There are few places in the world where this is more evident than sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 60 percent of working women are smallholder farmers. Across Africa, women produce nearly three-quarters of the food but their rights are steadily undermined by corporate-driven industrial farming which disregards traditional agricultural knowledge.
Government policies in many African countries, from Benin to Zambia promote hybrid seeds, involving costly annual purchases, along with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This locks peasants and smallholder farmers into unsustainable food production, transferring power and profits to corporations and restricting the rights of peasants and Indigenous Peoples to save, use, exchange and sell their seeds.
Contamination by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the illegitimate appropriation and exploitation of traditional seeds through intellectual property regimes also undermine peasant seed systems, as does the rapid growth of pesticides use. Just four agrochemical companies – Bayer-Monsanto, DowDuPont/Corteva, ChemChina-Syngenta and BASF – control more than half of the global seed market and three quarters of the global pesticides market.
Instead governments should support the recovery and protection of peasant seed systems which are cultivated and shared from year to year, building on long standing knowledge and peasant innovation ensuring resilience and climate change adaptation. Much of seed-related knowledge is held by women who act as custodians of biodiversity, in Africa and elsewhere.
In the absence of this support, women in several African countries are taking back control of their seeds and rejecting corporate-driven models. In northern Benin, rural communities regularly hit with food shortages are rejecting costly and unstainable hybrid seeds. Instead they recover seeds from traditional crops like sorgo and cowpea which can be re-sown every year and constantly adapt to changing climatic conditions.
“When the month of famine came, those who had grown cowpea had food to feed their families,” said one woman. “Some of them even had enough to sell to others. This year we will all grow cowpea so that we can eat and have some income.”
In central Uganda, women’s groups are establishing community seed banks to recover and share traditional seeds, as well as promoting a move away from industrial agriculture, advocating towards government in creative way such as music and drama.
Peasant seed systems are a key part of realising the right to food and nutrition. They form the basis of sustainable, agroecological farming practices that conserve and promote biodiversity, provide healthy, varied diets and are more readily adapted to climate change. States must do more to protect them and ensure that intellectual property laws, certification schemes, seed marketing laws and biotechnology policies respect the rights, needs and realities of peasants and Indigenous Peoples.