Pestilence is not a new phenomenon. Since humans began agriculture millennia ago, they have fought insects and other species over edible plants.

Biodiversity is not a new idea. Humans were advocating for biological diversity decades ago.

Hivos, and advocacy and development organization, combined these concepts in its Open Source Seed Programme. They were not the first to do so.

The story of the Open Source Seed Programme provides contemporary illustration of the challenges in changing policy, commerce and culture.

The Open Source Seed Programme and biodiversity excerpts below date to 2014 and 2015. The maize infestation posts are from 2017.

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Global challenge

The world’s agrobiodiversity, crucial to maintaining food security, is under pressure. While there are some 120 plant species cultivated for human food, it is estimated that just 30 crops provide 95 percent of human food-energy needs.

Most agrobiodiversity is maintained on-farm, and its fundamental role in income generation, adaptation to climate change, nutrition and food security is widely acknowledged (Padulosi, Bioversity International 2012). The main cause of genetic erosion is that modern varieties are replacing local farmer varieties (The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture). In addition to this trend, the patenting of plants and seeds further restricts experimentation by individual farmers or public researchers, while also undermining local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability by adding a price tag to every seed (or cultivar) that used to be saved, shared and sown again the following year.

According to the FAO (The State of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture), conservation of species in gene banks has made considerable progress. A number of global initiatives exist that focus on safeguarding diversity, such as the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership. Other initiatives like “Access to seed index” aim to bridge the gap between the world’s leading seed companies and the smallholder farmer.

But inadequate policies that remain focused on high input agriculture offer few options to the majority of resource-poor farmers to bolster resilience, improve nutrition and enhance their own livelihoods.

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Open Source Seed Systems

Hivos believes in the importance of farmers’ access to diverse and ecologically adapted seeds and the need to prevent exclusive and monopolistic rights on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and associated practices and knowledge.

Hivos’ Open Source Seed Systems (OSSS) programme aims to reverse this trend by promoting the freedom to use seeds and stimulate breeding, diversification and resilience. We support concrete initiatives, learn what works and use the results in our lobbying and advocacy for change.

Open source seed approaches

Increasingly, Hivos together with breeders, farmers, and others concerned with seed systems, has felt the need to develop an alternative system, based not on exclusive intellectual property rights claims, but on protected commons that subvert the IPR system. Inspired by the open source software movement, several initiatives around the world have established variations of open source seed systems. Breeders declare their seeds open source, and farmers and consumers support the search for well-adapted varieties and tasty crops suitable for current cultivation technologies.

The distinctive feature of “open source seed” is an express and explicit commitment—legal and/or ethical—to maintain freedom to use the seed and any of its derivatives. This commitment accompanies the seed and its derivatives through any and all transfers and exchanges.


Three strands of activities are central to the programme:  building viable business models for open source seed systems; strengthening an emerging global alliance of breeders, farmers, gardeners and consumers through joint research and learning; and accelerating a shift in public policy orientation through showcasing the strength of national open source seed initiatives that create alternatives.  We invite governments and other stakeholders to join in this global development of open source seed systems .

In East Africa, we work with Bioversity International to enable resource-poor male and female farmers to increase food security and mitigate climate change.

We build global alliances with like-minded organisations such as Open source seed initiative US and Apna Beej India. With them and others we are building capacity and promoting open source seeds in Africa and globally, going against the current ‘exclusive rights’ stream.

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Hivos Southern Africa is currently implementing the sustainable foods programme in Zambia aimed at fostering a radical rethinking of food production and consumption that recognises ecosystems as the foundation of societies and economies.

The existing food system in Zambia, built on large-scale mono cropping of maize, is eroding ecosystems and crop diversity and reducing diversity on our plates. In our view, we need to put citizens centre stage to build a new food system that is sustainable, nutritious, diverse and healthy.

Sustainable diets are respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable, nutritious, safe and healthy. A diverse food system builds on the productivity and nutrition potential of agricultural biodiversity in food systems.

It enables women and men to use and develop their knowledge to further improve the diversity in production and consumption systems. Diversity on the farm is diversity on the plate. As Hivos Southern Africa Hub, we firmly believe that a sustainable food system can contribute to sustainable diets that are key to realizing the goal of a healthy nation

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Maize – Zambia’s most favoured crop – is under attack from alien armyworms. The pest has already invaded more than 10 percent of farms in the country. The army worms are caterpillars that “march” across the landscape in large groups feasting on young plants, leaving devastation in their wake.

In Zambia, maize is the primary staple crop, and over 90 percent of smallholders rely on it for food security and income. As with other countries in the region, maize dominates production.

Despite being a beloved crop in Zambia and other countries in the region, maize is proving a costly crop both at production level and to the dietary needs of Zambia.

Maize, which is suffering the most from the armyworm attack, is referred to as a ‘politicised crop’ because of government interventions to support it. Zambia’s government has promoted maize more than other crops such as cassava, millet and sorghum. Since 2007, it has spent on average eighty percent of its agricultural budget supporting the production of maize.

The inadequate production of alternative staple crops, climatic shifts, and poverty is contributing to widespread food insecurity in Zambia. Within the last 20 years, prolonged dry spells and shorter rainfall seasons have reduced maize yields to only 40% of the long-term average. Furthermore, the culture of maize monocropping is diminishing the diversity of foods in the fields and on the Zambian plate. The culture of mono diet is born from monocropping food production, which is heavily slanted towards maize.

The latest attack of the maize crop by armyworm highlights the urgent need for Zambia to diversify its food crops.  An investment in sustainable food diversity is urgently needed to combat hunger and micronutrient deficiencies as well as cushion millions of Zambia people from the unknown threat of climatic change.Photo by CIFOR

Link to an Open Source Seed Programme video:

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