How can we sustain the diversity of seeds that feed us? This was the central question at a workshop convened from 4-5 September at Mont Fleur, Stellenbosch by the Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI) – a long-term collaboration focused on securing food sovereignty for small-holder farmers in the SADC region. The partnership involves the University of Cape Town’s Bio-economy Chair and two NGOs, Biowatch South Africa and the Mupo Foundation, and will grow to include other organisations in southern Africa over the next five years.

One of SKI’s core objectives is to interrogate the assumptions underlying the promotion of a ‘Green Revolution’, or technology-based agricultural intervention, as the solution for Africa. The workshop, supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the National Research Foundation and PROGRESS, a European Commission project focused on responsible research and innovation, was a first step towards exploring knowledge exchange, collaboration and innovation between so-called formal and farmer-led seed systems. Uniquely, it brought together over forty different actors from Kenya, Ethiopia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa and the UK, ranging from genebank managers, government and academic researchers and breeders, through to civil society organisations, as well as NGOs working with farmers and a group of UCT postgraduate students working on topics relating to SKI.

An array of distinguished speakers attended, including Dr Melaku Worede, founder of Africa’s first genebank in Ethiopia and recipient of the Right Livelihood Award. “He is not just a hero for us in Africa, but also globally”, remarked Liz Hosken of the Mupo Foundation. Patrick Mulvany, Chair of the UK Food Group, reminded participants that small farmers still constitute the bulk of food supply in the world, with the industrialised system feeding only 30% of the world’s population. Agribusiness, he informed the audience, is interested in things other than providing food to people and maintaining diversity. “Seed sovereignty is not a request, it is not a demand, it is a human right which needs to be protected not violated”, remarked Dr Regassa Feyissa of Ethio-Organic Seed Action in Ethiopia.

Bioethicist Professor Doris Schroeder, who heads PROGRESS from the University of Central Lancashire, introduced delegates to the concept of responsible research and innovation, emphasising the need to interrogate any innovation in terms of its ethical acceptability; its environmental sustainability; and its societal desirability.

Speakers sparked much discussion amongst the participants, as various worldviews were made explicit. Vibrant discussions were held on topics ranging from community seedbanks, the role of genebanks, and the conflicting policy frameworks that exist which can both support and undermine diversity and knowledge. Dr Isiah Mharapara of the Zimbabwean Agricultural Research Council spoke passionately about efforts to use research to promote participatory breeding and support smallholder farmers. In contrast, South Africa’s strong emphasis on industrial agriculture has led to a neglect of research focused on the needs of smallholder farmers, which the South African Agricultural Research Council is slowly beginning to address.

Inspiring stories were shared by organisations such as the Chikukwa Ecological Land Trust in Zimbabwe, Biowatch South Africa and the Mupo Foundation, about how communities had transformed their farms into models of agro-ecological practice, and had significantly increased the number of varieties of seed planted. In KwaZulu-Natal, Biowatch recounted how the traditional varieties of small-holder farmers were threatened by hybrid and genetically modified crops. Civil society organisations such as the African Biodiversity Network, La Via Campesina and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa explained how their campaigns for seed sovereignty had made demonstrable strides in putting this agenda on the table of international organisations such as the FAO. Discussions between government officials and civil society organisations were particularly engaging as they sought to reach a common understanding about how smallholder farmers can best be supported. “It’s not about us and them”, observed Dr Kingston Mashingaidze of the ARC in South Africa, while Dr Julian Japhta, Chief Director in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries affirmed the South African government’s commitment to support small-scale farmers, already expressed as a target in its medium term strategic framework.

Some of the challenges and solutions were mapped out in closing remarks from Associate Professor Rachel Wynberg, who heads up the UCT component of the SKI consortium: “Solving social and environmental problems of the kind we have discussed is simply beyond the capabilities and resources of a single organisation. We need collective knowledge, expertise, innovation, energy and resources. We need integration and collaborative problem-solving – across western and local knowledge systems, across different sectors and different disciplines, across ‘blue skies’ and applied research, and across the academic faculty and community members”.

Overall, the workshop was a successful first step towards these goals, and for the region to start to engage on this important topic. On the last day, there was a brainstorming session about how the different sectors could move forward with an agenda to create more sustainable farmer-led innovation systems that can maintain the diversity of seeds we have in the region. As Biowatch Director Rose Williams reminded the group, such systems are critical not only for ensuring food security and increased resilience to wider environmental and climatic change but “embrace entire cultures and identities”. It is high time that they receive the attention they demand.