On seeds: Controlling the first link in the food-chain

Published on Pambazuka News, by Nidhi Tandon, November 9, 2011.

Thanks to the US’s 2009 Global Food Security Act, food aid policy for the first time mandates the use of genetic modification technologies. Nidhi Tandon looks at how this legislation helps biotechnology companies monopolise the seed industry at the expense of farmers, and explores some of the dubious links between these corporations, the Gates Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa … //


‘I don’t believe we can address the issues of nutrition security, poverty, and health in Kenya without relying on African indigenous crops’. Twenty years ago, Professor Mary Abukutsa Onyango, a horticultural scientist at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, pioneered extensive research in traditional vegetables such as African eggplant, nightshades and cow peas. ‘The research was inspired by my experience of having had to live on vegetables since I was a child because I was allergic to animal proteins. I therefore know that traditional vegetables are rich with nutrients and are easy to grow,’ explains Abukutsa. ‘I wanted my research to improve the uptake of traditional vegetables and to help farmers earn a living from selling the crops.’ ‘To date, we have about 100 contact farmers and/or farmer groups-77 in Western Kenya and 33 in Central Kenya – who are trained in all aspects of growing indigenous crops, from seed production to processing, using organic methods,’ she said. ‘The farmers that do well are also taught simple food preservation techniques like drying, which increase shelf-life but retain as much of the nutrients as possible, and are linked to supermarkets to sell their vegetables. Because of their extensive training, they are able to pass on their knowledge of indigenous food growing to others in their communities.’

She further explains that due to concerted efforts from various stakeholders to popularise traditional vegetables, they are now available in restaurants, markets and even supermarkets and people do not have to travel to the rural areas to access them. Abukutsa advocates a return to indigenous crops to address the issues of nutrition security, poverty and health that are further compounded by climate change impacts. For example, with a soaring food crisis, and maize harvests predicted to fall due to changing Kenyan weather patterns, the only grains that could adequately replace maize would be indigenous millets and sorghum, which are more drought-tolerant.

‘Exotic vegetables have a market, but largely among the rich. They are expensive and therefore marginalise Kenyans who live below the poverty line, and who account for an estimated 60 percent of the rural population, according to government reports such the Kenya Health Demographic Survey of 2009,’ explains Nduati Kigo, an agricultural officer in Central Kenya. He adds that since the available exotic vegetables are out of the reach for the ordinary Kenyan, and with limited available options due to the lack of mainstreaming of the traditional vegetables, food insecurity remains a reality for many households.

The traditional (and valued) roles of women in plant genetic resource management (seed collection, selection and saving) will be silenced and devalued by the biotechnology advocacy of US development policy. The livelihood of seed saving and production by women could be dismantled in the name of a misguided development agenda that focuses on agribusiness incomes in the developed world. The risks to farmers of fully adopting industrial agriculture in general and GM seeds in particular include:

  • Transferring their food and farming decisions to global corporations
  • Losing ecological and agricultural diversity as genetically modified crop varieties spread
  • Increased use of pesticide and fertilizer that often come hand in hand with engineered seeds
  • Driving small- and medium-scale family farmers off their land because they cannot afford the expensive inputs, including genetically modified seeds, that industrial agriculture demands.

Wherever people’s needs are largely supplied by a local food system, the farms in that region are themselves more diverse. Farmers who supply local markets have strong incentives to diversify their production. Seed saving farmers have selected plants for certain traits including their success in local microclimates and soil types. Agricultural biodiversity steadily multiplies as a result. When farms are small in scale, and especially when farmed organically, they also enable a wide range of non-food species to co-exist within the farm system. In some cases the farm itself mimics the wilderness. There is a lot of ground to recover and species to reclaim. (full long text and Notes 1 – 14).

(Nidhi Tandon is founder and director of Networked Intelligence for Development nid … ).


The bio-fuel frenzy: what options for rural women? A case of rural development schizophrenia, by Nidhi Tandon, 17 pdf-pages (scroll down for article).

Gender & Development, an Oxfam Journal, Volume 19, Issue 2, 2011.

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