While plant and breed varieties circulate around the globe in the form of genetic data more freely than ever, in some countries the traditional physical exchange of real seeds is becoming a crime
In West Africa, more than 80% of the seed used by peasant communities stems from traditional species and varieties and are selected, saved, used, and exchanged according to customary practices. Peasant communities maintain an enormous diversity of species and varieties through their seed systems, which is the basis of rich and diverse food and nutrition.
Meanwhile, the commercial system, which is promoted by dominant states, corporations, and philanthropic foundations, needs to buy seeds and inputs. This, combined with legal and/or technological restrictions on seed saving and use, mires the peasants in increasing dependency and is endangering their own systems.
The spectacular failure of GMO cotton in Burkina Faso sheds a light on the consequences of a production system that is dominated by a few companies and transforms peasant communities into passive recipients of seeds and agrochemicals while their farming activities are restricted by exclusive, patent-protected rights.
Peasants’ rights to seeds and biodiversity are guaranteed by international law, including the human rights framework and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. However, these rights are not being implemented because states have focused their efforts in harnessing the intellectual property regime, which limits peasants’ access to and use of seeds. Current laws in West Africa leave the status of peasants’ seeds and their management in a grey zone, which exposes them to biopiracy and confines them to so-called “informal” seed systems. At the same time, national and subregional policies promote the industrial production of commercial seeds and the establishment of a commercial seed sector.
Social movements and peasant organizations in Western Africa are mobilizing to protect their seeds and advance their rights through laws and policies that are based on agroecology, food sovereignty, and the right to food.