Agriculture Business Community Development Food

Time to use mass food markets and seed fairs in decolonizing gene banks

African Agricultural produce market

By Charles Dhewa

A very important step in decolonizing African food systems is re-defining and contextualizing the meaning of a gene bank. The conventional scientific notion of a gene bank[1] as a type of bio-repository that preserves genetic material ignores the socio-cultural dimension of genetic material.

For instance, scientific gene banks for plants are built through vitro storage, freezing cuttings from the plant, or stocking the seeds into a seed bank. For animals, it is done by freezing sperm and eggs in zoological freezers until further need. All these processes do not take into account the role of people, communities, microclimates, and culture in managing and preserving genetics.

The socio-cultural dimension of genetic material should be upheld

While there are several gene banks around the world including at the country level, the scientific notion of a gene bank excludes practical indigenous knowledge through which communities manage and preserve genetic material. The scientific gene bank is different from how African communities use indigenous knowledge to preserve genetic material like seed varieties and livestock species with full recognition that genetic material is part of people’s social, cultural, economic, and environmental life. Therefore, a gene bank cannot just be a store of seed varieties in a seed bank or freezer. Socio-economic contexts and local uses influence the definition of a see variety.

Countries and global institutions like the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) have collected seed and plant germplasm from local communities to build national and international gene banks. However, once genetic material is harvested, local communities and indigenous knowledge play no further part in the life of what is put in gene banks. Yet seed and livestock are part of community life and each community gives unique meaning to genetic material. The way farmers deal with small grains in Casamance region of Senegal might be different from how farmers in the Lupane district of Zimbabwe make sense of the same grains due to different socio-economic and cultural aspects that are an integral part of local food systems and indigenous knowledge.

Seed fairs and mass markets as part of the solution
A solid appreciation of African genetic material from diverse contexts can be obtained in mass food markets, not in formal seed companies that only specialize in seeds they consider profitable. For many decades and with little recognition from policymakers, many farmers and ordinary people across Africa have been using seed fairs and mass food markets to redefine and broaden the meaning of gene banks. People who want to get unique indigenous seeds and livestock including wildlife such as indigenous fruit and tubers simply visit the seed fair and mass food markets that are renowned for anchoring food diversity across Africa.

An indigenous gene bank that benefits the majority can be seen in mass food markets and seed fairs which have become good at bringing diverse genetic material from diverse parts of each country. Mass food markets and seed fairs have characteristics that typify indigenous knowledge and ecosystems. Such characteristics include no barriers to participation based on gender, age, political affiliation, educational level, income status, and other elements that often exclude some people and communities from participating in programs introduced by formal seed companies and some development organizations which only target a few beneficiaries. For instance, some conventional development interventions exclude men by setting up women-only projects. Some use age to exclude old people by setting up projects for youths only.

On the contrary, mass markets recognize that normal communities do not function in a fragmented manner but all commodities and people from diverse backgrounds co-exist in ways that enhance sustainability.  As institutions in their own right, mass food markets and seed fairs have a strong emphasis on social cohesion. This has contributed to the survival of many African communities and mass food markets through droughts and other new shocks like COVID-19. Mass food markets and seed fairs are characterized by strong relationships irrespective of people’s age, gender, where one is coming from, totem, and other elements. On the other hand, boundaries created by development agencies, private seed companies, and politicians have been weakening community bonds and relationships that are critical in sustaining genetic material.

In spite of being unrecognized and undocumented, African mass food markets and seed fairs have become hubs for knowledge that is critical in sustaining food, genetic material and nutrition in most African countries as well as contributing to economic development.  In as much as seed companies and development interventions are appreciated, lack of coordination among actors and reluctance to recognize indigenous knowledge remains a challenge. There is also no interest to know how communities rebuild their local gene banks following shocks like droughts and floods that often destroy the local genetic base. Without understanding the level at which communities should be self-sustaining, most African countries promote dependence on imported genetic material when local communities are rich with indigenous genetic material based on local contextual knowledge.

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About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende