Small scale/holder farmer organisations from around the Western Cape met recently to respond to plans by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) to further limit the right of farmers to save seed on their farms and to exchange seed with their neighbours.

Corporate plant breeders such as Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bredare putting pressure on government to further limit the right of farmers to save and exchange seed protected by intellectual property rights. These rights are governed by the Plant Breeders' Rights Act (PBRA), currently under review.

These companies are pushing government to adopt the terms of the 1991 version of the Union for the Protection of Plant Varieties (UPOV), an international agreement. South Africa is currently bound to the 1978 UPOV agreement which permits seed saving on farmers' own holdings and exchange for non-commercial purposes. The terms of UPOV 1991 only allow on-farm seed saving for listed crops, and outlaws seed exchange for protected varieties.

In 2011, the biggest 10 variety owners in South Africa held 85% of all protected varieties. Between them Monsanto, Pioneer and Pannar held 48% of all plant breeders' rights. The Competition Court of Appeal recently ruled in favour of Pioneer Hi-Bred's acquisition ofPannar. This means two foreign multinationals will own almost half of South Africa's protected varieties. It comes as no surprise that these patents are on the most commercially valuable crops in South Africa, including maize and vegetable seeds.

As small scale/holder farmer organisations, we are alarmed at these efforts to facilitate further concentration of ownership and control in our seed sector. We believe that genetic resources are a public good developed through farmers' own selection and breeding activity on the land for most of the history of agriculture. So-called 'new' varieties bred by these corporations are based on this common property and collective input. Private intellectual property rights over seeds merely allow these companies to expropriate the fruits of this long collective effort for their own private profit.

We call on government to recognise the historical role played by farmers in maintaining and improving the genetic resource base by protecting farmers' rights to freely save and exchange seed of any type.

We further argue that small scale/holder farmers must also have the right to sell such seed, since it is cheaper than buying seed from agri-dealers. We believe that limiting the right of farmers to sell seed they have worked to produce acts against government's stated commitment to support smallholder agriculture and to level the imbalances in access to resources resulting from our history.

We call on government to redirect resources to strengthening the capacity of farmers to maintain and improve seed on the land they are working, to allow for local adaptation of seed and the expansion rather than contraction of genetic diversity on the ground.

We call on government to support the establishment and maintenance of community and household seed banks, rooted in the recovery and multiplication under farmer control of indigenous and open-pollinated varieties that our people have used and are currently using.

We call on government to extend and deepen the process of consultation on the proposed changes to the law with small scale/holder farmers across the country, and to provide resources to enable these farmers to meet to discuss the proposals and present their own views. The process should not be finalised until a full consultation with smallholder farmer groups has been undertaken in all provinces.

We commit ourselves as small scale/holder farmer associations and groups to mobilise our members and other food producers in and around our communities to press for the right to save, exchange and sell seed as necessary, both for our own survival and for the survival of a diverse seed system in South Africa.

We call on any producers or groups who agree with this call to join with us to:

Defend the right to save, exchange and sell seed in our communities!

For more information contact:

Food Sovereignty Campaign

Mawubuye Land Rights Forum

Southern Cape Land Committee

Surplus People's Project

Trust for Community Outreach and Education

Women on Farms Project