This article is the 11th in a series highlighting the work of our colleagues around the world to build agroecological practices, science and movements. Agroecology has emerged as a set of practices based on principles that guide how to produce food sustainably, as well as how to manage the social relationships that govern food production, processing, exchange and waste management in a fair manner. In this article, Farhad Mazhar illustrates the power and importance of Farmers’ Seed Systems in ensuring biological and cultural survival.
Food production is the regeneration of the biological existence of a community, and seeds are the strategic sites of both biological and cultural survival. Seeds are unique since they manifest both the process and the result of the regenerative cycles of nature that ensure the existence of the human and other living beings. They are essential to the regeneration of individual and community life. Seeds are the practical and sensual aspects of the natural processes, articulated through local language, indigenous discourses and practices. Seeds and associated local and indigenous knowledge systems mediate community relations and form larger ecological landscapes such as villages, countries or rural spaces. They are encapsulated in community relations and are often inscribed in local or indigenous names. Seeds are not numbers, they have names.
Agroecological principles recognize seeds as living beings that carry within them all the natural processes necessary for regeneration. They are much more than mere industrial inputs or "factors of production." Farmers, as stewards of the land, are the only ones who can facilitate natural processes and ensure the continuation of ecological cycles. Farmers' agency is inseparable from the natural ecological processes. They are not simply "managers" of seed-keeping, but integral to the concept of agroecology.
Farmers’ Seed Systems
Historically Farmers' Seed Systems (FSSs)1 evolved to keep this vital biological cycle active and constituted farmers’ agencies to ensure seed and food sovereignty in most countries, particularly in Bangladesh. The wealth of biodiversity and genetic resources are the result of farming communities and households’ saving, sharing and collective innovation that provide for 70% to 90% of what is planted every year in most of the global South. Studies have shown that smallholder farmers in many developing countries rely heavily on their own saved seed and that farmers' seed plays a significant role in maintaining crop diversity and ensuring food security. The Nayakrishi Andolon, the biodiversity-based ecological agriculture practiced by over 300,000 Bangladeshi farming households, is based on a very strong farmers' seed system.
Farmers' seed accounts for approximately 80% of the seed used in sub-Saharan Africa, while commercial seed accounts for only 20%.2 In Asia, the proportion of farmers' seed use is around 60%. In Nepal, farmers' seeds accounted for 83% of the total maize seed supply.3 Small farmers’ households, particularly women, save, share and innovate varieties that resolve the challenges they encounter on a day-to-day basis.
In Bangladesh, small farming households rely heavily on FSSs for their food production. According to the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BRRI), farmers' seed accounts for approximately 85% of the total seed supply for rice. The remaining 15% is commercial seed. Similarly, for other crops like wheat, maize and vegetables, farmers' seed is the main source of seeds. The Seed Wing of the Ministry of Agriculture shows that the formal system supplied only 40% of the total demand for rice seeds and 34% of the demand for wheat seeds as opposed to 79% of the demand for maize seeds during 2012-13.4
However, instead of finding ways to support this innovative system, the current government policy is to promote hybrid seeds to boost the commercial seed sector. The private sector supplies over 95% of hybrid seeds, and 203 of 218 hybrid Boro varieties are registered by the private sector. This program will destroy the agency of the farmers in order to replace it with corporate control and privatization. Nevertheless, the small farmers' households remain the main keepers of indigenous seeds with the vast knowledge that is the foundation of Bangladesh agriculture. The Nayakrishi farmers have a collection of 2,252 rice varieties, 352 vegetables of different kinds, and about 1,000 other seeds of lentils, pulses, oil, fruits, flowers, timber and spices as of March 2023 in the Community Seed Wealth Centres.
Global seed companies have increased monopoly control over seed trade, seeking to undermine FSSs. Since the 1980s the world's largest agrochemical corporations began buying up seed companies and developing genetically modified crops. They have been aggressively pushing for seed laws and rules to give them monopoly rights over seeds and to criminalize farmers for sharing seeds — the fundamental foundation of FSSs.
Seeds are not dead “inputs”
These misguided efforts to replace the FSSs with a system in which seeds are treated as dead “inputs” for industrial production to compel farmers to buy seeds from commercial markets. The separation of seeds from their organic relation to farming and natural biological processes distorts the central role farming households play through FSSs. Such disarticulation results in excluding farmers’ natural rights and agency to render seeds as raw materials for exploitation and commodification. It denies the truth that seeds and biological resources belong to particular communities living in unique agroecological systems.
This ill-conceived approach denies the intrinsic nature of seeds as living beings with the power to regenerate themselves naturally. Instead, it replaces the agency of nature with the agency of corporations, reducing natural biological processes into capitalist processes. As a result, seeds are treated as raw materials that can only be used once, forcing farming communities to buy new seeds from seed corporations.
The corporate world typically ascribes seed quality to a limited set of parameters that is inherently weak in meeting the challenge of local conditions presupposing homogeneous production conditions. Unlike in the case of FSS, which is more resilient to challenges from local conditions, corporate-produced seeds come in packaged bundles that require extraction of groundwater for irrigation, the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. The so-called standard parameters and its associated set of inputs are a hoax that serve to destroy local agroecological conditions. These standard parameters result in the use of elements that could be commodified and sold for profit. This ideology thus equally justifies the historic scandals of biopiracy: the stealing of farmers’ seed and collecting them in genebanks and seed vaults that are then subject to intellectual property rules that codify their status as mere dead commodities.
Globally, the major part of agricultural land is sown with farmers’ seeds. Corporate attempts to desperately create a so-called 100% “formal seed sector” is unrealistic and dangerous. In Bangladesh, farmers have always been the innovators of flood and drought-prone varieties or unique varieties that contribute to the resilience of their diverse systems to cope with nature. Privileging the formal seed system over the FSSs has no scientific basis from the perspective of biodiversity and agroecology, nor from the perspective of the resilience of a disaster-prone community. A comprehensive national seed policy must be guided by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to ensure seed, genetic diversity and knowledge systems of the farming communities. Singular direction to create commercial and corporate seed markets destroying FSSs could be disastrous and may cause irreversible damage to the biological foundation of life. It could be disastrous for the seed and food sovereignty of Bangladesh.
Seeds are key to farming communities and to women
Seeds are the key through which farming communities play a fundamental agroecological role by planning and designing landscapes defined by agrobiological diversity and discouraging monoculture. By resisting monoculture, Farmers' Seed Systems also resist the commodification of seeds and life forms. Farmers' seed systems conserve, manage and regenerate diverse species and varieties and can ensure the flow of various natural and ecological cycles. The farming households function both as in-situ and ex-situ conservation of seed and genetic resources and contribute to regenerating the biological foundation of rural communities as a whole.
The CBD recognizes the role of FSSs, emphasizing the importance of respecting, preserving and maintaining the knowledge, innovations, and practices of indigenous and local communities that embody traditional lifestyles. It also promotes the wider application of such knowledge, innovations and practices with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge and encourages the equitable sharing of benefits arising from their utilization (CBD 1992).
The resilience of agriculture and the ability of the farming community to counter the variability of climate change and disasters caused by natural calamities are squarely related to FSS. It is the farming communities that have historically invented seeds that can stand drought, salinity, flood, etc. The FSSs mean resilience and modern varieties are often unsuitable to meet disastrous natural calamities. Resilient seeds maintained by farming households are always ongoing experiments and evolve through local use in local conditions.
Women play a key role in seed and genetic resource conservation and in FSS are recognized as active agents in maintaining the ecology and economy of the small farming household. Through management, conservation and regeneration of seed, women command the agrarian production cycles and occupy a natural and real power of command in the agrarian community through FSSs. The corporate ideology of seed displaces women from their real material conditions of power and creates false ideologies of “women's empowerment.” The so-called “standardization” of the seeds displaces women from their natural position of power in the agrarian economy. Seed is, therefore, the most critical and primary concern of the women's movement and a determining factor in reorienting our vision and realization of feminine values of seed keeping.
Seed & Intellectual Property Rights
The Farmers’ Seed System implies collective ownership of the community over seeds and genetic resources. This ownership is based on the collective moral foundation and is inseparable from traditions, community relations and natural law. This is in contrast to individual rights to privatize seeds or the introduction and use of harmful, invasive or genetically engineered inputs, such as GMOs, without any ethical or moral consideration. Destruction of FSS opens up scopes for biopiracy, the introduction of GMOs, patenting of seeds and other lifeforms.
Seed rights, therefore, cannot be individual rights. Seed and genetic resources must be held as common. Seed laws are dictated by breeders and corporate bodies and inevitably destroy the biological foundation of communities in favor of private corporate profit and industrial manipulation of life and the biological world. Breeders claiming private rights over seeds indeed intend to destroy FSSs and replace the life world of farming communities with the corporate world of profit and genetic erosion.
The vast majority of current International Conventions and Laws are based on the principle of privatization and ownership of individual or legal persons and stand in contrast to the ideals of commons and free access of farmers to the community seed systems. The Union for Protection of Plant Varieties (UPOV) convention encourages plant breeding and its related innovations through a sui-generis (of its kind) system of plant variety protection and imposes plant breeders' rights over seed and genetic resources at a national level.
Transforming seeds into private property instantly prevents the free flow of germplasms and planting materials within a community. Seed laws prevent the marketing and sale of uncertified farmer-managed seed varieties, rendering in many cases farmers' exchange of seed as illegal. This is a weird and paradoxical situation and limits the role of farmers in ensuring food and nutrition for the community. The FSSs are directly affected by the seed laws. The selling of seeds by small-scale resource-poor farmers is seen as “illegal.”
The UPOV and related laws on intellectual property rights are essentially corporate laws designed to shatter and destroy FSSs. They are legal instruments by private seed breeders and seed corporations to consolidate, target and market proprietary seeds to poor small-scale farmers, displacing farmers' seed systems that have historically built up the foundation of farming.
The conflict between FSSs and commercial seed systems is not at all a scientific debate but at the core is the resistance of the farming community against corporate attempts to destroy the biological foundation of life and human conditions for survival. Corporations are desperate to control seed and food systems, keen to re-edit the genetic code and manipulate the biological language of life to break and cross transgenic barriers. It is obvious that FSSs are key political sites to resist biopiracy and corporate manipulation and control of our lives.
1. Conny J. M. Almekinders & Niels P. Louwaars (2002) The Importance of the Farmers' Seed Systems in a Functional National Seed Sector, Journal of New Seeds, 4:1-2, 15-33, DOI: 10.1300/J153v04n01_02
2. E. M. Mwema et al. (2011). Assessment of the Seed Sector in Africa: The Case of Eastern and Southern Africa. International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).
3. A. Ashby et al. (2011). The Role of Local Seed Systems in Enhancing Rural Livelihoods and Food Security: A Review of Literature" by J. A. Ashby et al. FAO.
4. Kolady, D. E., & Awal, Md. A. (2018). Seed industry and seed policy reforms in Bangladesh: Impacts and implications. International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, 21(7), 989–1002. https://doi.org/10.22434/IFAMR2017.0061