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  • Naume Kalinaki

Recognition of Farmer Varieties: A Vital Leap for Genetic Biodiversity Preservation and Food Sovereignty

Seeds are important inputs that influence agricultural development, among other things. The majority of African farmers (especially small-scale farmers) obtain seed through informal means such as farm-saved seed, seed exchanges, and/or local markets which contribute between 80-100% of seed supply. Governments seldom support informal seed sector systems, which means that farmers' variety reproduction, adaptation, commercialization, and use receive little to no attention in the seed policy, despite their significant contribution to the sector. This results reduction in agricultural productivity and farmer income, especially for small-scale farmers who rely on growing farmer varieties because they have limited access to high-quality seed of these varieties.

Farmers’ varieties possess unique traits such as resistance to local pests and diseases, adaptation to specific environmental conditions, or desirable taste and nutritional qualities which make them more valued in the communities. The registration of farmer varieties in national and regional seed catalogues has been a source of contention at the local, national, and international levels. Farmers have contributed significantly to crop development, management, and conservation. However, national seed regulations typically only address crop varieties developed through the 'formal sector', also known as plant breeding. Article 9 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) recognises farmers' contributions to the conservation and development of plant genetic resources; therefore, national governments are responsible for protecting farmers' rights based on their priorities and needs.

Farmers' active involvement in the conservation of seeds has always been essential for maintaining agricultural biodiversity, preserving cultural heritage, and building resilient food systems capable of meeting the challenges of the future. However, despite farmers’ efforts to conserve seed, their efforts often go unnoticed as they are not recognised as breeders and hence receive no attention from the seed sector. As a result, these are not able to attain economic value since many of their varieties do not meet the market requirements. The recognition and registration of farmers’ varieties ensures preservation of genetic biodiversity as these varieties often represent a rich reservoir of genetic diversity that may be important for breeding programs aimed at developing new crop varieties with improved traits. This is also key for the recognition and protection of farmers’ rights as farmers’ varieties are recognised and protected by the intellectual property rights of farmers who have developed and maintained these varieties over time. Additionally, farmer variety registration would also promote sustainable agriculture.

On March 14, 2024, ESAFF Uganda, in collaboration with its partners Oxfam in Uganda, PELUM Uganda, and the National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO PGRC), held a National Seed Sector Stakeholders Workshop on Farmer Seed Varieties Registration in Kampala to discuss the future of farmer variety recognition and registration in Uganda. This follows previous engagements to test Schedule X, which NARO PGRC developed as an alternative guideline for farmer variety registration. ESAFF Uganda and its partners worked with three communities in Amuria and Soroti districts who had previously improved three crop varieties through Participatory Variety Enhancement (PVE). These include groundnuts (Egoromoit, Obino) and beans (Araka). Farmers improved these varieties over four years by screening for traits such as drought tolerance, pest and disease tolerance, high yielding, good taste, and short maturity, among others. The objective of these engagements was to comprehensively assess and pre-test the draft 'Schedule X' developed by NARO-PGRC, propose an alternative registration framework for farmer varieties, and conduct an in-depth assessment of the identified critical farmer varieties.

While giving his opening remarks during the National Seed Sector Stakeholders Workshop on Farmer Seed Varieties Registration, Dr. John Wasswa Mulumba, the Senior Principal Research Officer NARO-PGRC, shared historical insights on crop discovery, including early humans' daring journey to discover edible and non-edible plants. Farmers have traditionally nurtured a variety of crops without any benefits. However, technological advancements have led to improved crop species and increased monetization, sparking debates on access, benefit sharing, and food security at national and global levels. Legislation such as Uganda's Plant Variety Protection Law of 2004 and the National Seed Policy of 2018 attempted to address these concerns allowing farmers save seeds under these legal frameworks, which emphasise the importance of preserving indigenous knowledge and community intellectual property rights.

Valuable genetic resources nurtured by farming communities are exploited without due recognition or compensation. Cataloguing and registering these resources is required in order to create a national database and this would not only prevent exploitation, but would also provide greater accessibility to these resources, benefiting both the country and individual farmers.” Dr. John Mulumba noted.

During the workshop, key findings from three communities' involved in the pre-testing of Schedule X were presented. The findings highlighted the fact that farmers have spent decades nurturing these varieties, but lack proper documentation, making it difficult to prove advancements made. Despite the existence of Schedule X, there is still a need to raise awareness, particularly among farming communities, which were previously unaware of the procedures for variety registration. Further to that, there is a need to improve the Schedule X to capture detailed farm data, such as variety traits before, during, and after the nurturing process, as well as the agroecological zones in which the varieties were tested. Because the majority of the requirements for registration are scientific, the findings showed the need to assist farmers in collaborating with breeders to generate scientific evidence that will support the registration of farmer varieties.

We are all aware of the role of small-scale farmers in the seed sector, it is everyone's responsibility to support the improvement of Schedule X and the Farmer Variety registration process for the benefit of farmers and the advancement of food sovereignty in our country. Charles Opiyo, Resilient Livelihood Manager for Oxfam in Uganda. 

During the workshop, key recommendations were suggested. It came to light that farmers are not represented on the panel that oversees variety registration and release, so their feedback on proposed varieties gets no attention. This highlights a substantial gap in involving key stakeholders in seed decision-making processes. Creating mechanisms for farmer participation in all processes of seed certification is critical to ensuring that their voices and perspectives are heard when developing and implementing seed sector policies. To address the issue of FVR, it is critical to collectively advocate for policy changes that prioritise farmers' rights and interests. Furthermore, there is an urgent need to develop an alternative registration guideline for farmer varieties, as many of them have not been scientifically tested but have proven their uniqueness and garnered appreciation from farming communities. Policymakers and stakeholders should reconsider current seed-related definitions and classifications. This will lead to a more equitable and inclusive seed sector that recognises the contributions of all stakeholders, including farmers.

Masudio Margaret a small-scale farmer from Adjumani district and Vice Chairperson ESAFF Uganda Board noted that; As farmers, the terms in the guidelines are too complex for us to comprehend. We may not be able to present scientific evidence, but we can distinguish between our varieties based on their taste, feel, appearance, and field performance. for generations, our information has been preserved through stories, traditional songs, and drama, and we ask that you consider it because it is true. Simplified guidelines tailored to farmers are necessary to prevent biopiracy. 

While giving her closing remarks during the National Seed Sector Stakeholders Workshop on Farmer Varieties Registration, Dr Asio Mary Teddy, the Assistant Commissioner in charge of Seed Inspection and Certification at MAAIF acknowledged that in Uganda, Farmer Variety Registration is still in its early stages, with today marking the first step.

“As stakeholders, we must collaborate and bring together the facts and resources from various actors in order to develop a standard guideline for farmer variety registration.” Dr. Asio emphasised.

The National Seed Sector Stakeholders Workshop on Farmer Varieties Registration was organised with support from the seedNL’s Seed Laws Toolbox facility. SeedNL funded a project to support the Development of a Regulatory System for the Registration and Release of Farmer Varieties in Uganda. The project aimed to pilot the registration of three varieties by collecting the necessary information of these varieties in farmer fields, as well as review/discuss the content and implications of the proposed Schedule with the concerned farmers; provide feedback on the key findings to the relevant national stakeholders, including government, NGOs, private sector, media, research institutions, and smallholder farmers; and provide findings for the review and amendments of the schedule X to be presented to MAAIF for formal adoption. As a result of this project, there is increased appreciation of the need for farmer varieties registration among different stakeholders in Uganda given the evidence shared and the engagements stakeholders have been involved in. Additionally, there is evidence for increased awareness about the existence of farmer seed varieties with their uniqueness. The project also birthed an idea of creating a non-state actions network on FVR is in progress to allow coordinated work on FVR.

In conclusion, the issue of FVR is still new in Uganda, and despite the challenges, there are opportunities in some agriculture policies that can be leveraged to ensure farmers are acknowledged as breeders, their varieties are recognised in the National Seed Catalogue, and they are registered and recognised at the national level. By acknowledging and supporting farmer varieties, agricultural policies can promote sustainable agricultural practices and contribute to food sovereignty by maintaining resilient crop varieties adapted to local conditions and enhancement of Livelihoods by providing economic benefits to farmers through mechanisms such as access to markets for unique or niche products. To achieve this goal, various stakeholders in the seed sector will need to collaborate, benchmark on countries that have successfully registered farmer varieties, and raise awareness about the process and its importance in improving farmers' livelihoods and the country's economy while also ensuring food sovereignty.



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