Opinion: seed sovereignty for food security could transform globalisation after the coronavirus

Communities who regularly face calamitous food shocks have much to teach us about maintaining sovereignty over seeds and food supply. They know well not to rely solely upon formal, monoculture-based globalised supply and value chains which can be adversely affected while informal diverse seed systems can survive and thrive. My recent study of seed laws and practices in Ethiopia and Kenya, places and people in the frontline of hunger and climate shocks, addresses the issue of seed sovereignty in the context of the kind of globalisation that a trans-boundary global shock like coronavirus suddenly throws up for us all.

Seed sovereignty is the right to sow, grow, save, use, share and breed seeds and determine own seed futures. Seed laws and policies determine seed practices and food security. For example, Ethiopia's 2013 seed law exempts their farmers’ seed varieties from the broader commercial seed law. The latter demands uniform seeds for global value chains and commercial interests as globalising seed rules swept across Africa in recent years. Moreover, Ethiopia established 30 substantial community seed banks, expanding a dynamic germplasm exchange between state and farmers first initiated by the world-renowned Ethiopian plant scientist Dr Melaku Worede in the 1980s. Why? Because of their experience with horrific famines.

In fact, it was the 1980s Wollo famine in Ethiopia which provided the backdrop to Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen's seminal work identifying "access and entitlement" as the causal antecedents of famine. His work determined seed and food security policy in the decades which followed. In 1995, the World Trade Organisation, itself seen as the landmark achievement of globalisation, introduced the Agreement on Agriculture making seed a mobile technological artefact and throwing seeds to the vagaries of a voracious global market. Corporate capture and proprietorial control over seed followed, intensifying devastating environmental and social loss.

From RTÉ Archives, a 2000 report for Nationwide by Valerie Waters on the the Irish Seed Savers Association in Scariff, Co Clare

By 2009, 400 top scientists from 57 countries warned of the dangers of this narrowing of the genetic resource base in the ground-breaking International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development report. This been commissioned by WHO, UN FAO and World Bank, amongst others. They stated that "diversification of agriculture systems is likely to become an important strategy for enhancing the adaptive capacity of agriculture to climate change". They also insisted on the need to maintain broad genetic variability of seeds/plants we grow to act as buffers against shocks.

That is the reason why Regassa Feyissa, a leading plant physiologist in Ethiopia, bluntly states "do your business, but leave our seeds alone". Farmers’ seeds as opposed to corporate-owned seed have been central to a strategy of on-farm, conservation through use across Ethiopia since the 1980s.

Even before the coronavirus, evidence has been mounting against the destructive dominance of monoculture industrialised agriculture and the accompanying dangerous loss of habitat. The UN Declaration on Peasant and Biodiversity Rights in 2018 gave recognition to the need to maintaining diverse informal seed systems.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Countrywide, interview with Madeline Mc Keever who produces seeds for varieties of vegetables that are well suited to Irish conditions on her farm near Skibereen in west Cork

These have proven to work when formal systems failed, which is what occurred in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994. While the commercial potato crop failed, the informal market in bean seeds (with approximately 1,300 different local varieties) was hardly upset. Ireland would have been well served by such a practice, when dependence on predominantly a single "lumper" variety of potato, within a monoculture cropping system in colonial times, led to the starvation of over one million people in the 1840s. Evidence from Cuba’s necessary conversion to food self-sufficiency after the demise of the Soviet Union, to "quiet food sovereignty" movements in Russia and China and beyond are noteworthy.

A reconfiguration of sovereignty and geopolitics is happening before our eyes. The role of the state and community needs are suddenly eclipsing globalisation as borders close, albeit in a contingent and highly contradictory manner. A new politics will be forged out of these times. But politics, as we know, determines who gets what, where, when and how. Food security and supply chains will take centre stage and, even if they do not, their fragility will inform seed/food politics in the years to come.

Seed sovereignty is the right to sow, grow, save, use, share and breed seeds and determine own seed futures 

A transformative Green New Deal is necessary and possible now in all our jurisdictions after the coronavirus. New seed laws and policies need to be central, based on putting publicly-accessible and genetically-diverse seed and food systems at the heart of transformed governance. This may benefit our depleted ecologies, economies, farmers and citizens alike.

Whether it is a globalised pandemic like coronavirus, climate change or biodiversity loss, all of which we all now face, basic health care and food access cannot be taken for granted again in a globalised world, just as those who regularly face such shocks have always known. Our international solidarity is best served now by thinking globally and acting locally and seed sovereignty is a good place to start.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ