UKZN and Biowatch Hold Round-Table Discussion

Staff in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) and Biowatch recently hosted a round-table discussion on the topic of ‘Strategies to support resilient farmer-led seed systems through the conservation and sustainable management of agrobiodiversity’.

A Crop Science research group in SAEES has been working with Biowatch on research related to farmer-selected landrace seeds of neglected and underutilised crops.

Dean and Head of SAEES, Professor Albert Modi, welcomed delegates, and facilitated introductions of the group of about 26 participants. Modi is recognised for his championing of sustainable agriculture and the value of indigenous knowledge in informing scientific research.

‘We are honoured that our research group is hosting different organisations, including UKZN Ecological Sciences, the African Centre for Food Security (ACFS), the Farmer Support Group (FSG),’ said Modi. ‘We also give a special welcome to Ms Rose Williams and Mr Lawrence Mkhaliphi from Biowatch, Mr Kudzai Kusena from the Zimbabwe Gene Bank, Ms Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss from the Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI), Dr Ragassa Feyissa from Ethio-Organic Seed Action (EOSA) in Ethiopia, NGO representatives from Durban, and Mr John Wilson, a seed saver who started the permaculture movement in Zimbabwe.’

Modi described the importance of seed science to him since he began his career as an agronomist for a seed company and interacted frequently with small-holder farmers, realising that their approaches could be more sustainable than commercial activities. He added that an important role for small-holders to have is in the establishment of a gene bank to demonstrate how much ethno-science they possess, which includes acknowledging the extent to which their confidence has been undermined.

The day’s discussions were facilitated by Wilson. Presenters included Pschorn-Strauss, who introduced a seed sovereignty framework and emphasised the importance of establishing gene banks after extinction of seed biodiversity and the gene pool revealed the need for this.

Dr Maxwell Mudhara from the FSG spoke about farmer situations, constraints and objectives, saying that there are complicated interactions between breeding programmes and genetically modified seed. He also discussed seed storage mechanisms employed by farmers, and the implications of the different criteria different farmers have for seed.

‘No one variety is likely to be the panacea,’ said Mudhara, ‘and farmer participation should be integral to breeding programmes.’

Dr Regassa Feyissa from EOSA spoke about an agro-ecological approach as a strategy for sustainable agricultural development, mentioning principles of management of agricultural systems to achieve stability in farming. He also touched on issues such as climate change that affect agroecological systems, and emphasised the importance of training and education systems to support the future of agricultural development.

From Biowatch, Mkhaliphi noted that seed sovereignty results in food sovereignty, and touched in challenges faced by farmers in this arena.

The programme included a discussion session; points raised included the role of traditional tribal leaders in food sovereignty, how to encourage academic institutions to lead in this arena and contribute to knowledge generation, the recognition of indigenous knowledge systems, and the role of researchers and NGOs in community engagement and knowledge transfer.

Modi emphasised that agricultural sciences are the oldest in the world, and said that society is advancing to a global one, and that the aim of including traditional knowledge and foods is to ensure food security.

‘For me this discussion has been very much about knowledge, and questioning where it comes from, how it’s generated and by whom, our attitude towards it, what informs its preferences, how to let it flourish,’ said Wilson.

Moving forward, Modi emphasised that silos between basic sciences should be broken down and other kinds of knowledge, and knowledge residing with farmers, should be included to increase the system’s resilience. This, he said, could be done through collaboration between farmer and ‘formal’ systems of knowledge, and creating an environment where both parties have more confidence. The purpose of this collaboration would be to challenge food insecurity and making a resilient seed system part of rural economic development.

In closing, Pschorn-Strauss thanked participants, saying that seed is a gift from nature that multiplies with use, almost a magical thing, and emphasising the importance of diversity on farms.

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