Call for recognizing farmer seed varieties for resilient food systems & economic empowerment
Uganda's development depends heavily on agriculture. Seeds are genetic resources that contain plant genetic variation, and they are the primary source of all food and agricultural output. Small-scale farmers play a crucial role in Uganda's food systems, meeting up to 80% of the population's food demands, according to some estimates, and these largely depend on the Farmer Managed Seed Systems (FMSS), as it is the most reliable and affordable source of seeds that influence agricultural development. The FMSS encompasses a wide range of efforts to preserve, develop, use, and transmit genetic materials outside of conventional breeding and commercial production systems. In the face of climate change, increasing hunger, poverty, and malnutrition, the FMSS continues to play a significant role in the reintroduction of neglected and underutilised species (NUS), biodiversity conservation, and as a source of local crop varieties that are used for plant breeding.
The FMSS, however, is underfunded and unappreciated in terms of regulations and research. In Uganda, a scarcity of desirable and high-quality plant genetic resources continues to constrain small-scale farmers and risk food and nutritional security, especially as the environment changes. The diversity in the FMSS is essential to ensuring food and improved nutrition in farming communities and the country at large.
During the 5th National Agroecology Actors’ Symposium (NAAS), ESAFF Uganda took the lead on a side event on the strategies and opportunities for scaling up the FMSS with the objective of creating awareness of the FMSS as a major contribution to resilient food systems in Uganda and collectively mobilising and developing strategies for a regulatory system for the registration of farmers’ seed varieties. This side event was organized together with PELUM Uganda and Oxfam in Uganda.
During the discussion, it was highlighted that with increasing technological advancements, market manipulations, and shifting regulations and legal systems, seed has become a commercially proprietary resource. Further to that was the introduction of modern agriculture, which has transformed small-sale farmers into passive consumers of industrial commodities, including seed, rather than active producers. As a result, small-scale farmers have lost control over their productive resources and production processes, making them targets of private ownership and consumption and increasing financial and ecological expenses. More to that was the fact that the dependency on industrial agriculture is leading to diversity loss in the country.
"Diversity is crucial for ensuring resilient seed systems, and farmers have been key contributors to maintaining diversity. If farmers are able to own, control, and freely exchange PGR, especially seeds from the FMSS, they will be able to earn extra income and improve their livelihoods.’’ – Charles Opiyo-Oxfam in Uganda
Attention has been given to the formal seed sector, which, in return, exploits the FMSS in terms of knowledge and resources. While engaging with some researchers, small-scale farmers always share a lot of knowledge and resources freely without understanding the implications this has on their communities and the FMSS.
Farmers also expressed interest in expounding on the consultation processes while revising the national seed catalogue. More focus has been put on only major crops that cannot fully supplement the diets of rural communities and small-scale farmers. The farmer seed varieties present a diversity of local foods and crop varieties that are vital in not only ensuring food and nutrition security but also environmental conservation and economic value. Because concentration is put on only 18 major crops, this is likely to escalate malnutrition cases, especially among rural farming communities. The world has over 2000 edible species, while Uganda recognises only 18 crops, and these receive top priority in regulations, research, and funding yet contribute less to dietary diversity.
It was also noted that seeds have long been a part of Uganda's cultural heritage; they are an integral part of many rituals, ceremonies, and festivals that celebrate the cycle of birth, life, and death. Farming is part of our lifestyle, and this is why small-scale farmers engage in seed saving.
“If we ignore our indigenous seeds, we lose out on our identity.” – Masudio Margaret, Vice Chairperson, ESAFF Uganda, noted
Small-scale farmers in Amuria, Apac, Soroti, Nebbi, Omoro, and Adjumani districts have been involved in participatory plant breeding and restoration of local food plants through farmer-led research, and this has greatly contributed to genetic resource diversification, hence ensuring resilient communities.
“We did not engage in complicated science (like what some scientists refer to) but relied mostly on the knowledge from the FMSS, and we are very proud of our results.” – Akello Hellen, a small-scale farmer from Amuria district, shared
FMSS has encouraged seed sharing among community small-scale farmers, resulting in unity, food, and nutrition-secure communities. Mr. John Ludongokol, the assistant commissioner of Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF), highlighted the need to identify and categorise crop varieties according to their nutritional value and contribution to food security in the country. ‘’If we are to prioritise, we need to consider farmer seeds,’’ Ludongokol noted. In his discussion, Mr. Ludongokol acknowledged the importance of the FMSS as the primary source for most of the improved varieties.
It is therefore important to give credit where it is due. Small-scale farmers have been the custodians of indigenous seeds for generations, yet they have not benefited from the use of these seeds by researchers, breeders, and policymakers, as stated in the Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Aside from that, farmers' rights to save, use, exchange, and sell farm-saved seeds and other propagating materials as per the FAO Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture As a country, we are still lagging behind in the implementation and enforcement of various sections of the PGRFA treaty, leading to not only a loss of income, especially for small-holder farmers, but also a loss of biodiversity, which poses a danger to national and global food and nutrition security.
Furthermore, with the increasing impacts of climate change, discussions on agroecology as a more sustainable farming method are dominating numerous discussion tables.
“As small-scale farmers, we interact with the land on a daily basis, we understand the changes that are occurring around us, and, most importantly, we have some traditional knowledge on mitigating some of the impacts of climate change. We could change the narrative of lamentation if the government and other stakeholders paid enough attention to us. We are the agents of change, and we are always prepared.” – Masudio Margaret is a small-scale farmer in Adjumani district.
As a result of the event, participants came up with some key recommendations that could be adopted to ensure that the FMSS is recognised and acknowledged for its contribution to ensuring resilient food systems. Participants recommended that farmers’ varieties should be recognised documented, highlighting their nutritional values, and regional databases established to create more awareness on the contribution of indigenous seeds in ensuring resilient food systems. This will aid in ensuring that these varieties are not only protected at the local level but also included in the national database and conserved to ensure continuity.
This will also increase awareness about the existence, production, and protection of seeds through the profiling of farmer-managed seeds and ensure public access. Participants also called for the need to conduct farmer-led research before prioritising crops. The crop database should be tailored to the local communities to enable their input, leading to the development of a seed system that is Ugandan-based and not the adopted systems from different countries.
Participants also challenged the government, through MAAIF, to consider the FMSS by effectively implementing the various sections of the international treaty on PGRFA. This calls for the expansion and enforcement of regulatory mechanisms.
In conclusion, more capacity building for small-scale farmers on promoting and protecting the indigenous seed was justified to increase their understanding of the need to strengthen and protect the FMSS in communities.