The wise debate

As the world debates the effectiveness of industrialised agriculture, the good-old small farmer emerges victorious

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Saturday 16 March 2019

In malawi, a new farm policy in the making has some lessons for us to understand the debate on whether the small informal agriculture or the organised and corporate-controlled one is suitable to produce food. At its core is the control over seeds. The least-developed African country is adopting a new law to regulate the trade of seeds.

The proposed law indirectly criminalises the informal seed trade among farmers. Many have alleged that the Bayer-owned Monsanto is behind the new law to promote and protect its own patented seeds. Monsanto has already taken over the government-owned seed company.

Malawi’s attempt to favour seed multinationals and to propagate patented and expensive seeds is not an isolated development. One could argue it is rather the preferred policy of most developing and poor countries. But what is of interest is to look at the reasons given to adopt such policies.

Countries like Malawi argue that a reliable and healthy seed is crucial for productivity. They rightfully pursue good and dependable agriculture on which majority of their population depends for survival. They also say that the technology to ensure this is with the multinational firms, and there is no other way than to seek it from them. This comes with conditions; the most important one being assurance of profit. Companies want protected market for their patented seeds; Malawi’s new seed bill is doing precisely that.

This leads us to another debate: does it mean the existing, and also ancient, system of seed trade in these countries is not suitable for sustaining a productive farm economy? In most poor and developing countries, small and marginal farmers dominate; the seed is primarily of indigenous variety and traded informally and locally through farm-saved sources.

This contentious debate further precipitated on December 17, 2017. The United Nations General Assembly approved the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas. This declaration extends human rights protection to farmers whose “seed sovereignty” is threatened. It was approved by a vote with 121 going in favour; eight against and a sizeable 52 countries abstaining from voting. Developing and poor countries mostly voted in favour while the developed countries in majority abstained from voting. The US, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Hungary, Israel and Sweden voted against the declaration indicating at the polarised debate over seeds and ownership. Ideally, this declaration should have triggered country-level efforts to protect farmers’ rights, like in Malawi the rights of small farmers over their farm-saved seeds.

This February Timothy Wise’s book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food, was released. Wise has indicted governments throwing solutions of organised agriculture, with corporate-controlled technology and seeds, of misleading farmers on solutions to farm crisis. His book is based on extensive fieldwork in southern Africa, Mexico, India and the US Mid-West. He has junked the solutions of consolidating small farms. He sees it as a power play between formidable businesses and the world’s small farmers. His book argues that small farmers, who produce most of our food, should be taken more seriously to seek solutions to their problems.

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's 1-15 March, 2019 print edition)

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