There is no tool in biotechnology that affects a farmers’ ability to save seed. However, certain technologies are proprietary and the intellectual property rights (IPR) within each country do govern what seed farmers can save. It is important to decouple the technology from the IPR.
There are many new GMO technologies that have been developed through public research (CGIARs and National Agricultural Research Organizations). These technologies should soon be coming to market, and can be used without restrictions. In the case of Africa, the public should familiarize themselves with the excellent work of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that “facilitates and promotes public/private partnerships for the access and delivery of appropriate agricultural technologies for sustainable use by smallholder farmers in Sub Saharan Africa.” It is also important to note that patents to the currently popular GM technologies (Round Up Ready and Bt) will be expiring in the next two years, making them publicly available.
Last and most importantly, farmers are willing to buy seed each year when they see the value. In most cases, the benefits of purchased seed to the farmer do outweigh the cost. Indeed, most farmers do not save seed for the numerous hybrid varieties that are currently on the market. The idea of farmer-saved seed is only important to open pollinated varieties (such as beans and small grains) that can retain genetic purity over a couple of generations.
Instead of focusing on farmers’ ability to save seed, we need to shift our attention to ensuring that smallholder farmers have access to the affordable, appropriate, and high quality seed at the time of planting.
Dr. Edward Mabaya is a Research Associate in the Emerging Markets Program of the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, and the Assistant Direct at the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture, and Development. His research focuses on food marketing and distribution, seed systems, and agribusiness management.