much, much better ideas.

The practical implications of the proposed draft seed policy are a powerful reminder that context matters. Policy proposals should not simply be transplanted from elsewhere hoping that they would work as intended without adapting them to the local context. If not very careful such policies might inflict more harm than good to a system that was fairly working at least in the interest of the broad common good.

As Malawi grapples with instigating a uniquely Malawi Green Revolution, policy makers must remember that no country has ever achieved sustainable agricultural transformation without a vibrant domestic seed industry. One of the bigger picture questions that the seed policy must address therefore is: how can Malawi achieve a vibrant domestic seed industry that prioritises agriculture as its engine for growth, development and poverty reduction?


About the authors

Blessings Chinsinga is professor of Public Policy at Chancellor College

Rachel Bezner Kerr is a research coordinator for the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities project in Malawi.

Share This Post