Seed Banks Provide Relief For Rural Farmers During Pandemic

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Business Day Nigeria

RURAL women have been working on local seed production, multiplication, selection, preservation, saving, selling, and exchange over the years, individually or under Smallholder Farmer Organisations (SFOs).

These peasant and indigenous women choose the healthiest, best tasting individual plant seeds, which are gathered and stored in seed banks. These seed banks serve as reliable sources of healthy seeds which produce the vegetables, herbs, groundnuts, beans, and grains that nurture the growth and health of rural communities.

In times of crisis, like the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic, when food insecurity heightens and rural communities have limited access to fresh foods, seed banks provide relief for rural farmers to continue to grow nutritious foods to feed their families and communities.

The storytelling project of the African Women’s Collaborative for Healthy Food Systems highlights the importance of local, agroecological, and equitable food systems in times of crisis and raises awareness of the invaluable contribution made by these peasant and indigenous women to food sovereignty and food justice during the Covid-19 crisis.

In Zimbabwe, this writer visited Bubi, Chiredzi, Gutu, Mutoko, and Shashe in semi-arid regions 4 and 5 which receive normal to below normal rainfall.

In these areas, women and men farmers are benefiting from the Women’s Seeds Project sponsored by the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF) in collaboration with African Women’s Collaborative on Healthy Food Systems.

According to the Collaborative, the Women’s Seeds Project uses women’s seeds to provide healthy foods in at least six countries in Africa.

The project supports the health and nutrition of rural and urban communities that face marginalisation and discrimination. Pastoralist, indigenous and peasant women will secure contracts to provide locally produced food to schools, clinics, and local markets.

The initiative will use local seeds that are cultivated and conserved by peasant women. ZIMSOFF, an advocacy organisation made up of farmer members, particularly women across Zimbabwe, aids the women’s seed project by supporting seed banks.

The communities practice agroecology farming systems, a revolutionary way of agriculture that recognises traditional methods of farming.

The system has over the years relied on local seed banks or farmer-managed seed systems (FMSS), basically, the family or community-managed seeds. These are mostly traditional or indigenous seeds and small grains that have been used for many generations, especially by women rural smallholder farmers (SHFs).

The two households visited revealed the wealth of seed banks; carefully selected seeds were kept in secure housing structures. A seed custodian Elizabeth Mpofu, one of the founding members of ZIMSOFF and the African Women’s Collaborative for Healthy Food Systems, explained her seed bank status.

“I keep my seeds from previous seasons in my seed bank. I have all the seeds that I want in there. I don’t buy seeds. I don’t struggle during the farming season. Inside my seed bank, I keep some seeds on the shelves in sealed jars. The other seeds are kept in clay pots, sealed to make sure that the seeds are not affected. The jars and clay pots are secure storage facilities for seeds,” she said.

Sarudzai Mavakise (42), born in Gutu and now living in Shashe with her husband and children, said she keeps seeds from the previous farming season. “I keep seeds from my produce of finger millet, rapoko, groundnuts, and round nuts. These seeds help me because they are not easily attacked by pests. I am assured of a bumper harvest because I use the best seeds that I select after each harvest,” she said.

The writer also visited Nelson Mudzingwa, the national ZIMSOFF coordinator’s homestead in Shashe where a seed bank majestically stood outside the homestead.

It was a modern building constructed securely with cement on the roof. Mudzingwa said he has seeds that can cover all the needs of the coming farming seasons.

“My seeds are clean, not hybrid, and they have no artificial insemination. They do not affect the environment. I can exchange my seeds with other farmers and preserve my seeds. We encourage this method of keeping seeds to farmers. They will never struggle when it comes to planting. Most times, we have farmers who struggle to buy seed, but I say that should be a thing of the past,” she said.

As identified by women participants and their households, the challenges of conventional farming include regular price hikes of seeds, inadequate supply at the right time, high chemical content that is detrimental to human health and wellbeing, and persistent land degradation resulting in low yields with a high cost of production.

The baseline report of the Women’s Seed Project in Zimbabwe reveals that over the years, global food systems and their governance have been ridden with inequalities and exploitation through various systems and institutions. This is highlighted in how global agribusiness giants such as Montsanto, Du Point, Syngetta are controlling 90% of the global seed supply. This, to a large extent, determines global food production and consumption patterns.

These global food systems do not consider peasant women who make up 75% of the rural population and are feeding millions of rural people. They not only feed rural families but also urban families who are known to get grains from their rural-based families.

The work of smallholder farmers should not be underestimated, as they have been contributing tremendously to reducing global food injustices, inequalities, poverty, and hunger. Women lead farmers among the indigenous people, smallholder, and peasant farmers have led campaigns on seed policy, and land grabbing.

“We reap benefits from keeping our own seeds. I do not cry that the Government is not giving out seeds. I use the seeds from my seed bank. I feel empowered as a woman that I am a custodian of my seed,” said Mai Gove of Chiedza group in Mutoko.

Farmers deposit and store local favourites, like rapoko, finger millet, and groundnut or round nuts in seed banks. These small grains have brought farmers the most success in these fertile but drought-prone areas.

Mpofu said the purpose of the seed bank is to revive the traditional and cultural ways of seed preservation. Indigenous, small grains that are drought resistant and can easily adapt are kept in seed banks.

She stated that farmers using genetically modified organisms (GMO) seeds need deep pockets because they are expensive. Such farmers must buy seeds each year, or risk a poor harvest.

In the developed world, the reuse sees a farmer being liable for patent infringement. While contamination can happen through no fault of their own, farmers have been sued for “seed piracy” when unauthorised GMO crops show up in their fields.

The local farmers, mostly women, pass down small grain seeds from generation to generation, and select seeds from their own baskets, ensuring the best are kept for the next farming seasons. Seed banks are often built in the traditional way with pole and dagga, and grass-thatched houses, and some built the modern way are essential in keeping seeds.

They build these seed banks in a way that pests cannot easily affect them and keep seeds for many years. These seeds can be exchanged with other farmers or planted, realising bumper harvests.