It is more than obvious that the current agricultural and food systems do not work: more than 800 million people are still suffering from hunger, crucial biodiversity is being lost around the world, and the most vulnerable and marginalized communities, including farmworkers and small-scale food producers, are often the hardest hit. Farmworkers in particular face harsh, highly exploitative and unsafe working conditions — a reflection of the overall systemic bent.
The film grapples with the inherent potential and significance of seeds and their foundational role in our food and agricultural systems. If we want to transform food and agriculture, we must first change the ways in which we perceive and interact with seeds.
Seed is the source of all life. It has been part of human history for thousands of years, starting with the domestication of wild plants for food, and nurtured by countless generations of farmers in careful process of observation, seed selection, and preservation.
The notion that whoever controls seeds controls the food system is at the heart of an ongoing and deep battle between corporations on one side and small-scale food producers on the other. The encroachment of corporate giant seed companies in African agriculture has resulted in the promotion of corporate seed — not only among large-scale commercial farmers, but among small-scale food producers across the continent as well.
Corporate seed is bred for profit and corporate seed varieties are bred primarily with large-scale monocultures in mind. African seed laws and policies are being reformed in the interests of corporate seed companies. Since small-scale agriculture (which relies on farmer-led systems) is currently the dominant model of production, the African continent represents one of the last frontiers for multinational seed companies to create and exploit new markets for their commercial seed. The situation is very serious and requires urgent attention from both policymakers and the general public.
The development of capitalist agriculture in the post-war era was characterized by the continuous advancement and application of new technologies for seed breeding with the introduction of hybrid seed, and the excessive use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides, and other measures for the sole purpose of increasing agricultural productivity. These developments are institutionally reinforced by Green Revolution strategies and international treaties regulating intellectual property rights and trade in agricultural products.
Among these Green Revolution interventions is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), established in 2006 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others. AGRA promotes agricultural development based on adopting a raft of Green Revolution technologies that include commercial seeds and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Alongside private sector actors, governments in the Global North and South have played a significant role in rolling out programmes that promote intensive agricultural models based on the adoption of Green Revolution technologies without adequate consideration for the social and ecological spillovers of these corporate driven approaches.
Linked to this, the introduction of an intellectual property rights regime on seeds and plants has led to the establishment of legal frameworks in the interest of corporate seed companies. This shift towards the centralization of the laws and policies that govern seeds marginalizes the interests and rights of small-scale food producers.
Yet, despite the growth of the regulated breeding and marketing seed system, farmer-led seed systems remain the dominant system of selecting, preserving, and exchanging seeds for African farmers. Farmer-led seed systems recognize and acknowledge farmers as primary agents in the agricultural sector. Farmer-led seed systems include diverse traditional seed practices — practices that encompass in-depth knowledge of soil, weather, and ecological change, and deserve to be conserved, continued, and appreciated for their contribution to livelihoods.
An important characteristic of a farmer-led seed system is that it is location-specific, with seed suited to local climatic and ecological conditions. An increasing number of experiments over the years prove that farmers’ seed varieties offer solutions for farmers faced with the climate-change induced ecological changes we see across the African continent. Furthermore, seed practices are not just an integral part of small-scale food producers' livelihoods, they also play a significant role in mediating the social relations that determine food cultures and local identities.
It is time for governments in Africa and elsewhere to recognize farmer-led seed systems and start promoting them politically. National governments need to rethink their policies and support farmer-led seed systems instead of aligning with the Green Revolution paradigm.
By actively shaping the transition from industrial agriculture to agroecology, governments can play a central role in restructuring how our food and agricultural systems function. Small-scale food producers are the backbone of agricultural and food systems in many African countries, and any transformation should take their needs into account. At the same time, large-scale commercial farms also need to be transformed towards agroecology in a socially just and environmentally sustainable way.
The Last Seed outlines some of these points in simple and accessible terms, exploring the narratives of small-scale food producers alongside the industrial agricultural model that attempts to overrun them. We hope you enjoy this scientific and human exploration of a vitally important topic, and that you choose to share this message far and wide. It is time that the tide turned, and agroecology and farmer-led seed systems are the best way forward.