THE INTERVIEW – Insights into the critical issues of seed, land and agroecology in Africa

An Interview with Sabrina Nafisa on ACB’s recent report titled, ‘Changing Seed and Plant Variety Protection Laws in Tanzania— Implications for Farmer-Managed Seed Systems and Smallholder Farmers’. Sabrina is a researcher at the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) based in Tanzania.

Sabrina Nfisa

What’s your report about?

The report talks about the recent changes to Tanzania’s seed legislation and these include the Seed Act of 2003, the Seed Regulations of 2007 and the newly adopted Plant Breeders’ Rights of 2012 and how these may have an impact on smallholder farmers and their seed systems. It highlights the background of the Tanzania seed sector, the players and actors behind the push for the change in seed legislation and their motives.

What was the process of developing your report? What were the challenges?

The paper involved several months of research. The first thing was to have a clear picture on the seed sector in Tanzania. This involved lots of literature review, one on one interviews with key officials at the Ministry of Agriculture and other important stakeholders from the seed sector and participation in important seed meetings such as the review of both the Seed Act and its regulations. Some of the text in this paper on the seed legislation is focused on what has been proposed as changes in the seed laws but not what has been adopted. The seed legislation review is still an ongoing process and there is no available final text. Thus, there will be an update on the paper. Otherwise the whole process was very interesting and a huge learning experience.

How do you explain the situation in Tanzania regarding seed laws?

Generally, seed laws are mainly focused on regulating the formal seed sector including the whole processes of variety release, seed certification and quality control and finally the distribution of seed. This is the same case in Tanzania. As you know, the formal seed sector does not involve smallholder farmers and their seed systems and thus only private companies can take part in these processes. Just like many other sub-Saharan African countries, 80-90% of the seed comes from the farmer-managed seed systems also known as the informal seed sector. The seed laws do not recognize the farmer-managed seed systems and its contributions to the seed sector, and thus no support can be made to smallholder farmers involved in seed production. Although there is a small provision in the seed law of a semi-formal engagement of smallholder farmers through the Quality Declared Seed (QDS) system, this also has its own disadvantages and not all farmers can take part in the process.

In 2014, there were a few amendments to the Seed Act, but one of the provisions prevented any person from the sale of seed that is uncertified. Not only that, only persons that have been registered as seed dealers should engage in the seed business; this includes, production, distribution, sale, importation and exportation among others). Although the government says that this is for quality control, it can be very problematic when the law decides to regulate what farmers are doing in their own seed systems. This year, a ground breaking report from (Mcguire and Sperling, 2016) further confirmed that farmers do fully engage in the seed sector, especially when it comes to seed exchanges and the occasional sale of local varieties or farm-saved seed to kin, neighbours or friends, community-based seed groups and to local markets. CSO’s have constantly asked the government in numerous occasions to make exemptions on smallholder farmers and farmer saved seeds in order to exclude them from these restrictions but the government is not willing to do so. The reason the government gives is that first, they still consider farmers’ local seed as sub-standard and secondly, they still want to protect the private seed sector’s engagement in the seed business. This will eventually have an impact on smallholder farmers’ seed systems.

How would you summarize the implications of plant variety protection laws on farmer-managed seed systems in Tanzania?

When it comes to plant variety protection, our PBR Act is based on the UPOV 1991 system which is a very restrictive and inflexible regime. It grants extremely strong rights to breeder and severely limits farmers’ rights to recycle, exchange and trade the farm-saved seed of protected varieties; it has been the norm for farmers over centuries and they should have the right to continue these practices with all seed that comes into their systems, included protected varieties. Farmers can only do this with the permission from the breeder and are even required to pay royalties on the use of farm save seeds of protected varieties and only use these on their own plots. These restrictions are quite undesirable for countries such as Tanzania where farmer-managed seed systems are dominant. It is no doubt that when any type of seed enters, the farmer’s seed system, farmers experiment and select these seeds and exchange with their fellow farmers. However, farmers’ acts are heavily impinged by the PBR law.

What would the implications of the plant variety protection laws on Tanzania’s food systems be?

Seed exchange is very important component among rural farmers. Restricting seed exchange can have a huge negative impact to farmers’ seed systems in accessing seed and this does affect their food production. Furthermore, with plant variety protection, there is a DUS criteria which requires the production of uniform plants that are suitable for a monoculture type of agriculture, and where only a few varieties that are market viable are developed. This is a threat to crop and agricultural diversity as farmers will eventually be forced to depend only on limited improved varieties. Furthermore, our agricultural systems are reshaped into industrial agriculture where power lies in the hands of private companies which are often foreign while deskilling smallholder farmers. With this shift to industrial agriculture, there will be changes in our food habits and nutrition.

What do you think is the most important finding from your report?

This would be the marginalisation of farmer managed seed systems and the lack of recognition and support of these and their lack of recognition in the seed legislation and policies. For decades, farmer managed seed systems and their seeds have been and continue to be neglected by policy makers. The seed legislation further continues to create a restrictive environment for the farmer managed seed systems.

What do you suggest about how African civil societies use your report in their advocacy works?

The main issue for African Civil Societies is to lobby policy makers to recognise farmer managed seed systems as this is the biggest source of seed supply for African farmers. Furthermore, they should also continue raising awareness to smallholder farmers and together challenge extreme plant variety protection rights that restrict farmers’ rights to save, sell, exchange farm saved seeds of protected varieties.

How do you think Tanzania’s farmers continue to stay in control of their seeds in the face of the challenges from plant variety protection laws?

When it comes to own seed, the PVP law does not affect farmers. It only affects them when it comes to the use of farm saved seed of protected varieties acquired by farmers. However, for farmers to maintain control of their seeds, they should demand protection of their own seed from misappropriation by breeders who in turn sell them protected varieties emanating from their seed.

The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) is committed to dismantling inequalities in the food and agriculture systems in Africa and believes in peoples’ right to healthy and culturally appropriate food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

Read other stories from our Quarterly Newsletter, April-June.