In many parts of Western Africa, climate change is affecting farmers and biodiversity, and outdated seed laws are making matters worse. A joint report by the nonprofit GRAIN and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) found that some policies can prevent farmers from managing their own seeds and force them into single-crop industrial agriculture. The same report found that diverse, farmer-managed seed systems are more sustainable and make up the bulk of Western Africa’s food production. When farmers want to improve their own food security by planting a variety of crops, they may be at odds with the legal framework.
Food Tank had the chance to talk to Morgane Leclercq, a PhD student at Quebec’s Laval University, about the issue. Leclercq’s doctoral thesis addresses the need for policy reform to advance seed security in West Africa. “The formal seed system, which has been acted upon by political and legal documents, and the informal seed system, that is apparently outside the scope of application of economic law, in reality represent very different crop diversity management strategies,” says Leclercq.
A 2017 report by AFSA described the tightening of seed trade laws as favoring privatized seed breeders that deem farmer varieties as “unproductive and unreliable, thereby causing hunger.” When farmers need seeds to plant their fields, they will typically use what is most available and will then develop strategies to obtain other seeds. They may look to the informal sector—farm-saved varieties, seeds from family members or other farmers, and community seed banks—or the formal sector—development agencies, agronomic research centers, NGOs or markets. If the new seeds they use don’t come from the protected and subsidized variety, there may be legal consequences.
Leclercq’s project is motivated by a law background and passion for food diversity and security and reached the final rounds of the 2017 Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) YES! (Young Earth Solutions) competition. Leclercq met with local farmers in rural areas in Burkina Faso and Senegal to study which seed regulation mechanisms were effective locally and surveyed government representatives at various levels about these mechanisms. “The bottom-up approach I used will be reproduced during a second mission in 2019. I will again visit the same villages to confirm or disprove the inferences I have made and to go further in studying possible legal improvements that came out of my research,” says Leclercq. “The world-wide diversity of crop management systems is highly related to the ability to access a diversity of seeds. The concepts and principles of seed law consequently need to be revisited by a new perspective, one more closely linked to local needs, concerns and environment.”