Listen to farmers!

The voices of food producers are vital. At last, they are starting to being heard, says Patrick Mulvany

As we finally sow seeds and plant potatoes in the belated spring sunshine, it’s a good moment to reflect on a not so surprising fact – that producing good food needs people, their knowledge and seeds suitable for local soils and tastes. And that’s what provides most people in the world with their food. Yet, most research goes towards substituting people and their knowledge with machinery, chemistry and compliant seeds. Isn’t it time to change priorities?

“Nothing less than a paradigm revolution is needed to democratise food and agricultural research for the common good and the wellbeing of the planet”  Michel Pimbert, ‘For Whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda.’

And the people to listen to, as Ibrahima Coulibaly, a peasant leader from West Africa, concludes should be the smaller-scale farmers, gardeners, livestock keepers, artisanal fishers and forest dwellers whose biodiverse and agroecological food provision nourishes more than 70% of the global population [1, 2]. Yet, for all the evidence of the need to back these women and men, their vital food production systems are being degraded.

There are big obstacles to overcome but, this month the combined views of these food producers are being voiced at significant international forums.  The obstacles are chronicled in the Food Ethics Council’s special magazine, ‘For Whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda’ and they include, as Helena Paul confirms, that research in the UK is fixed on growth and innovation, especially in genomics and industrial agriculture. This results in the skewing of policy and research priorities to GM crops and their new variants – gene edited plant varieties and animal breeds as Claire Robinson asserts – with this model extending beyond industrialised countries to other regions as Suman Sahai reports from India, where the dominant research agenda is seemingly intractably allied with hi-tech solutions for larger-scale producers.

But, encouragingly, this month, food producers’ voices are being heard. In Rome, FAO held its second international symposium on Agroecology, which concluded that these smaller-scale food providers’ production systems needed to be supported, if the SDGs are to be realised. Civil Society concurred. The symposium was, coincidentally, held in the same month as the 10th anniversary of the UN and World Bank’s landmark International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the reports of which were approved by 58 governments including the UK in April 2008. These were summarised in 22 Key Findings which were supportive of these smaller-scale food providers’ production systems and the shift in research effort towards agroecological systems. In Geneva, at the UN’s Human Rights Council, progress is being made in negotiating the UN Declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas. Good news in the month of the International Day of the Peasant Struggle, held in memory of 19 peasants martyred in Brazil on 17th April, 1996, for defending their territory and way of life as food producers. Their voices need to be heard. Paraphrasing Pat Mooney’s remarks in ‘For Whom?’: Peasants need to have more ‘facetime’ with politicians than agribusiness and the dominant research community currently do, in which to promote their nutritious, biodiverse and resilient agroecological systems.

“…the private sector has all the facetime with politicians whilst peasants have almost none.” Pat Mooney, ‘For Whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda.’

These agroecological systems require secure back-up for the farmers’ seed systems with which they have co-evolved. This was a focus of the Seed Vault Summit, “Towards rational conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources” held in February to mark the tenth anniversary of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This was set up in the permafrost high in the Arctic in 2008 as the repository of last resort – a Doomsday Vault, as it has been dubbed – for samples of seeds, taken from farmers’ fields, of all the crops of the world to be stored ex situ, away from the place they were originally found. In the event of the disastrous loss of national seed or gene banks, as happened in Syria, seeds are available to regenerate those collections. This noble cause, backed especially by the Norwegian Government and  the Crop Trust and managed by NordGen, protects this important heritage of seeds collected over the past 120 years from farmers across the world. On the occasion of the Summit, the millionth seed sample was deposited in the Vault. It’s costly, though, and it does suck funding away from arguably the more urgent and important task of supporting, and backing-up, the regeneration of today’s seeds on-farm and in situ, as it’s often described. In peasants’ hands the seeds are constantly being dynamically managed to adapt to new challenges, such as climate change, and to respond to the current needs of citizens for nutritious foods, produced locally.

I was privileged to be asked to offer some comments to the Summit about this in a presentation entitled: “Saving snapshots of farmers’ biodiverse seed systems: re-visioning in situ & ex situ conservation strategies in the framework of food sovereignty.” Ironically, as if to emphasise the global challenge of climate change, during the Symposium it rained in Svalbard, while it snowed in Rome, as Bloomberg summarised in their account of the Summit, underscoring that the permafrost might not be there forever to protect these heritage seeds. The main point I was making is that it would be better to spend a bit less on storing the ‘fading snapshots’ of past biodiversity in remote seed banks and a lot more on continuous backup of the ‘live footage’ of farmers’ and other growers’ biodiverse seed systems on-farm. This will require a reversal of funding priorities towards supporting and backing up these farmers’ seed systems of today.

To achieve this, seed banks should ‘listen to biodiversity-enhancing farmers’ and provide resources mainly for strengthening their informal seed systems and wider agricultural biodiversity, rather than developing industrial seeds and new GM crops. This will entail the seed bank system at all levels, from community seed banks to the Global Seed Vault, to prioritise back up and availability to farmers of their biodiverse varieties /populations of manifold food crops, while reducing the effort to service the demands of industrial commodity production. This would be facilitated if seed banks prioritised farmer-led governance, including on issues such as Farmers’ Rights to have control over their seeds and knowledge, and the principle of the International Seed Treaty’s Article 12.3.d which rejects Intellectual Property Rights on stored seeds or genes extracted from them. In sum, to ensure that seed banks’ policies, actions and programmes help strengthen farmers’ informal seed systems, managed in the framework of food sovereignty, which can adapt to current challenges.

“Research can have its role in agroecology but only if the agenda is set by farmers.” Ibrahima Coulibaly, ‘For Whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda.’

These biodiversity-enhancing food producers regenerate nutritious, biodiverse and culturally-appropriate food crops as a priority. They value their biodiverse locally-adapted seed systems. They give priority to seeds for biodiverse localised food systems that directly link food providers and food eaters. They develop ‘Community Seed Banks’, controlled locally, which in effect operationalise their Farmers’ Rights to save, use, exchange and sell seeds. They enhance their seed systems through local innovations, such as Participatory or Evolutionary Plant Breeding, which increase food system and ecosystem resilience, that benefit future generations. In sum, they use biodiverse seeds in low external input agroecological production and harvesting methods, developed in the framework of food sovereignty, that improve resilience and the capacity for seeds and farmer-managed ecosystems to adapt, especially in the face of climate change.

There’s plenty of scope to make the necessary changes to the research agenda so that it prioritises agroecology and farmers’ seed systems. And now, there are many opportunities – as we can see in the way global forums are embracing the challenges. Speaking about an earlier international forum ‘Nyéléni 2007: forum for food sovereignty’ which he led, Ibrahima Coulibaly said: “Yes, I think we planted a seed that germinated very well, by resisting. [Farmers’] seeds are important, more so than the more engineered/certified versions of governments… There is so much scope to diversify research, but it isn’t tapped into. And smaller-scale farmers don’t have the time to do the research. They can’t be both farmers and [formal] researchers. Research can have its role in agroecology but only if the agenda is set by farmers.”

Patrick Mulvany is an agriculturalist and Member of the Food Ethics Council


 1 etcGroup Who will feed us?

2 Frances Moore Lappé ‘Farming for a small planet: agroecology now’