Where does southern Africa stand in terms of research agendas, training programmes and tertiary curricula which support agro-ecology, food sovereignty and farmer-led seed and knowledge systems? The second in a series of seminars hosted by the Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI), held on 26 and 27 October 2015 at Monkey Valley in Noordhoek, Cape Town, sought to address these, and other, questions.

The participant group, numbering close to 50, included academics, agricultural researchers, practitioners, funders, postgraduate students and NGO representatives from South Africa, Zambia, Italy, the United Kingdom and neighbouring Zimbabwe – the first SADC country to be actively involved in SKI’s regional partnership programme. Keynote speakers set the scene in plenary and provided inspiration for a sequence of animated smaller group debates which unfolded over the two days, often nestled in-between the Milkwood trees of the venue and with the spectacular backing of the Atlantic Ocean. The quest was not only to enable the sharing of views between different groups, but also to identify a common and alternative vision for research and training to support agro-ecology and farmer-led seed systems. ‘I wish all academic seminars were like this’, remarked one delegate.

The first day was devoted to research related to local seed and knowledge systems, food sovereignty and agro-ecology. Associate Professor Rachel Wynberg from UCT set the scene by reminding the audience that the current research agenda was heavily skewed towards propping up an industrial system of agriculture that is unsustainable. The dominant discourse, focused on the 10 or so commodity crops that constitute the modern food system – despite the 30 000 species available – was built on a suite of false premises – including that it was the only way to feed the world’s growing population. Agro-ecologically based systems on the other hand have been tried and tested over time, yet remain marginal in research and funding efforts. With rapid climate change it may well be that our indigenous systems are not enough but then, how can we think creatively about a research and innovation system that is rooted in local systems and appropriate to local circumstances; which bypass conventional approaches captured so easily by large business interests; and which tap the potential for new alliances and use developments in science and technology to suit the needs of small farmers? In a similar fashion, training and education remain skewed towards teaching and training a type of agriculture that is not only environmentally unsustainable but also is typically inappropriate for small farmers. Although industrial agriculture is only about 50 years old it completely dominates our university curricula, the training of our extension officers, and the education of young farmers. How, she asked, can we bring a better balance to this situation?

Ms Liz Hosken from the Mupo Foundation described the important role of women in agriculture, emphasising the holistic nature of their traditional knowledge systems, so often undermined by the dominant male-led ‘scientific’ research agenda which can trace its origins to the Victorian age. Enthused by the recent wave of student protests across South Africa, Dr Scott Drimie from Stellenbosch University suggested that the notion of ‘disruption’ could be equally effectively applied to the current dominant agricultural discourse. He described the various trajectories that currently influence agriculture in South Africa, including urbanization; the duality of the country’s agrarian system; policy uncertainty; the concentration of corporate power; nutritional deficiencies – and its costs to society; natural resource constraints, including a changing climate; the crisis in sectors such as fisheries; and waste concerns. Suggested opportunities were proposed. Land reform governance at district level, for example, represents a possibility for agricultural reform. The ongoing focus on nutrition, stunting and children’s rights similarly provides a platform to promote agroecology. There are also new niches for agricultural extension and farmer support that should be targeted by strategic interventions.

Focusing on the diverse seed systems of Zimbabwe, Dr Isiah Mharapara – a well-known researcher from the Agricultural Research Council, said that his country needed to formulate a seed policy that recognised farmer-led seed systems. He also called for the myths around genetically modified crops to be dispelled. Although Zimbabwe officially has a no-GM stance, proponents of the technology are trying to gain a foothold in the nation. Dr Mharapara emphasised that that smallholder farmers undoubtedly had the capacity to produce seed and stressed that farmers had to be included in programmes as real partners with a voice and decision-making powers – not as beneficiaries standing by.

Dr Shawn McGuire from the School of international Development at the University of East Anglia provided global perspectives on the value of maintaining the resilience of local seed systems. He stressed that research needed to focus on systems rather than assets, examining linkages and knowledge institutions, in addition to crop profiles. He also underscored the importance of diversity – not only within germplasm, but in distribution channels and business models too. Dr Jan Engels of Bioversity International compared the so-called ‘informal’ and ‘formal’ seed systems, emphasising that farmer-led seed systems needed to be respected and not undermined by the formal system.

At the end of the day, groups were tasked with designing their vision of a research system that supports agro-ecology, food sovereignty and farmer-led systems. Many stimulating ideas were put forward, including: undertaking participatory action research to prove the viability of agro-ecology; designing a practical step-by-step transition plan; conducting research which is needs-based and farmer-led; documenting farmer practices and innovations for advocacy purposes; and influencing investments in smallholder farming in order to decrease dependence on world food markets.

On the second day, a closer look was taken at training and education. Participants agreed that in South Africa, the lack of inter-disciplinarity approaches acted as a barrier to the inclusion of agro-ecology in agricultural curricula. Instead, most training systems are geared towards almost exclusively supporting industrial models of agriculture. Commenting on agricultural extension training in Zimbabwe, Dr Marcus Hakutangwi, a lecturer in Agricultural Education, Extension and Communication with the Zimbabwe Open and Africa Universities, lamented the fact that small-scale farmers were treated as consumers and not as generators of technology and knowledge. He stressed that methods which were empowering, such as learning circles, were better suited to training and education in a rural setting. Farmers – who already hold vast volumes of knowledge, wanted to be challenged by thought-provoking learning materials translated into the vernacular, not appeased with one-page handouts.

In an inspiring session, postgraduate students were asked to reflect on challenges that prevented a more sustainable agricultural system, particularly in relation to their recent educational experiences. This group highlighted the need for students from rural backgrounds to access tertiary education in agriculture; the importance of balancing theory with practical experiences; and expressed the opinion that ‘food’ research had become very narrowed – necessitating a move towards looking at food as the ‘system’ it is.

As the seminar drew to a close, each participant was asked to spend some time in reflection, and to identify practical and realistic actions they could commit to, in order to strengthen support for agro-ecology and farmer-led research, training and education. The word cloud below captures the essence of their responses: