The loss of biodiversity, particularly plant genetic variety, has decreased dramatically posing a risk to farmers and threatening food security.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 75 per cent of plant genetic variety has been lost since the 1900s. As a result of this loss, humans have less variety in the foods they can eat today and if nothing is done to stop the decline, we can only expect worse in the years to come.
Kenya, East Africa’s investment hub is our country of focus since everything that could go wrong in food security is already a snowball gathering pace now. Worsened by the situation between Russia and Ukraine, Kenya is feeling the heat as staples are becoming a luxury for many. There is not enough maize or wheat in the country and cooking oil is becoming rare.
But this is just a tip of the iceberg since this challenge could be avoided with policies that empower farmers.
Kenya is digging itself into a hole with policies that deny farmers the opportunity to grow food freely. One of these policies is a seed law stating that unregistered and uncertified seeds cannot be shared, traded, or sold. In breach of this, a prison sentence of up to two years or a fine of up to one million Kenyan shillings, or both, are possible penalties.
Smallholder farmers produce more than 80 per cent of food across the country and the Seed and Plant Varieties Act Cap 326 of 2012 is a threat to this which means that the country faces incessant hunger occasioned by a law that is nothing but oppressive.
The Seeds and Plant Varieties Act 1972 (Cap. 326) was assented to on May 16, 1972, and took effect on January 1, 1975.
This is an Act of Parliament to confer power to regulate transactions in seeds, including provision for the testing and certification of seeds; for the establishment of an index of names of plant varieties; to empower the imposition of restriction on the introduction of new varieties; to control the importation of seeds; to authorize measures to prevent injurious cross-pollination; to provide for the grant of proprietary rights to persons breeding or discovering new varieties; to establish a Tribunal to hear appeals and other proceedings; and for connected purposes.
Only a few Kenyans are aware of the entire extent of the law’s punitive nature, which has remained hidden from the public. The farming communities in Kenya who are aware of it are shocked that no public engagement was carried out prior to the adoption of this statute.
Greenpeace Africa’s Campaigner, Claire Nasike, says that the Kenya government has failed to do what it was supposed to do, which was to make laws to protect the ownership of native seeds, knowledge about these seeds and the intellectual property rights. The current laws on seeds support neo-colonialism and could make it easy for multinationals, big businesses, and other profit-driven organisations to steal local resources.
Kenya’s 2010 Constitution has made it clear that indigenous seeds, which are also called “informal seeds”, exist and need to be protected. This is done by requiring parliament to pass laws that protect the ownership of indigenous seeds. As it is, the Seed and Plant Varieties Act Cap 326 of 2012 is in breach of the supreme law of the land.
Nasike adds that by making it easier for corporations to control seeds, and hence the food system in Kenya, the harsh seed laws help a neo-colonial capitalist culture of exploiting farmers. These harsh laws will make it harder for farmers to grow the nutrient-dense, locally grown crops they want and reduce the variety of food available to Kenyans.
Studies show that 90 per cent of the seeds planted in Kenya come from informal seed systems.
80 per cent of small-scale farmers in Kenya use informal seed systems including sharing seeds amongst themselves and selling and buying seeds at local markets. If these farmers are prohibited from using their native seeds, then their biological resources are being stolen and monopolised by corporations. The end result of this is that there will be less food produced leading to food insecurity in Kenya.
Ironically, Kenya cannot currently sufficiently feed itself and the law only makes the situation worse.
While the proposer and movers of the outrageous seed law in Kenya are unseen, corporations cannot be ruled out since they remain the biggest beneficiaries of the ridiculous profits that come with patenting seeds.
Seed patenting is driven by multinationals and in Africa, it hurts smallholder farmers because it is expensive to get the seeds. In addition, the new seeds produced by these corporations are usually genetically modified organisms (GMO) which means they remain a threat to the native seeds.
Kenya’s law also goes against the Nagoya Protocol, an international agreement, which seeks to ensure that everyone gets a fair share of the benefits of using genetic resources. It became law on October 12, 2014.
During the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), COP15 in Nairobi, Kenya last month, Greenpeace Africa asked the Kenya government to recognise smallholder farmers’ rights to indigenous seeds and change the harsh seed laws that make it illegal for farmers to share and sell seeds that are not certified or registered.
The Advocacy Officer at Seed Savers Network Kenya, Dominic Kimani, said that seeds are a part of Kenyans’ culture and the most important part of farming. He added that small-scale farmers have made crops better over time by choosing the best ones, saving seeds and sharing them.
Kimani challenged the government to help the farmers with their jobs as seed keepers and breeders by making laws that protect them.
By criminalising seed trade and seed sharing among farmers, they will not be able to make a living. The dark side of this is that there will be increased bio-piracy which will reduce the genetic diversity of plants and end up hurting the ability of farming communities to deal with food insecurity and the worsening effects of climate change.
Kimani adds that farmers will not be able to get as many different kinds of seeds if they cannot share, trade, or sell them in the informal seed sector which will make food and nutrition insecurity in the country even worse.