Learning at Apna Kendra bridge school for working children in India. Image: Oxfam
Learning at Apna Kendra bridge school for working children in India. Image: Oxfam

Day 3: Seeds in Women’s Hands

21 November, 2012 | Food and Gender: Online Discussion

Seeds are the first link in the food chain. Yet women seed breeders are invisible in the industrial model of food production and in intellectual property regimes. The roots of food and gender justice lie in keeping seeds in women’s hands and recognizing women’s knowledge of biodiversity.

by Vandana Shiva, philosopher, feminist and environmental activist

Health and nutrition begin with food, and food begins with seeds. The seeds of food justice lie in creating food systems where seed is in women’s hands, and women’s knowledge of biodiversity is the foundation of food and nutritional security.

Women have been seed breeders for centuries and have bred much more diversity and traits than all the industrial breeding systems that are formally recognized. Science and culture merge in women’s seed breeding.

Nowhere is this more evident than in India. I have seen how tribal women of Chattisgarh take 21 seeds for a seed germination test, and do not use the seed if more than 3 seeds fail to germinate. In Karnataka, the ceremony of germinating nine seeds for nine days at Ugadi, the New Year in the indigenous calendar, is also a seed germination test (called navdanya). Seed saving, seed selection and seed breeding are sophisticated skills which generations of women have evolved.

Seed is the first link in the food chain. Yet women as seed breeders are invisible in the intellectual property regimes linked to seed. Seed, which used to be saved and bred by women, is now the ‘intellectual property’ of the chemical corporations, which are now also the seed corporations controlling 73 % of the world’s seed supply. When these corporations patent seed, they collect royalties. Royalties on seed mean higher seed costs. Seed in women’s hands is renewable and ‘open-source’, to be freely shared and saved. Patented seed becomes non-renewable. Saving and exchanging seed becomes an intellectual property crime. When women sow seed, they pray ’may this seed be exhaustless’. Corporations work on the philosophy ’may this seed be terminated so our profits are exhaustless’.

"Seed is the first link in the food chain. Yet women as seed breeders are
invisible in the intellectual property regimes linked to seed."

High costs of seed means debt. In India 250,000 farmers have committed suicide due to debt, mainly in the cotton belt, since seed monopolies were established through the introduction of Bt cotton. Each farmer who commits suicide leaves behind a widow.

Across the world, women have bred more than 7,000 species of crops for taste, nutrition, pest resilience, drought resilience, flood resilience, and salt resistance. In India alone, women have bred 200,000 rice varieties. Navdanya, a network of seed keepers and organic producers that is spread across 16 states in India, values this biodiversity and has so far successfully conserved more than 5,000 crop varieties. This is knowledge.

Corporations claiming patents on seed through genetic engineering have offered only four crops: corn, soya, canola and cotton. These crops have only two traits (herbicide resistance and Bt toxin) which, instead of controlling pests and weeds, are creating superpests and superweeds. Our seeds and breeding would be more secure in women’s hands!

Not only are women seed breeders who have kept seed as a commons; when measured in terms of health per acre and nutrition per acre, women-run small biodiverse farms that are based on indigenous knowledge and seeds produce more food. Navdanya’s study Health Per Acre shows that small ecological farms can produce twice the nutrition that chemical monoculture farms produce.

Intellectual property rights to seed are justified in the name of producing more food. However instead of biodiverse outputs from a farming system, only the yield of one commodity that leaves the farm is measured. False categories of ‘yields ‘and ‘productivity’ create the illusion of inevitability, surpluses, and success. But more commodities of a few crops on the global markets do not reach those who need food, especially women and children.

"Our seeds and breeding would be more secure
in women’s hands!"

All this is done in the name of feeding people and reducing hunger. Yet 1 billion people are hungry, and another 2 billion suffer from food-related diseases. Hunger is not being reduced, because the hunger for profits shapes the food system, from seed to table.

The industrial model of food production and the globalized model of distribution are failing on the measure of food justice, because that was never its objective. Its objective is profits, and this is achieved through a dual strategy: selling ever more chemicals and non-renewable, patented seed to farmers, even if this means debt and suicide, and buying cheap commodities from them as raw material producers.

We need a paradigm shift because the old paradigm is failing us. We need to move from monocultures to diversity, from centralized globalized systems to decentralized localized systems, from chemical and capital intensification, to ecological and biodiversity intensification.

"The industrial model of food production and the globalized model
of distribution are failing on the measure of food justice,
because that was never its objective."

When I did my study on the green revolution in Punjab in 1984, female foeticide was just beginning. Today more than 35 million girl children have not been allowed to be born in India. When women’s creative and productive roles in agriculture and food systems are destroyed, women become a dispensable sex. In addition to many other benefits, putting women’s seed and biodiversity expertise at the heart of food justice also has the potential to address gender violence and injustice.

To sow the seeds of food and gender justice, the following steps must be taken:

  • Women’s seed breeding skills need to be recognized in agriculture.
  • Farming systems need to be based on women’s knowledge of diversity for increasing output of nutrition, increasing resilience to climate change, and reducing inputs of land, water and capital.
  • Community seed banks should be created and women’s participatory seed breeding should become the backbone of food security.
  • Laws of intellectual property need to change. The World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) has an article which imposes patents and intellectual property rights on seed and life forms. This clause was to have been reviewed in 1999. Most countries had called for a stop to patents on life, which includes seed. This mandatory review should be completed, and seed removed from patentability, since seeds are not an invention, and hence not a patentable subject matter.
  • Seed laws that are an attempt to make indigenous, open-pollinated seeds illegal must be revoked. Instead we need to shape laws that recognize seed rights as women’s rights, and keep seed as a commons.

Download: Seeds in Women's Hands


From value chains to seed saving

Elizabeth Vazquez triggered a focused discussion yesterday on the role of women suppliers in agricultural value chains, thanks to the very concrete recommendations she laid out in her essay.

Most commentators seemed to value the practical experience she brought to the discussion and her solutions-focused approach. Her emphasis on women’s collective organizing appealed to virtually all commentators, and many of you pointed out that women’s collective action is key to women’s overall empowerment, not just a means of increasing their negotiating power and raising their income. Several commentators also linked the discussion back to Nidhi Tandon’s remarks, and cautioned against viewing access to global supply chains as a panacea for rural women.

Many commentators reminded us that rural women face huge social and cultural barriers which make it impossible for them to dream of owning a business, let alone engaging in global supply chains.  Low literacy levels, limited control over assets, and lack of negotiation power within the household were but a few of the barriers mentioned.

Today’s essay takes up the role of seeds, that often-overlooked yet critical piece of the food system. Vandana Shiva believes that the roots of food justice lie in keeping seeds in women’s hands, and argues that the key to improving nutrition is to build farming systems that are based on women’s knowledge of biodiversity.

What do you think?

  • Can women’s traditional knowledge and seed saving practices really become the heart of our food system?
  • How could seed saving impact gender relations?
  • And how can Shiva’s ideas be applied in practice, in your country or region?

From Value Chains to Seed Saving

We thank Dr. Vandana for sharing such enriching and interesting facts and solutions on  addressing the root cause of Food injustice and bringing seed saving practices into the hands of the women, to impact gender relations.  

We take this opportunity to share the concerns, which at the same time may remain unaddressed -even after ensuring that seed saving practices and farming decisions are brought to their hands. 

The paradox is that 80% of the world’s hungry people ( maybe more in India) are directly involved in food production and are small-scale food producers. The demise of small-scale food producers has been heavily influenced by the growing phenomenon of land grabbing, which is the forced buying or leasing of large areas of land or water (usually farmed by small scale farmers) by national or international corporations, governments, and powerful individuals for the purpose of commercial food production, mining or other commercial purposes. This contributes to widespread food insecurity and increasing migration to urban slums, while foreign or National investors are able to secure food for their own domestic consumption !

Also while we bring seed saving techniques and decisions to women, it is unfortunate, that particularly in a hilly agrarian state like Uttarakhand, women are more engaged in farming than men, the anomaly remains that land are registered in the name's of their male counterparts, whether husbands, brothers or sons!. Even after heavily microenterpise based farming and livelihood generation, women find it difficult to switch to modern farming techniques due to the costs involved. Women are under drudgery doing more work than their males, both in fields, and house in hilly terrains, and Indian value systems are itself strongly gender biased, "A women will first feed her husband and child", and the left overs to herself. This issue becomes compounded, in rural areas, where there is even poor knowldge, health and empowerment.

In the developed nations, and many developing nations, having a centrally run forum percolating into grassroots with the Food security Regulation act helps to bridge the injustice gaps. 

Having shared this, we believe that seed saving can definately contribute to bring gender equality, as a women can be empowered to balance the farming economies with nutritional knowldege, and translate productivity into their own economic empowerment. It can be implemented in a state like Uttarakhand, where there is huge bio diversity, and indegeniuos farm produce, by running a long term Program with the overall goal programme to "Bring Food justice by addressing grass root causes" in the state and Countrywhich can be weaved with Seed saving practices for women. It will be very encouraging if State directorates of Agriculture, Rural development, get together to define the strategies building economic empowerment with Nutritional justice through a common project where they fund seed saving , storing , and distribution, and link it with farming produe and enable linking the produce with the distribution chains...something similar to the "Amul Revolution" in Gujrat.

Another point of view

Really nice pattern and fantastic articles, practically nothing else we require :D.

Gender-responsive crop breeding

I could not agree more that women play a crucial role in seed production, selection and storage. We at AWARD (www.awardfellowships.org) therefore fast-track the careers of women agricultural scientists, many of whom are crop breeders to make the voices of the women farmers in need of better seed and of seed at all heard. Our experience has shown that women scientists tend to work on crops that are more relevant to women (such as indigenous vegetables, crops for semi-arid areas, traditional healthy and more drought tolerant food crops in their countries etc). Yet the statistics show that e.g. in Africa there are few crop breeders and among those few women. Training in gender-responsive breeding might be one way out of the dilemma, helping to appreciate the informal breeding and selection women farmers do and adding weight to their right to intellectual property as well. Cornell University has recently embarked on a progam on gender-responsive crop breeding with some innovative ideas on how to best address the urgent need for seed that meets the demand of women farmers as well - we need to support such innitiatives!

wome with disabilities

it good idea to invest women farmerswith cash, seeds and modren technology that can support seeds grow well, prevention of insect and dieseas and irigation for their farms. in somalia there are no more programs such this supporting the women farmer although Oxfarm and FOA operate some areas in the countries. but large parts of the arid areas in the country are nglected and not supported

IEDP institute education disabled people is an NGO that support the disabled people has been supporting the women in the urban and in the rural areas throught poltery rearing and grand nut harvesting for groups of women with disabilites in somalia.

I agree.

I agree.

Thank you for initiating this

Thank you for initiating this ....

Yes, women are good savers of seed, money, etc for the houseghold. They do save for the survival of the family - even when they don't have enough to eat for today.

But this has a limit. I perfectly know what happened in India particularly Andhrapradesh (2010) when increased volumes of debt (mainly because of unmonitored, and commercially motivated microfinance operation) caused a number of women suicide.

I strongly support promotion of women organizations. Women know most of the potential solutions for household problem - but they have been largely excluded from decision making. .... Women who have been excluded from decision-making for most of their lives often lack this sense of agency that allows them to define goals and act effectively to achieve them. However, these goals also can be heavily influenced by the values of the society in which they live and so may sometimes replicate rather than challenge the structures of injustice. The influence of society and culture over the range and exercise of choice also means that if we seek to promote empowerment, we must also consider factors affecting the status and rights of women as a group. ... But this task of organizing women is one of the most difficult, and list prioritized activity in many circumstances!!!

I hope this discussion would continue.


Seed is for food, not profiting.

Women traditionla knowlegde and seed saving practise can really become the heart of our food chain, only if they are given the chance and empowered to do so. Large scale farmers, governments can help by ensuring that Women can supplies of seedlings they use, which will naturally boost their capacity to save more seeds which will ultimately withdrawn control from chemical companies when the intellectual property rights on seeds and life forms is reviewed and revoked. 

Food and Climate Justice : seed rights are women rights!

Because of women’s knowledge of diversity, they are fundamental for keeping food and nutritional security. Though it has happened in India as indicated by Vandana Shiva, and it has happened in the Andean cultures, they are the ones to keep the seeds.

In the case of the Andean cultures, it is interesting to see that seeds not only belong to women, but it is their obligation to take care of them! Women recriminate men keeping seeds; they consider them as usurpers and the campesinas consider that this is a gender matter. While men keep their responsibility as producers, women keep and select seeds. This is happening with maize, potatoes, olluco and oca. Based on her care, seeds are selected and preserved. Women have the knowledge and they are the ones responsible for sharing their expertise with younger generations.

I try to see carefully in other agronomic practices, and I can’t manage to see that these practices for women are generally kept. Possibly with the ‘modernisation’ of agriculture, they were lost. The market and the bigger corporations are controlling most of the seed business, with all the damaging impacts at all levels of society.

For me it is not that evident that we can give back seeds to women. I think that we should be fighting hard  against monocultures and centralised globalised systems. We need to give predominance to ecological and biodiversity intensification, as indicated by Vandana.

In order to increase resilience to climate change, it becomes crucial to review TRIPS in order to get seed removed from patentability. Seed rights are women rights and we need to keep seed as a common!


seed saving and commons

I am most interested in the two points within the commentary as food for thought:

  • Community seed banks should be created and women’s participatory seed breeding should become the backbone of food security.
  • Intellectual property laws need to change. 

It seems as if much more work could be done to map the regional seed banks to understand better what's at stake for women leaders, what they are achieving, and the specific challenges they are facing. I would also be interested to learn more about how a commons approach can serve as a model  beyond local projects to be more of a national /regional development strategy.

Challenging TRIPS is important, but most people have never heard of it and the global trade advocacy movement has waned in light of a limping WTO. I have been active in this for years, but find a better strategy is needed for today's climate.

Look forward to more dialogue!



Seeds under threat

As we participate in this discussion - where for the most part we are all in agreement - the fact is that local seed management is under seige by the systemic support for their production activities that favors production of cash crops (like cotton) for the market and use of industrial seeds and pesticides .  One Dalit woman just interviewed for a study expressed this as: “If more land is brought under cash crops then there is no food security for all of us”. Women interviewed in Andhra Pradesh in Adoni Region particularly expressed that they are instigated to use pesticides and cash crops by the government and seed companies. According to V. Indiramma; “government is insisting we buy a specific variety of cotton seeds and use fertilizers to protect the crops from pest.  We are forced to follow them.  As a result the traditional seeds are no longer the asset of the farming community in their village”. This resulted in very poor access to food grains and the entire families in the villages are depending on market for their food requirements. “There needs to be ban on the company seeds and more encouragement and investment should be for traditional seeds” say the women.

Similarly in Tajikistan, women have been drawn into cotton ventures and in interviews last year - lamented the loss of local seeds - including small sweet watermelons and hardy tomatoes. In fact, the women mentioned that aid programs bring in exotic "lush" red tomato seeds from (for instance) the Netherlands, which are plump and juicy - good for the city markets - but are not hardy for the kind of weather realities that these women face - they lose crops of tomatoes and have none of their indigenous species to pickle for the winter.  Similarly they are given European cucumber seeds to plant for the urban markets and are amazed that the cucumbers they harvest are seedless! This means not only can they not save healthy seeds for another season's crop, but they have to buy more seeds and these cucumbers, also, do not pickle as well as their local species.  Tajikistan by the way, is one of the world's most diverse areas for species of vegetables and fruits (I can provide more info for those interested). 

In Mozambique now, Brazil is promoting its soya plantation models and gues who is being handed the soya seed? Women farmers.

DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta and Limagrain control 29 per cent of the world market in seeds with Monsanto controlling almost all of the genetically engineered seed. The Gates and Rockefeller foundations’ partnership with Monsanto to bring an Asian-type Green Revolution to the African continent will invest USD150 million into the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). On its website, http://www.agra-alliance.org, the Alliance describes itself as a 'dynamic partnership working across the continent to help millions of small-scale farmers and their families lift themselves out of poverty and hunger … focusing on key aspects of African agriculture: from seeds, soil health and water to markets, agricultural education and policy'



Women and seed saving

Great article by Vandana Shiva, many thanks. When I worked in an aid agency in Central America it was shocking to see how few seeds are left, and how more and more peasant frarmers rely on Monsanto and other transnational corporations for seeds. This makes me think that a more pro-active stance is needed in promoting seed-banks and supporting women in that process. Our experience was that given the levels of poverty, the women we supported ate or sold every last vegetable and organic creole seed, making it clear that it´s hard to think about the future when you´re in the day-to-day struggle to survive. Clearly this needed to be a much slower and more participatory process with the ex-bonded labour indigenous women we were working with, and not just with the mostly male indigenous leadership.

Scratching the Surface

Thank you Vandana for this fascinating blog. It really makes me feel that I must read more - and that this blog only scratches the surface. 

Perhaps I am not an optimist, but I do not think that we will reverse the complete system anytime soon, so I was wondering how the two systems can co-exist. Or is this not possible? The arguments for loca seed banks, diversity of seeds, appropriate seeds for the environment etc. are all so compelling.

One analogy that comes to mind. In Canada (and I think in other countries) even individuals can generate electricity through wind, sun, etc. and feed it into the grid which is based on hydro and nuclear power generation. These small suppliers are paid more per kilowatt (?) than they pay to take electricity from the grid, so it is hugely advantageous to participate in the system, while still contributing to green energy and reducing the call on other forms of generation. I know this is not the model per se, but I wonder if there are such possible dual models possible. 

I am also going to research other articles by Vadana, but if anyone has suggestions of open source papers, that would be great.

Thanks (and thanks for fixing the carriage returns),


keep the seeds in women's hands

This piece makes clear, with the crucial example of seeds, what women's ownership and control in agriculture and food production can look like and how the corporate dominated system systematically undermines that. 

We need to value the role of women in seeds preservation and production so much more as a key basis for a more food just system. Lte us also be very careful not to undermine this with our 'development' interventions.

Sees are not an invention

Really an amazing article... so refreshing! As a nutritionist and scientist who has shifted her career into international development, I completely agree with Dr Shiva. Seeds are not an invention, like food products or cocktail of nutrients and hence not a patentable subject of matter. This is a really important issue that needs to be addressed at the national/international level if we want to move in the right direction.

Another point of view

Wohh exactly what I was searching for, thanks for posting . "The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope." by Walter Benjamin.

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