Indigenous Seeds: The Battle for Food Sovereignty, IP Rights in Climate Change Era

In the face of unpredictable weather patterns, extreme temperatures, and shifting growing seasons driven by the relentless march of climate change, indigenous seeds have emerged as unsung heroes in the quest for global food security.

For countless generations, indigenous communities have meticulously cultivated and safeguarded these ancient seeds, which are now receiving well-deserved recognition for their remarkable ability to thrive and adapt.

The indigenous communities have relied on these seeds for centuries, carefully selecting and preserving them year after year, generation after generation. This practice has led to the development of seeds uniquely suited to local climates and environmental conditions.

“Unlike many modern hybrid varieties, which are often bred for specific conditions, indigenous seeds have naturally evolved to flourish in a range of environments,” explained Daniel Wanjama, Director of the Seed Savers Network – Kenya.

The Seed Savers Network – Kenya is an organization based in Gilgil, Nakuru County that empowers small-scale farmers and communities by promoting seed conservation, preserving agricultural biodiversity, and facilitating the exchange of traditional and indigenous seeds.

Mr. Wanjama added that indigenous seeds also play a crucial role in preserving biodiversity, as they possess a rich genetic diversity that is essential for breeding programs aimed at developing crops resilient to changing climates.

Indigenous seeds, he added, are increasingly recognized for their role in enhancing food sovereignty and security, contributing vital genetic diversity to staple crops like maize, rice, and wheat, thus supporting global agriculture.

He was speaking during a recent media sensitization workshop on amplifying climate change resilience and sustainable agriculture organized by the Media Council of Kenya (MCK) at the Seed Savers Network – Kenya bank in Elementaita, Gilgil.

Ms. Christine Nguku, Assistant Director for Training and Curriculum Development at the MCK, emphasized journalism’s pivotal role in raising awareness about climate change and its societal impacts, particularly on agriculture and food security.

She urged journalists to utilize their platforms to educate the public about the effects of climate change on traditional farming practices and the significance of indigenous seeds in adapting to these changes.

Dr. Wanjiru Kamau, a food activist, advocated for a shift in attitude away from food stereotypes, urging a focus on food sovereignty as a means to revitalize declining agricultural practices and address the pressing challenge of climate change.

She emphasized the need for communities and nations to have autonomy over their food systems, including the use of traditional and indigenous seeds, prioritizing local knowledge and biodiversity conservation for sustainable agriculture.

“Food sovereignty acknowledges the importance of indigenous seeds in preserving cultural heritage, ensuring sustainable agriculture, and reducing dependence on external sources for seeds and food production,” she noted.

In Kenya, despite the presence of a formal seed system, the majority of farmers, over 70 percent, rely on an informal seed system, underscoring the continued significance of indigenous seeds in agricultural practices.

Experts say that equipped with training and techniques, farmers have triumphed over adverse climates, showcasing the transformative impact of education on indigenous seed farming and agricultural productivity enhancement.

Dr Liliam Samoei, an Agronomist at Egerton University, noted that with their resilience and adaptability, indigenous seeds hold the promise of securing food sovereignty and ensuring a more resilient agricultural future for generations to come.

“Farmers should undergo training on climate-smart initiatives that have demonstrated remarkable effectiveness, particularly in enhancing their understanding and utilization of indigenous seeds for climate resilience,” she emphasized.

However, efforts to preserve culturally significant seeds and promote food sovereignty increasingly clash with the constraints imposed by intellectual property and international legal frameworks.

Dr. Daniel Maingi, a science and development practitioner, reiterated that individuals and communities have the inherent right to save, exchange, and use seeds for cultural activities, farming, and gardening purposes.

He explained that the enforcement of strict intellectual property rights could limit the traditional rights of farmers to freely save and exchange seeds, potentially leading to dependence on a few commercially controlled seed varieties.

In November 2022, smallholder farmers filed a case in a Machakos law court over what they termed as a punitive seed law; Seed and Plant Varieties Act Cap 326 of 2012 that they said criminalizes farmers for selling and sharing seeds that are unregistered and uncertified.

Dr Maingi said the government has failed in its obligation of enacting laws to protect the ownership of indigenous seeds and intellectual property rights in indigenous knowledge on seeds in Kenya. Offenders face a prison sentence of up to a maximum of 2 years or a fine of up to KES 1,000,000.

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