In Tunisia, the revival of peasant seeds

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On the farm of Youssef and Samira Hammmouda, women, in Zaghouan, northern Tunisia, women sort the

Youssef Hammouda and his wife Samira oversee the sorting of seeds at their farm in Zaghouan, northern Tunisia. Facing the sieve, it takes dexterity and patience to separate the “mahmoudi” wheat from other seeds and weeds. This local seed which was transmitted to Youssef by his family is precious, “healthier and more robust” than imported varieties, depending on the grower.

He has distributed it to other farmers in the region and sells part of his wheat to a cooperative of two hundred women, Lella Kmar Beya, who transform it into traditional and organic couscous. “We have never used fertilizer because the seed is of good quality and resistant to climatic hazards”he points out.

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Such a production circuit has become rare in Tunisia. Considered, in antiquity, as the “breadbasket of Rome”, the country now imports 50% of its cereal needs, including 84% of common wheat, used for bread making, and nearly 50% durum wheat, for that of couscous. This dependence on external markets was felt during the Covid-19 crisis, due to the closure of borders and the disruption of world trade in food products. It is again significant: Ukraine at war is one of the main exporters of wheat and cereals to Tunisia and the global rise in prices is heightening concerns about stocks, raising fears for food security in the months to come. .

“Multiply local varieties”

Peasant seeds, because they are well adapted to the Tunisian soil, are put forward as one of the alternatives to better face this kind of shocks, and return to an agriculture more adapted to climate change. They cannot completely replace imported products, but “we must relaunch the debate on the need to cultivate and multiply these local varieties”pleads Karim Daoud, farmer and member of Synagri, the second agricultural union in the country.

President of the Tunisian Association for Permaculture, Rim Mathlouthi has also been campaigning, since 2014, for the rehabilitation of seeds that once made Tunisian soil rich. “We do education, we make farmers like Youssef visible and we put them in contact with others during the annual peasant seed festival”, she explains. “The objective is to preserve an agriculture that practically disappeared in the 1970s due to the arrival of foreign hybrid seeds, supposedly more efficient, but very demanding in terms of fertilizers and other inputs. »

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