Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on 14 March 2014
Is the Department of Agriculture (DoA) the biggest impediment to our pursuing sustainable agriculture in Sri Lanka?
I once posed this question to the late Dr Ray Wijewardene (1924-2010), who studied agricultural engineering at Cambridge University and experimented all his life on methods of farming that didn’t cost the Earth.
He agreed, saying: “They (DoA) are still following outmoded western methods which even the West is now questioning! The other problem is the huge gap between research and effective extension to the farmer.”
That was in 1995. Almost two decades on, calls for ecologically sustainable farming have gained much momentum – but the century-old Department still stubbornly remains stuck to its tired, old and destructive ways.
Take, for example, current concerns about the proposed New Seed and Planting Material Act. The draft was released in late 2013 by DoA’s Seed Certification and Plant Protection Centre in Gannoruwa, and is currently open for public comments (available in Sinhala, Tamil and English on official website; abbreviated link: http://tiny.cc/SeedBill)
The draft has lofty objectives such as to “protect and regulate the quality of seeds and planting materials”, “protect the rights of users” and “safeguard and conserve the genetic resources of indigenous seed and planting materials”.
But farmers and environmentalists are deeply concerned that the bill, if it becomes a law in current form, could lead to opposite effects. By centralizing too much authority in DoA over seed related activity in the country, activists fear, it could edge out small farmers who have historically protected and improved plant crop varieties.
The draft Act “requires registration of seed breeders and certification of seeds, both of which will frighten away farmers from doing what they have been doing very well so far,” says Sarath Fernando, adviser and founding member of the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform, MONLAR. “The diversity of seeds and planting material which is an essential aspect (of farming) will be obstructed.”
Fernando sees this as an attempt to increase control of seeds by local and foreign agro companies.
“Already, companies have begun to dominate over seeds. They produce hybrid varieties that require heavy use of chemical inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides and weedicides that are very destructive. They give rise to more resistant pests, destroy microbes that make the soil fertile and also lead to the serious health problems in people,” he said in a recent interview.
The proposed law says no person shall ‘import, export, sell, offer to sell, dispose in any manner or supply or exchange with commercial intention seed and planting materials except in accordance with the provisions of this Act’.
It provides for DoA officials to inspect farmers’ premises to ensure and enforce compliance. Violators can be jailed for periods between one and six months, or fined not less than LKR 50,000, or both.
Activists claim such provisions, at enforcement level, can harass even small farmers privately exchanging traditional seed varieties that are not part of the hybrid varieties promoted by DoA under the Green Revolution.
They also ask a deeper question: can DoA be trusted as a custodian over traditional seeds?
At MONLAR’s request, prominent Indian environmental activist and seed rights campaigner Dr Vandana Shiva recently critiqued Sri Lanka’s draft Seed Act. Her opinion: “The proposed Act is designed for the seed industry, which by promoting uniformity destroys indigenous biodiversity, and by promoting its rights, undermines farmer’s rights.”
Shiva adds: “Farmers and farming communities have been in the fore front of protecting indigenous and traditional plant genetic resources for generations. Are they to be deprived of this opportunity? What right do bureaucrats have in deciding which varieties are most valuable or important to farmers and their communities?”
She points out that the new technical and advisory committee to be set up under the proposed Act has lacks explicit provisions for farmer representatives or biodiversity experts.
Shiva argues that small farmers should be exempted from all restrictions placed on commercial entities and the seed industry. “Farmers Rights to save, exchange, sell, breed and improve seed is a birthright. It is not alienable.”
Attempts by governments aiming to have compulsory farmer registration are being rejected in a growing number of countries, she says. In India, activists organised a ‘Seed Satyagraha’ to stop a 2004 seed Law requiring such registration.
The Ecologist, 20 August 2012: Seed Satyagraha by Vandana Shiva
Seed Protectors Unite
To coordinate civil society response to the draft Act, many Lankan farmer and environmental groups have recently come together as the National Movement to Protect Seed Rights. The alliance has produced a detailed annotation and analysis of the draft Act, and is currently campaigning against its adoption.
They also have an online petition calling to “Stop proposed seed act in Sri Lanka”.
“We reject the draft Act unconditionally, urge for its withdrawal and to discuss with farmer representatives and others concerned how best to protect seeds and planting material,” says a letter the Movement sent to the Minister of Agriculture. It is signed by Ven Maha Mankadawala Sri Piyarathana thero as convener.
Some activists feel that the existing Seed Act No 22 of 2003 has better safeguards to prevent illegal import and export of seeds, and to protect indigenous varieties. Thilak Kariyawasam, President of Lanka Organic Agriculture Movement, recalls how advocacy groups successfully negotiated some changes when that Act was in draft stage.
“We need to draft a new, improved Act ourselves to eventually succeed the 2003 Act,” Piyarathana thero told a recent Colombo meeting of the Movement to Protect Seed Rights. “It can’t be done by one or two experts, and instead must be based on wide-ranging farmer consultations.”
Meanwhile, Sarath Fernando agrees that seed quality in Sri Lanka is poor “largely due to the propagation of artificial seeds by companies and by the Department of Agriculture”.
Other activists at the recent meeting shared this view. Traditional rice and other seed varieties have been protected by small farmers who didn’t join the Green Revolution bandwagon – or opted out later. They keep growing and sharing such seeds, but the new Act could make that unlawful.
Fernando thinks mounting farmer resistance to the draft Seed Act means a vote of no confidence on the DoA “since the Department has been promoting a destructive approach in agriculture for very long. This Bill gives the Department far more powers to do even more damage!”
As in many other topics, this debate is becoming too polarized: both parties must try harder to find the common ground (which, surely, exists).
DoA, for its part, must adopt a less legalistic and more consultative approach to suit modern policy and law making processes. They have a huge credibility problem, having promoted unsustainable farming for half a century.
The activists, meanwhile, need to lower their shrill and tighten focus on specific arguments and actions. Grandstanding on global or local corporate conspiracies can generate media headlines but not quite help the small farmer or sustainable farming.
Read my 1995 interview with Ray Wijewardene: Feature article: Who Speaks for Small Farmers, Earthworms and Cow Dung?