Seeds are one of the first means of production that were forcibly taken from farmers during the liberalization of the agricultural sector. This expropriation did not occur directly, but was introduced under the guise of modernizing agricultural activity. Hybrid seeds were presented as an innovation that would bring higher production, stability of yield, and therefore an increased economic profitability as a result.
Hybrid seeds have important characteristics that make their production more profitable and more resource efficient. However, their seeds are sterile which means they are not reproducible because. Farmers can no longer, as in the past, reproduce their own seeds, instead they are forced to buy seeds each crop year. This creates a system that establishes dependence on the world market and therefore on seed imports. The issue of local or indigenous seed usage has, in recent decades, surfaced with local and international movements advocating for the introduction of a legal framework that gives farmers the right to use indigenous seeds.
A Tunisian agricultural policy that accentuates dependence:
A history of the liberal food dispossession policy:
The liberalization of the Tunisian economy and the agricultural sector was implemented by the Tunisian government over several stages, and encouraged by the World Bank and the IMFInternational Monetary Fund . The liberalization of the Tunisian economy became concrete with the signing of the Structural Adjustment Plan in 1986. For the agricultural sector, an Agricultural Structural Adjustment program was established with the aim of developing this sector through encouraging investment by limiting state intervention.
Following the liberalization of the agricultural sector, hybrid seeds were gradually introduced into the sector as part of the liberalization on the importation of agricultural inputs (e.g. seeds, fertilisers, machinery). Even before the 1980s, hybrid seeds had been distributed to farmers, as aid, as part of the World Food Program. In the post-colonial context, where the state and the people were going through a difficult time, any help was welcome. Thus, Tunisian farmers have learned to use this type of high-yield seed.
“Sterile” hybrid seeds for capital accumulation:
Hybrid seeds are cross-pollinated seeds, meaning they come from two different genetic lines to have a very productive F1First Filial Generation generation. However, the problem is that this F1First Filial Generation is not reproducible. In other words, the seeds obtained from the F1First Filial Generation plant cannot be replanted. These seeds are produced by large international companies and have flooded the international market for decades now. Consequently, these international companies have monopolised the production and distribution of seeds.
Initially, farmers thought hybrid seeds were beneficial because they produced significant yields which provided greater income. These higher yields are assured if farmers practice good cultivation, namely using chemical and phytosanitary treatments to protect the plant against pests and other insects in addition to using chemical fertilizers to feed the plants since these seeds are generally not adapted to the climatic and environmental conditions of the regions where they are planted. Therefore, farmers are required to buy treatments and fertilizers (inputs) in addition to the seeds in each crop year. This forces farmers to be dependent on seed and other input producers. This relationship of dependence marginalizes small Tunisian farmers who are affected when the prices of these different inputs fluctuate as they are tied to the international market.
Although the seed market offers different varieties of seeds, this is merely an illusion of choice because farmers are deprived of the freedom to choose what they want to plant since this choice depends on the availability of seeds in the market and what the seed companies are offering.
Tunisian legislation that “prohibits” the use of local seeds:
In Tunisia, there are several similar movements fighting for the right to use local seeds but legislation is a major obstacle. Tunisian legislation makes the use of local seeds almost impossible since seeds marketed and used in Tunisia must be registered in a seeds catalogue and according to article 4 of law n° 99-42 of May 10, 1999, registered seeds catalogues must conform with the DHS (Distinct, Stable and Homogeneous) standard, which therefore give exclusive registration to hybrid seeds. Tunisian law thus prohibits the sale and marketing of local seeds since only seeds listed in the catalogue can be sold. Therefore, local seeds have been gradually lost and replaced by hybrid varieties.
Hybrid seeds further marginalize small and medium farmers:
The use of hybrid seeds at the expense of local seeds has other adverse effects. Aside from the creation of food dependency in Tunisia and its farmers, this national policy has caused the impoverishment and marginalization of medium and small farmers by dispossessing them of this means of production. These small and medium-sized farmers, who see themselves increasingly marginalized, are disappearing and abandoning agricultural activity which is generally their only source of income. Abandoning farming, further marginalization, exodus, and other problems follow one another for farmers who are gradually replaced by the Agribusiness sector.
Public policies between food security and food sovereignty:
Seeds are one factor, among others, that accentuates Tunisia’s food dependence on international markets and imports. By adopting this political vision, Tunisia has chosen to prioritize the country’s “Food Security” which, by definition, is ensuring the presence of sufficient food for the entire population. This orientation, however, makes it possible to ensure the presence of food but at an exorbitant price as demonstrated by the food Tunisia imports each year. In addition, the use of hybrid seeds equally presents another danger; the disappearance of indigenous seeds which leads to the loss of the local genetic heritage as well as the disappearance of its diversity. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAOFood and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations ), 75% of genetic diversity has disappeared in the last century.
At the end of the last century, international movements emerged presenting an alternative to this system and the concept of “Food Sovereignty” was defined by the “La Via Campesina” (The International Peasants’ Voice) movement during the Food Summit organized by FAOFood and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations in Rome in 1996. One of the main demands of the concept of “Food Sovereignty” is the fight for biodiversity and local seeds and the fight against the grip of multinationals on the seeds sector. Thus, the use of local seeds is presented as a viable and sustainable alternative for the agricultural sector and especially for farmers. This alternative gives them the right to choose their seeds, to reproduce them, and to exchange them among themselves. Local seeds, which have always existed since the beginning of human sedentism and since the start of agricultural activity, have been passed down through generations of farmers. Furthermore, they represent the source of their autonomy and ensure their independence and therefore their sovereignty.
Why choose food sovereignty as the basis of our Tunisian agricultural policy?
Food sovereignty is above all a question of freedom, a question of free choice for producers, in relation to their culture, without the intervention of capital and most importantly without external taxation. This concept firstly aims to give agriculture its original meaning back, which is to produce food for the people rather than to accumulate capital. Through this original understanding of agriculture, we exclude the power of capital which has made the activity exclusive to investors and has excluded small and medium farmers. This will take agriculture out of a rentier capitalist system.
Towards sustainable and resilient agriculture:
Food sovereignty is a sustainable option that respects the right of access to resources for all, while respecting the rights of future generations. The necessary resources must be in the hands of farmers to ensure their autonomy and allow them to make a living from agriculture. Following this policy allows for a diversified agriculture that respects the environment, unlike the current agricultural models which are based on the intensification of crops and the prioritization of monocultures which consume a lot of water and require pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Thus, this model allows farmers to produce food for people in an environmentally friendly way, which represents one of the first ways to fight climate change.
The establishment of seed independence:
Prioritising the use of local seeds has several benefits. By promoting local seeds, small and medium-sized producers are guaranteed significant independence which allows them to continue their activity and preserve their right to decide what to grow. By reclaiming their right to use these reproducible seeds, rather than single-use hybrid seeds, farmers will be able to escape the grip of large multinational corporations thus relieving them of a great economic burden. Henceforth, agricultural activity will once again become a means allowing farmers to both make a living and gradually emerge from this system of dependence and marginalization. Women in rural areas will also resume their place, since they are responsible for the conservation and selection of these seeds. Thanks to a more autonomous situation and a decent income that will flow from agricultural activity, they will no longer have to go to work in the fields of large investors and will be able to work their own land. The use of seeds adapted to our environment will be much less fragile and will allow farmers to considerably reduce their usage of all types of chemical inputs.
Food sovereignty is a holistic policy based on several components of increasing importance. Its applicability requires great awareness and a political will that aims a policy shift to prioritize food production over the accumulation of capital. To achieve this, agrarian reform must be implemented and must affect all the areas of this activity including agricultural land and its management, the right of access to resources, the securing of this sector and its protection against monetization of these products. This reform must also focus on changing the production model itself, which must be oriented towards an environmentally friendly production that considers the rights of future generations and makes the fight against climate change a priority.
Recovery and multiplication of local seeds:
- The National Gene Bank is a national institution whose goal is to recover and develop the stock of local Tunisian seeds. This institution should be given the necessary support to research preservation and production of indigenous seeds to create a considerable stock of different varieties of seeds.
Legalization of local seeds:
- Local seeds must be fully integrated into the catalogue of marketable seeds and their sale and exchange is completely legalized.
- Create and legalize points of trading of local seeds among farmers.
- Impose taxes on imported hybrid seeds or subsidize local seeds.
Extension and distribution:
- The Tunisian state should make seeds available to Regional Commissariats for Agricultural Development to distribute to farmers and encourage them to use them instead of hybrid seeds.
 For more information, please consult the following book: AYEB (H.) & BUSH (R.), Food Insecurity and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa, Habib Ayeb & Ray Bush 2019, available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/food-insecurity-and-revolution-in-the-middle-east-and-north-africa/074956CEB76745F002560325D1ECB00A (Accessed on December 10, 2020)  A statement from the NGO Forum to the World Food Summit, available at:faoFood and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations .org/wfs/begin/paral/cngo-f.htm”>http://www.faoFood and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations .org/wfs/begin/paral/cngo-f.htm (Accessed 10 December 2020)