Agricultural Futures

Food and farming systems face an alarming increase of sustainability problems, ranging from greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, soil erosion and environmental degradation through to associated health impacts and food insecurity. Many of these concerns are linked to industrial agriculture – farming that involves the intensive production of livestock, poultry, fish and crops – and which is one of the most environmentally destructive forms of land use. It depends on mechanisation and on external inputs like synthetic fertiliser and pesticides and herbicides as well as hybrid or genetically modified seed which needs to be purchased each year by farmers. It also relies on just a few major crops like wheat, maize, soybean and rice, the seeds of which are owned by a mere handful of companies. This model of agriculture has often created economic hardship for small-scale farmers, reinforcing socio-economic inequalities and eroding local knowledge and cultural practices.

A different approach to agriculture is sorely needed that has people- and planet-centred outcomes and that delivers household food security, ensures sustainable livelihoods and produces quality nutrition. Research towards this aim remains neglected, however. By exploring pathways towards an alternative agricultural future that is supportive of farmers who practice agroecology and maintain agrobiodiversity, we aim to conduct robust research that matters and to communicate this to decision-makers and other actors.

This theme links to a synergistic and long-term collaboration with 13 partners, including UCT, across southern Africa working with smallholder farmers to become more seed, food and nutritionally secure through farmer-led seed systems, improved crop diversity, agroecology and the revival of local knowledge systems. Known as the Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI), its vision is to collaborate with communities and national and regional partners, towards a future where smallholder farmers are empowered to secure seed and food sovereignty on all levels. UCT’s involvement includes research and training related to deepening understanding about the links between seed and food security, to explore the resilience of local seed systems, to investigate the impacts of agricultural policies on smallholder farmers and to better understand smallholder farmers’ resilience and needs in terms of seed provisioning in the face of extreme weather events. We also explore ways of knowing linked to genetically modified seed, and the deskilling that results in laboratories and fields. Legal research on the intersection of seed laws, farmers’ rights and customary law also forms part of this theme, examining questions of contamination, liability and farmers’ rights in the context of GM crops and small farmers, as well as the intersection of farmers’ rights with digital sequence information.