Ecosystems and food systems, globally and in Southern Africa where we live and work, are in crisis. Resolving the crisis is an urgent priority in terms of health and well-being, climate justice and community resilience. Agriculture is both a cause of and a solution to this challenge. The imperative to change the industrial agriculture system and as a result our food system is becoming ever more urgent. Transitioning to agroecology, strengthening diverse, farmer-led seed systems and supporting communities towards an interdependence with nature and others, are the changes we believe will catalyse a positive shift in this crisis. We therefore work with partners in the region to contribute towards the local and global movement for food sovereignty.
SKI partners' activities focus on…
- Generating and sharing knowledge through horizontal learning processes, is at the core of the strategy and as a result many opportunities are created for this to happen.
- Field days, trainings, farmer to farmer exchanges are among the key learning opportunities. With the loss of seed comes the loss of knowledge about the seed, so farmers benefit from learning from one another. Seed fairs remain a highlight of every year and at these events the full value of seed diversity is in the spotlight for all to appreciate. For many partners community dialogues form the basis of meaningful and lasting community engagement and change.
- Building a platform for learning and action in the region based on a shared knowledge and practice on the key impact areas. A particular strength of SKI is the ability to be a connector, to have a ‘birds-eye’ view in the region and to connect and link opportunities in communities, organisations, and individuals that enabled sharing their practices and positions.
- By establishing a Community of Practice early on, practitioners joined in a regional space where they could co-create knowledge to build such a platform for future action.
- Through the work of UCT, a number of students and other research projects explored issues around seed and contributed to changing narratives around seed, AE, GMOs, and research ethics.
- Research and advocacy to shift discourse and generate meaningful solutions that will drive a supportive policy environment. Participatory research, publications and facilitating meaningful dialogue with a diversity of actors, are some of the activities that contributes towards a shifting discourse.
- Supporting organisational development and mobilising resources to enable effectiveness and a common strategy has been a key part of our strategy and enables partners to focus their efforts towards addressing the immediate crisis in the region – on farm, organisational and policy levels.
The fierce urgency of now …
At the time of joining SKI, partners’ described the fragile nature of food and nutritional security for the smallholder farmers they worked with:
Seed, food and nutritional security were inadequate for households in the communities where partners worked. Many farmers had lost confidence in using traditional farming methods and to speak openly about traditional seed as they were accused of being backward. Too many households had a long hunger season and low dietary diversity. Women often did not have sufficient say over decisions on the use of household farming resources.
Hybrid seed, GMOs (in South Africa), pesticides and chemical fertilizers were commonly used and actively promoted by agricultural extension staff.
Policies are becoming draconian, and the nexus of agrochemical companies and international agreements are limited options for the future. Starkly illustrating this is the recent move in the region to criminalise the exchange of seeds between farmers.
As activists & advocates …
As activists and advocates of seed and food and nutrition security, SKI will continue to emphasise the importance of access to healthy and culturally appropriate food, call for the producers of food, their knowledge, skills and contribution to be valued, and promote diverse and inclusive food production systems which are farmer led and work in harmony with nature.
Diverse, Farmer-led Seed Systems
Small-scale farmers in southern Africa have been selecting, saving and exchanging seed for generations. As active plant breeders, they have been developing and conserving local varieties, continuously selecting seed with a wide range of characteristics and using seed preservation and storage techniques which have been passed on for generations. Besides knowledge related to seed and crop diversity, African farmers also have insight into a suite of ecologically sound farming practices such as natural pest and disease control, soil preparation and water management. Combined, these knowledge sets help small-scale farmers to deliver food security to their families and wider communities as they still provide most of the food in Africa. In addition, such systems, where communities have control over a diversity of their own seed varieties and types, satisfy all the dimensions of seed security, including availability, access, utilisation and resilience.
These farming systems, and the genetic diversity and farmers’ varieties they nurture, are under increasing threat - most urgently by the accelerated drive for a Green Revolution for Africa. Loss of crop diversity reduces nutrition and not only undermines the ability of households to cope with external shocks, but also diminishes social cohesion, knowledge, leads to increased reliance on the cash economy and reduces the ecological resilience of farming systems.
This industrial model of agriculture, driven by the interests of multinational seed companies, is premised on the privatisation of seed, limiting farmers’ rights to save and share seed. We therefore support seed systems that are farmer-led, defending the rights of farmers to have control over their own seed.
We believe seed sovereignty is the basis of food sovereignty. Seed sovereignty stands as a symbol for farmers’ (and especially women’s) autonomy, access and control over locally produced, culturally appropriate, increasingly diverse, seed and food, and for the health of the ecosystem, on which it all depends.
Agroecology is a key dimension to SKI’s work as this approach addresses multiple issues as it seeks to enhance ecological integrity; draw on holistic science; support agro-biodiversity; addresses climate change and food sovereignty concerns. SKI works with the three fundamental aspects of agroecology – as a scientific discipline, a practice and a movement.
SKI recognises that partner organisations have numerous approaches to agroecology and farmers are at different stages of agroecological practices. Some partners focus on training and support for only a few agroecological practices, while others set multiple agroecological criteria and support farmers to meet all of them simultaneously. We therefore work with the concept of Agroecological Transition. Given this diversity, SKI has chosen to engage with agroecology at the level of practices while acknowledging that agroecology is usually defined in systemic and holistic terms.
SKI uses a resilience framework for understanding the dynamic relationship between humans and the natural and socio-political environment. This framework can be used to understand the impact of climate change responses but is also used as a framework for assessing agricultural and seed systems.
Regardless of the global commodification of food, local communities and smallholder farmers around the world continue to innovate and maintain their own seed and food production systems and in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, manage to feed more than 70% of the population. Local communities have been the first to use more locally responsive farming methods in response to adverse conditions such as climatic variability. There are many situations where these producers have shown that agroecological approaches support food sovereignty and the health of ecosystems.
Research has shown that communities that have maintained a strong link with their land and culture are often at the forefront of developing their own solutions to food production, seed systems and governance. This often takes place in response to other, failed approaches, such as the Green Revolution. It is this inherent resilience in local communities that SKI partners work towards strengthening.
Ulitmately, Food Sovereignty and Agroecology are about inclusion, climate justice, autonomy, responsibility and participation in decision making spaces by all.