By Timothy Wise
In late July, a short article was published in a Malawian newspaper: Press Release on Organization of Seed Fairs. Issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Water Development, in conjunction with the Seed Traders Association of Malawi, the short statement advised the public that "only quality certified seed suppliers registered with government to produce and/or market seed should be allowed to display seed at such events." The release was signed by Bright Kumwembe for the Agriculture Ministry.
I received this news in the U.S. as I prepared a research trip to Malawi, and I was shocked. Malawi is in the final stages of a multi-year effort to reform its seed policy and laws, and the largest point of contention at this point is the failure of the draft policy to recognize and protect so-called "farmers' rights" to save, exchange and sell the seeds they grow on their farms.
Remarkably, the policy seeks to define the word "seed" as applying only to certified seed from commercial companies. Farm-saved seed is referred to in the policy as just "grain," unworthy even of the word seed.
Some 80 percent of the crops grown in Malawi come from farm-saved seeds, and many of those seeds are displayed, exchanged and sold at local seed fairs. These are often community events organized by local non-governmental organizations or district agriculture offices to promote seed improvement. Farmers show their most successful varieties, sometimes alongside seed from commercial companies that have bred, patented and produced "improved" varieties that are then certified by the government for quality.
What this press release implied, in no uncertain terms, was that henceforth farmers would not be allowed to display their seeds. The formal and informal seed sectors have coexisted for decades. Why was the Malawian government, embroiled in a controversy over a still-unfinished seed policy, threatening to ban farm-saved seed from the market?
When I arrived in Blantyre, Malawi, I began asking everyone in the field about the seed policy debate and the seed fair controversy. Most were surprised that such a directive had come under the ministry's signature. William Chadza of the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy told me he had sent a letter to the ministry asking for clarification. He said that some people in the ministry were not aware of the directive and it was unclear if the government would crack down on farmers participating in seed fairs.
"Farmers are not the problem with counterfeit seeds," he told me. "Farmers aren't labeling seeds at all, just trading and selling them locally."
Chadza was still hopeful that farmers' rights provisions could be incorporated into the seed policy. "It is a huge opportunity to bring the informal seed sector into the policy."
By the time I got to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, a few days later, I'd been in Thyolo visiting farmers who have developed and purified a native variety of orange maize, high in Vitamin A. Farmers seemed enthusiastic about this nutritious crop, and not just for its vitamins. It has high yields, even without applications of expensive fertilizer, and it matures early, making it resistant to erratic rains and to pests, like the fall armyworm that has devastated crops across southern Africa. It stores better than the hybrid maize varieties sold on the certified seed market by companies such as Monsanto. It tastes better, too, they said, and it "gels" into a large volume of nsima when cooked.
A recent academic study confirmed that on nearly all measures the native orange maize, which does not need to be purchased every year, outperformed one of Monsanto's hybrid varieties, which farmers cannot replant but must buy every year.
The farm group, which is being supported as part of the Malawi Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology Project, has seen demand for its orange maize soar from neighboring farmers. They've been multiplying the seed to share the local wealth, even selling several tons of seed to Save the Children and Sub-Saharan Africa Family Enrichment for use in their feeding programs.
Mangani Katundu, Chancellor College professor, and coordinator of the Thyolo orange maize project, was mystified by the seed policy and this new restriction on farm-saved seed. "How can such a valuable native variety of maize not be a seed?"
That was the question I posed to Dr. Wilkson Makumba, Malawi's Director of National Research Services and the person in charge of the seed policy. He was adamant. Farmers needed to be weaned off their "primitive ways" and forced to adopt commercial maize varieties. He said the seed policy was "final," no more negotiations over farmers' rights. He claimed not to be aware of the seed fair directive. Neither was Dr. Kesbell Kaonga, chief maize breeder.
Dr. Kaonga contacted me a few days later, though. "Only quality certified seed should be displayed during seed fairs as the press release states."
John Chipeta, policy coordinator for the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi, one of the two large farmer organizations in the country, was critical of both the policy and the seed fair restriction. "The definition of seed should not override the common cultural understanding of the term," he told me. "We should not be forced to abandon our own foods and seeds. Food sovereignty is critical, and seed sovereignty is part of that." He called the definition of farm-saved seed as grain "an imported definition from the seed companies."
Conflicts of Interest
Over dinner that night, Tamani Nkhono-Mvula, longtime director of CISANET, the country's umbrella network on agricultural policy, was defending the seed policy draft, even to the point of defending the definition of farm-saved seed as just grain. Many CISANET members had voiced objections to the group's support for the government's restrictive seed policy, arguing that it favored the seed companies over farmers in order to open markets for commercial seeds.
I told Tamani that there was no reason the policy needed to be so severe, to delegitimize the informal seed market. "The way the policy reads," I told him, "it could have been written by Monsanto!"
There was a long pause. "Actually," Tamani told me with a sheepish smile, "a Monsanto official was one of the two authors of the seed policy." I would learn later that this was Mr. Paul Chimimba, Monsanto's Country Manager in Malawi.
"It is a chilling revelation that the seed policy was authored by an ex-Monsanto employee," said Blessings Chinsinga, Chancellor College professor, when I told him this news.
Indeed. It is difficult to imagine a more egregious conflict of interest than allowing a seed company executive to write a government policy that threatens to outlaw farmers' saving and exchanging of seeds in order to open new markets for his company.
The government's seed policy should go back to the drawing board, and those doing the drawing should not have a direct financial interest in the outcome.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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