Zimbabwe’s has adopted a new strategic plan on native agricultural crops and wild plants that will, among other things, protect the rights of small farmers to breed their own seed — something considered important to coping with climate change.
The National Strategy and Action Plan for Plant Genetic Resources For Food and Agriculture (PGRFA) is based on protection of farmers’ rights. The second draft of this key document was validated by Agriculture Ministry officials, farmers and civic societies at a consultative meeting in Harare last month. The Government will now proceed with drafting the final version.
Put simply, the PGRFA aims to “catalogue, protect and promote” cultivated indigenous crops as well as wild plants and fruits. All these have been used in Zimbabwe for food for thousands of years, before the dawn of hybrids, according to Theophilus Mudzindiko, programmes officer at Pelum Zimbabwe, a farmer advocacy organisation, who attended the meeting.
“This (national strategic and action plan) will create an enabling legal and institutional environment that promotes research and capacity development for conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture in Zimbabwe,” Mudzindiko told The Herald Business.
Of keen interest is how the strategic plan could help small farmers — accounting for 70 percent of the total food production here and elsewhere — resist climate change. For years, native farmers have grown and preserved seed through traditional methods. They have done this through seed saving, sharing and selecting varieties best suited for their environments.
But this age-old practice has in recent decades come under threat from global treaties that seek to transfer the control of seed from small farmers to multinationals and governments.
For example, the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation’s (Aripo) Plant Variety Protection Protocol will achieve this by creating a harmonised regional plant variety protection system that favours corporate seed producers.
Through Zimbabwe’s National Strategy and Action Plan on Plant Genetic Resources, however, corporate monopoly might find it difficult to steamroll smallholder farmers’ seed rights.
That’s because the plan considers farmer seed independence as crucial to avoiding food losses that are linked to climate change.
By breeding their own seed, farmers are able to create varieties that are suitable for their specific regions and climates, helping them cope better with the increasing shifts, say scientists.
“Climate change is one of the reasons why as a nation we are now seeking to promote these traditional/ indigenous varieties,” Mudzindiko opined.
“Varieties such as sorghum, finger millet, and pearl millet are suited for our local climates. Yet, farmers have been discouraged from growing these by promoters of conventional agriculture,” he said.
“We know that climate projections point to declining rainfall and increasing temperatures in Southern Africa. This will also likely increase pest and disease spread. Traditional varieties have over time proven to be highly tolerant to pests and diseases and they do well in low rains and high temperatures,” Mudzindiko added.
Diversity is key to ensuring food security, longterm sustainability and providing farmers with resilience to natural disasters and the negative effects of climate change.
Experts say indigenous seeds are a viable adaptation option, helping farmers to cut costs on seed purchases, yet at the same time putting to good use their wealth of traditional knowledge on breeding seeds that can tolerate harsh climates.
The PGRFA will strengthen Zimbabwe’s existing seed and agriculture laws, which are already built to prevent influences of big capital running over small farmers, making the ratification of any new international seed laws here not only a rigid and rigorous process, but thorough.
According to Pelum Zimbabwe, taking away farmers’ freedoms and choices undermines food security on the basis that Zimbabwe’s economy is agriculture-centred, where smallscale farmers grow their own food mostly from farm saved seed or seed obtained through exchanging with others.
“Conventional agriculture has led to the erosion of traditional crop varieties and farming systems,” said Mudzindiko.
“However, it is becoming evident that with climate change, those very varieties that were discouraged and displaced by hybrid maize and those farming systems that promote . . . monoculture are what is critical for the resilience of food and agriculture in Zimbabwe.”