The Plant Breeders’ Rights and Plant Improvement Bills – guidelines for the future of food?

Over the past months, civil society groups and concerned citizens in South Africa have been submitting their comments about the pending Plant Improvement Bill and Plant Breeders’ Rights Bill which are out for public comment before their enactment. These Bills are intended to replace the previous Acts that have been in place since 1975. The current laws have been critiqued for favoring a vision of industrial agriculture and there is much concern that the updated Bills continue this vision, and will potentially infringe on the rights of small-scale farmers to save and replant their own seed.

The Plant Breeders’ Rights Bill seeks to provide an overarching set of rules around the breeding of certain varieties of plants. The Plant Improvement Act works alongside the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act. It seeks to regulate the distribution and sale of plants and propagation materials as well as business related to this.

Civil society groups argue that if enacted, the new laws have the potential to restrict the saving, exchanging, trading and sale of seed by farmers. They may also provide conditions that  put the actions of small-scale farmers under threat of becoming criminalised. In both of the bills, the act of exchanging seed is deemed a form of sale. The bills prohibit the exchange of unregistered and uncertified seed. Thus in their current form, these bills will continue to offer significant support to industrial agriculture and commercial seed production and marginalise small-scale farmers in South Africa. This has enormous implications for the future of agriculture in South Africa. While small-scale farmers will be allowed to keep their own seed, if enacted these regulations will inhibit the use and spread of farmer seed and the growth of agri-food systems outside of the industrial model. Globally there is a growing awareness that small-scale farmers are vital stakeholders in the agri-food system. Smallscale farming knowledge and practices, including the use and exchange of open pollinated seed, is necessary for the future of food and should be protected and well as supported to grow rather than be restricted.

Critics of the proposed new laws are expressing that they need to be challenged because if amended, they could actually have the potential to boost rather than hinder small-scale farming and support more regenerative forms of agriculture. Civil society groups have called for a reworking of the bills in consultation with a wide range of actors and stakeholders involved in food in South Africa.


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