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Dr Melaku Worede, Photograph by Damien Prestidge

Dr Melaku Worede, Photograph by Damien Prestidge

Seeds of Justice – The Legacy of Dr Melaku Worede

By Rowan Phillimore, 4th December 2012

Depending on your field of work, your interests, and perhaps your age, you may or may not have heard of Dr Melaku Worede. His work and legacy may not be quite as high-profile as that of African change-makers such as the late Professor Wangari Maathai, but his impact is of huge significance.

Dr Melaku grew up in Ethiopia, where his intrigue into the richness of his country’s landscape, diversity and farming life grew from passion to profession. In 1972, he secured his PhD in Agronomy (Genetics and Breeding) at the University of Nebraska, USA, and then he returned to Ethiopia to take up a position in the Ministry of Agriculture. Some years later he set about on the stage of his career which has perhaps had the most significant impact on Ethiopia’s genetic legacy and food sovereignty. Inspired by the vast wealth of biodiversity in Ethiopia (which is celebrated as a ‘Vavilov centre’, one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, and a centre of origin of species), Melaku set about establishing the Plant Genetic Resource Center (PGRC) in Addis Ababa. This was the first gene bank in Africa; the first time that Africa was asserting its own rights to its genetic wealth.

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New film sows the Seeds of Freedom: African farming voices challenge the GM myth

By Teresa Anderson, The Gaia Foundation, 12 June 2012.

“Global agriculture has changed more in our lifetime than in the previous 10,000 years.  But as with all change, conflicts of interest have arisen.  Nowhere is this conflict more poignant than in the story of seed.”  A new film from the African Biodiversity Network (ABN) and the Gaia Foundation, narrated by actor Jeremy Irons, is set to explode pervasive myths about agriculture, development and Africa’s ability to feed herself.  At the heart of the film “Seeds of Freedom” is the story of seed, and its transformation from the basis of farming communities’ agri-culture, to the property of agri-business.

Africa is under growing pressure to turn to hybrid seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Only last month, President Obama launched the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which will see the combined forces of agribusiness giants Monsanto, Syngenta, Cargill, DuPont and Yara investing $3 billion into creating new markets in Africa, amidst claims that this will solve hunger and malnutrition.

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Seeds of Freedom – a review

The following article has been written by guest blogger and freelance journalist Rob Percival, who attended the preview event.

For thousands of years, farming communities have entered into a relationship with their land, nourishing their soils and seeds to build resilience and diversity in their local ecosystem. Seeds of Freedom, a new film by The Gaia Foundation and the Africa Biodiversity Network, tells the story of this relationship – the bond between seed and farmer – that today is under threat by the corporate takeover of the food system.

The 30-minute film was launched on 28th May in the verdant surroundings of London’s Garden Museum, with an introductory message from Jeremy Irons, who narrates the film. Seeds of Freedom, he said, communicates “a critical message, at a critical time.” Time is an appropriate lens through which to view the story of seed: global agriculture has changed more in the past 50 years than in the previous 10,000. The 20th century saw the rapid transformation of farm into factory, and the emergence of a corporate agenda, promoting the mantra that genetically modified (GM) crops and large-scale industrial agriculture are the only way to feed the world. Seeds of Freedom tells a different story.

Mohammed is a farmer from the Wollo region of Ethiopia. “Seed is our life,” he explains. “Our livelihoods depend on it.” Like many farmers, Mohammed has traditionally saved his seed from year to year, exchanging it with his neighbours to ensure biological and cultural resilience. Drawing on reserves of local knowledge, these farmers have nurtured highly diverse and nutritious varieties of seed, which are finely adapted to the ecological and climactic conditions of their locale. “Keeping our seed is a collective responsibility,” he explains. “Seed is our wealth. It is neither hers nor mine. It is ours. So we have a joint responsibility.”

Farmers such as Mohammed, practicing small-scale agro-ecological farming, currently feed 70% of the world’s population. But today, many are being forced to abandon their traditional practices, often in the name of ‘development’, and have become trapped in a deepening cycle of debt and displacement. Seeds of Freedom gives voice to these farmers, examining the roots and false promises of the industrialisation of agriculture in the 20th century. The film explores the transformation of surplus explosives and nerve agents, left over in the wake of two world wars, into a booming fertiliser and pesticide industry, and the impact of the rise of the pro-GM lobby.

“Beneath the rhetoric that GM is the key to feeding a hungry world, there is a very different story, a story of control and profit,” explains Gathuru Mburu, Coordinator of the Africa Biodiversity Network. “This story is about controlling seed, and thereby the farmer, his land, and the food system.”

Agro-industrial corporations have used GM as a means of patenting seed, and have fought for increasing legal restrictions on the right of indigenous and peasant farmers to save and exchange their seed. As Caroline Lucas, MP and leader of the Green Party, explains, “The real concern is that there is an increasing corporate control of the seed chain, and increasingly that means that a very small number of people are having a massive influence over the way in which farmers are able to farm.”

As control of seed is wrest from the farmer, the entailing loss of biodiversity is mirrored in a loss of cultural diversity. Seeds of Freedom explores the inextricable link between seed and cultural practices in many rural communities, highlighting that the loss of cultural traditions surrounding seed is also a loss of ecological knowledge. Seed – a universal symbol of vitality, new life and health – is revered as sacred by many of these communities. As the threat of climactic instability grows, the corporate abuse of seed becomes a poignant image of the wider violence being committed against the Earth.

“Seeds of Freedom is a powerful film with an important message,” activist Vandana Shiva states. “There is a new wave of cultural imperialism taking place right now in the field of biodiversity and seed. We are losing our critical seed diversity to just a handful of corporations in the western world. The genetic erosion taking place here is tantamount to ecocide.”

Seeds of Freedom calls for farmers and consumers to join forces with the growing global movement for Food Sovereignty: the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods. Food Sovereignty would see the control of seed returned to local communities, ensuring the survival of small-scale agro-ecological farming. As industrial agriculture seeks to tighten its grip on the global food system, Seeds of Freedom proposes an alternative, sewing a message of hope into the story of indigenous seed.

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