Traditional farming practices and indigenous seeds are a valuable cultural heritage needing protection

Posted: 15-03-2017 | by: Growth Partners Africa

Jonah, my grandfather, has lived on his fifteen-acre farm in central Kenya for close to 8 decades. Every morning, Jonah takes a tour around his farm checking on its progress. He is well educated and has good command of English and Swahili languages. His favorite form of entertainment is the radio. He raised his five children through income generated from the farming activities.

In the recent past, he complains that he has been investing heavily on his farm yet the yields have been hitting an all-time low. He alleges that his farm workers are lousy and despite using more fertilizers and improved machinery the yields have been declining each season. Initially, he had three granaries for his produce which on a bumper season would fill up, mostly with sorghum, millet, maize, finger millet, cassava, yams, plantains, arrow roots, potatoes among others. Nowadays, hardly does one fill up as he has majored in maize farming.

The other day as he sat on his stool listening to his favorite Kikuyu station, he clicked hard and complained that the presenter duped them into buying seeds that did not yield. This caught my attention and I drew nearer to him.

“But grandpa, I thought dad sent seeds for planting last season. Why did you purchase others?”“Nyambura, our agricultural officer was on three consecutive morning radio shows telling us to buy these wonder seeds that would yield double as much since they are hybrid. On top of that, he came to our church service accompanied by representatives from seed companies where he repeated the same. They promised to replace them if they failed to germinate, which they called seed insurance.

Nonetheless, I was saddened to see that no farmer in our village had a good harvest.”“For how long has this been happening,” I asked “It has been wilder this year where they are walking around spreading the gospel of miracle seeds. Previously, only advertisements ran on radio.”

He went on to explain how the traditional practices of sorting, preserving, storing and exchanging seeds are not prominent nowadays. “You should ask your dad how I used to make him and his siblings sort out the best seeds and preserve it for the following season. We would also select our seeds in groups determining what will be best for trading, animal consumption and what is best for our nutrition. This was before the revolution of commercial seeds.”

He also accused our generation of losing touch with this culture and abandoning our traditions."Crop failure was a rare occurrence but when it happened we always pre-empted the situation.Most of the times it was a result of unfavorable weather conditions. We therefore rejoiced when these hybrids were introduced. We thought they would be our savior. However, the situation worsened. It was like falling from the frying pot into the fire.” “Where are these new seeds coming from? Aren’t their performance tested on different agro-ecological zones?”

“We’ve been asking the same questions and the response is that these seeds were originally collected from here. They have been ‘strengthened’ through chemical processes so that they can withstand the changing climatic and soil conditions. This is being done by multinational corporations. I think we are being deceived because what was originally ours and better is now being sold to us at a higher cost but with depreciated value. These new seeds have also been patented and protected under International Property Rights and now belong to the multinationals. Agricultural officers have been explaining that these practices are within the Constitution.”

“What happens to the peasant farmers who cannot afford to purchase seeds every season? Can they replant seeds purchased previously?"It will be a criminal offense to replant the seeds as they are not insured. Each planting season comes with its own type of seeds that are insured per season.”“Don’t you think this is punitive law?” I asked him. “Now as you mention, do you see how trapped we are?”He went on to explain how he is shocked by the loss of indigenous plants. They not only maintained ecological balance but also had medicinal, aesthetic and spiritual value and grew randomly [BOX 5]. He felt that the rise in health issues is as a result of change in consumption patterns.

We have witnessed the transition from the African diet that is characterized by high fiber, low fat and low sugar to a more Westernized diet characterized by high fat, high sugar and low fiber. This consequently leads to rise in lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, gout and to some extent cancer. Some of the plants genetic make-up have also been altered such as the African nightshade (Managu). The traditional one was bitter and had small sized leaves while the modern one has large leaves and it is not bitter. In fact, it is absolutely tasteless. The nutritional value of such plants is low compared to the traditional ones.We also noted that some of the processed foods like the packed maize flour is fortified with some nutrients and vitamins. He wondered why they would promote adding artificial nutrients instead of advocating for a more diverse diet to cater for any nutrient losses or the lack there of in their end products. It is crystal clear that Agriculture has evolved since the ancient times of hunting and gathering to acquire food, to crop cultivation and mechanization. This has seen tremendous growth in the sector, not only in Kenya but the entire world. Traditionally, farmers would acquire seeds through saving the best seed from season to season, exchanging with other farmers and through seed banking. As time changed, so did these practices. The changing climatic conditions enhance development of the seed technology. The introduction of hybrid seeds acquired through commercial seed system has lessened the practice of seed saving and exchange. Seed is the basis of any agricultural activity. The commercialization of seed with little regard to traditional seeds that were adapted to particular environments has resulted in a paradigm shift in agriculture.

After posing a few questions to my other relatives on the existing agricultural policies, I realized that they were not aware of them. It was now clear that farmers particularly those within rural areas are not aware and are not involved in the making of the new agricultural policies that have been put in place.

It raises concern as to who should be the focus while making and implementing agricultural policies. Is it the technocrats whose idea is to gain control over the essential thing- the seeds, the society elites who are too busy with money making ideas or the farmer who can provide historical details of how agriculture has evolved?