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Sowing the seeds of hope: how the sovereignty of what we plant can transform fate of nations


Globalisation and Seed Sovereignty in Sub-Saharan Africa

Clare O'Grady Walshe

Palgrave Macmillan



Adventure: Dervla Murphy's African odyssey

Adventure: Dervla Murphy's African odyssey

Adventure: Dervla Murphy's African odyssey

On the recent UN Day of Multilateralism and Peace, President Higgins spoke of the global community's need "to forge a new approach in its relationship with Africa". He urged Ireland "to give a lead in addressing unfair and imbalanced trade terms" while working with African countries "for the achievement of a sustainable connection between economy, society and ecology".

Dr Clare O'Grady Walshe, in her remarkable book, has contributed significantly to our understanding of this connection. Let's hope the title doesn't put people off. Seed sovereignty? What's that? The academic-speak phrase may puzzle some (as it did me), though the concept has been among the main enablers of mankind's development for 10,000 years or so.

You know seed sovereignty when you see it; 27 years ago, on my two-wheeled way from Nairobi to Cape Town, I came across many examples in regions as yet free of globalisation. When invited to spend the night in a village, my farmer hosts usually walked me around their fields and explained (if an English-speaker could be found) how they managed to grow such a variety of food crops on so little land.

Now I wish I had kept more detailed notes; at the time I was too uninformed to fully understand the ingenuity on display. What looked like untidy, overcrowded patches of land in fact demonstrated the practical value of seed sovereignty. Which plant should go there because it attracts a fly whose eggs, if laid on that plant, would be damaging - though this next-door plant benefits from a deep-burrowing worm during too-dry seasons - whereas this other plant must always go under these bushes because it benefits from their decomposing leaves.

Remote and often illiterate communities guard the accumulated knowledge and adaptability of countless centuries. In 1998, while trekking through Laos, I stayed in a mountainous area where more than 30 varieties of rice were grown; one family might grow five or six varieties depending on the soil, the gradients, the prevailing wind, the accessibility of shade or water.

Dr O'Grady Walshe, a research associate at DCU's School of Law and Government, points out that before the 1960s Green Revolution, funded by private foundations like Ford and Rockefeller, the Philippines grew over 3,000 varieties of rice. A generation later, only two remained on 98 per cent of the total land area.

This book demanded years of hard work; this is not the sort of research you do for fun. The author's main fields of study, Kenya and Ethiopia, presented very different though equally complex challenges. Regional and national politics, overt or covert, tested her negotiating skills.

Legal conundrums, international and trans-national, had to be sorted out. Commercial sensitivities had to be allowed for in an area where numerous snares awaited the unwary.

And over all brooded the increasing threat to seed sovereignty. Rarely does a work of rigorous scholarship include detective story attributes but here, as the plots unfold, one feels tension rising while villains flit to and fro in the shadows - until at last they are exposed, quietly but relentlessly.

Wars have always disrupted agriculture, and in our own day, as Dr O'Grady Walshe notes, the accompanying massive migrations often replace homelands with wastelands. In Iraq 600,000 farmers 'lost their seed stewardship' when a new Seed Patent law was introduced in 2004 for the benefit of the leading occupying power. According to US State Department documents, Order 81 enabled "privatisation to promote economic diversity" while making it illegal for Iraqi farmers to re-use the seeds of new varieties registered under the imposed law. In Afghanistan, in 2006, a similar law was introduced.

Here a word of warning: the unholy alliance between philanthro-capitalists and corporate seed-breeders has speeded the corruption of plain English. One sympathises with the author as she struggles through an acronym-impeded ocean to identify how various approaches to globalisation may be applied to seed sovereignty.

In 1976 Ethiopia established what became Africa's biggest national gene-bank. Until 2015 it defended its territory from 'improving' interventions while encouraging other African countries to do likewise; the US Department of Agriculture identified Ethiopia as "the vanguard of the anti-GM movement".

But the aforementioned alliance is all the time expanding. In the Addis Standard (April 23, 2020) Dr Teshome Hunduma commented sadly on his government's 2018 approval of Bt-cotton (a genetically modified variety) - among other destructive intrusions.

He recorded that by June 2019, Ethiopia had saved 86,599 samples of the seeds of over 100 plant species.

Covid-19 soon exposed the reckless impracticality of just-in-time transcontinental production lines, whether of car parts or carrots.

In a March 31 RTE Brainstorm essay, Clare O'Grady Walshe outlined how "seed sovereignty for food security could transform globalisation". Her book strongly suggests that this cheering prospect is not as unrealistic as it may seem.

Sunday Indo Living

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