Seed diversity is essential to securing our own food, especially now when we are experiencing the onset of climate change. We need seeds with many traits (like early ripening and resistance to drought) to make them more adaptable to changes in the weather.

Small scale farmers provide 70 % of the seed of food grown in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some of their seeds have become drought resistant and seeds can be saved and used year after year.

When we plant seeds, we can produce our food for the coming year and use the seeds again to grow more crops. However, all of that is changing and we need to protect our heirloom seeds.

Seeds have been an open access, common resource for millennia, developed and improved through the efforts of countless generations of people.

In the 1980’s, there were thousands of independent seed companies across the world. A lot of these companies had history dating back to the 1800’s and early 1900’s which was linked with the history of the region they operated in. Sadly, most of these companies are no longer present. In less than 20 years, fewer than 10 multinational companies have engulfed hundreds of seed companies and the rights to grow most of the common staple foods that we eat. The top 10 companies now own 75% of the global seed market.

There are further acquisitions underway. The big players were Monsanto (owning 26% of all seeds), DuPont (19%), Syngenta (8%), Dow (4%), and Bayer (3%). Syngenta was bought by state-owned Chem-China for $43 billion and Monsanto accepted an offer by Bayer for $66 billion – the highest bid ever offered in the seed industry. This massive transaction still needs to be approved by the anti-trust authorities in several countries. (An anti-trust authority is an independent professional authority working to protect the public from harms to competition, for the good of the public.) Dow and DuPont have also merged. This was finalised on the 9th of June 2016.

These consolidations mean that these few companies can decide prices which affect our food prices. They can also determine the seed varieties on the market. When the seed company Seminis was purchased by Monsanto, it dropped more than one third of its seed catalogue (which included 2,500 fruit and vegetable varieties) as a cost-saving measure. They can also determine the conditions of growth for the seed varieties they collectively own – a dangerous situation.

These seed giants manage patents and intellectual property rights and they make agreements with governments and public institutions, having a strong influence on laws, regulations and treaties. Small scale farmers are being criminalised for propagating seeds, and are being forced to buy new seeds every year due to hybrid varieties and genetically modified seeds. A hybrid plant is created when different parent plants are crossed. In order to retain the special qualities of that hybrid plant, it must be cross-bred with original parent plants.

Philip Howard, who is an associate professor at the Michigan State University in the Department of Community Sustainability, explains that it is quite possible for 3 companies to eventually own 60% of all seeds. Whilst it may seem to the consumer that these companies are in competition with each other, they actually become like each other and in this scenario, it takes one company to signal an increase in prices and the other company/companies will follow suit. You can watch this interview here.

This monocultural business promotes monoculture farming. This means huge fields of one type of crop which deplete soil nutrients and require chemical fertilisers which kill the essential life forms in the soil. These monoculture farm fields also require pesticides. The large monocultural companies sell pesticides too, and also genetically modify seeds to tolerate harmful herbicides (like Roundup) which kill plants, weeds, and harm crucial insects needed to pollinate  plants.

South Africa had to import millions of metric tons of maize due to our drought, and food prices are continually on the rise. We, the consumers, have to live with the long-term negative health effects of chemical residues and pesticides. This type of farming is heavy on our water resources and bad for the environment.

Our farmers are in danger of being pushed out of the market and becoming obsolete. The government-run farmer subsidy programme supports hi-tech solutions such as mono-crops, fertilisers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds. The big companies get a secure market, but little is left over for sustainable farming and small-scale farmers are falling into debt.

The good news is that the legislative process in South Africa is still evolving and there are opportunities to protect the small seed farmer in new laws. Farmers are networking to promote agro-biodiversity and people are contributing toward The Submission on Plant Improvement and Plant Breeders’ Rights Bills.The deadline for contributing to this submission ends on the 12th of August so please contribute if you haven’t already done so. The African Centre for Biodiversity has conscientiously prepared a document for you  to make the submission quickly and easily. You can click here to add your voice and increase this movement’s strength.

To read and hear about some inspirational farmer’s stories in this difficult and challenging time, click here

Written by Aimee Hoppe