Seed Law on Indigenous Seeds: Is it Good for Farmers or Seed Corporations?

Farmers on the African continent have relied on indigenous seeds for centuries to produce food. Over the years, they have faced numerous challenges in producing enough yields to meet the demand for quality, safe, and nutritious food.

There has been great controversy about the Seed and Plant Varieties Act Cap 326, which outlaws the sharing, sale, and exchange of unregistered indigenous seeds. The act has aroused mixed reactions among farmers and lobbying organizations, raising the question of who the law aims to benefit—the farmers or the seed companies behind it.

The farmers and civil society organizations have boldly sought an in-depth look at the seed law before enforcing it decrying the avoidance of considering those who are to be most affected by the law getting passed. They are in solidarity calling for the protection of the Indigenous seeds that have been a part of the farmers’ journey from their ancestral times showing its test through times and attesting of its efficient role in a foundational small-scale farming sector.

The Seed and Plant Varieties Act Cap 326 is meant to regulate seed usage, containing sections that threaten to imprison smallholder farmers for sharing, selling, or exchanging indigenous seeds.

Research shows that informal seed systems, such as farm harvests, local markets, and seed sharing, supply about 80-90% of the seeds, whereas formal seed systems, including certified seeds, supply only 20% of the seeds used in food production.

This seed law in Kenya was decided upon after a convention of representatives from the Agriculture Ministry, the Seed Traders Association of Kenya (STAK)—an advocate for the interests of seed TNCs like Monsanto and Syngenta—the Plant Breeders Association of Kenya, and the USAID-funded Eastern Africa Seed Committee. This forum was orchestrated without the presence of farmers or civil society organizations, who are crucial stakeholders.

The task force met to revise sections of the Seed and Plant Varieties Act Cap 326 to remove clauses that prevented the full liberalization of the seed industry in Kenya. This meant prioritizing plant breeders over farmers’ rights, despite farmers being the primary producers. The task force was able to eliminate barriers that would limit the operations of private seed companies, enabling them to freely develop, produce, and sell seeds without stringent regulatory constraints.

Why is the Seed Law Contentious?

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization data, about 75% of the world’s crop diversity has been lost in the last 100 years. This decline can be directly linked to a censoring of indigenous seeds, which are frequently diverse, authentic, and widely used by farmers due to their accessibility, affordability, and resilience to climatic conditions.

For centuries, farmers across the globe have saved and exchanged indigenous seeds freely, which has been critical in supporting food production by the majority of smallholder farmers. Seed sharing is inherent in the culture and tradition of many communities, sustaining local farming communities and livelihoods for years.

Indigenous seeds represent culture, a people’s way of life, and a rich tradition that passes knowledge from generation to generation. Enacting rules and regulations on the use of indigenous seeds implies the enforced loss of traditional farming knowledge and practices, raising questions about how livelihoods will be preserved.

Indigenous seeds

The Seed and Plant Varieties Act aims to undermine the self-sufficiency of smallholder farmers who use indigenous seeds to grow food. This act creates a dependency on multinational companies for seeds, giving an upper hand to these companies.

The bone of contention lies in the seed law in Kenya, which seeks to punish farmers with a jail term of up to two years or a fine of 1 million shillings (about 6800 USD) for sharing indigenous seeds without certification or registration. The fine is disproportionately high compared to the produce and returns of a smallholder farmer, raising numerous questions about who gains and who loses.

Who are the Winners of the Restrictions on Indigenous Seeds?

It’s important to examine records to understand who benefits from the barring of indigenous seed sharing and planting. Recent data shows that the global seeds market reached a value of US$ 45.2 billion in 2023.

The high sales by multinational seed companies, whose aim is to profit from selling certified and improved seed varieties, mainly monoculture, testify to the damage inflicted on the tradition of using indigenous seeds.

According to the IMARC Group, top seed companies are introducing genetically modified (GM) seeds, increasing the efficiency of farmlands. However, there is limited information, public participation, and farmer presence in these forums.

The food sector is crucial, considering the instrumental role of seeds in food production and the food insecurity issue plaguing the continent. Based on data from Greenpeace, large-scale corporate farmers are set to benefit significantly from this law. These companies focus on seed products primarily for profit, not nutrition, potentially leading to farming practices harmful to an already fragile environment.

It’s no coincidence that the global commercial seed market reached a value of US$ 43.4 Billion in 2021 about Kshs. 5.08 trillion. The market is projected to reach US$ 48.8 billion by 2027. This growth is attributed to farmers purchasing more commercially produced seed varieties instead of using farm-harvested saved seeds.

The act will also encourage dependency on commercial seed merchants and increase the cost of farming for financially challenged communities. The case against the Seed and Plant Varieties Act Cap 326, which criminalizes the sharing, sale, and exchange of unregistered seeds, is currently in court, with a hearing scheduled for July 24th at Machakos High Court.

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