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Local Roots: Indigenous Seeds and Tunisian Food Security

It is becoming increasingly clear that Tunisia’s agricultural model based on water-intensive hybrid seeds is unsustainable and has eroded Tunisia’s food sovereignty and created damaging dependencies on global grain markets. What, then, might be the alternatives to this model?


This summer, Tunisia’s agricultural sector has been hit hard by a rise in severe weather occurrences, including a harsh wave of drought that led to a drastic drop in production for farmers. While farmers had been relying for decades on imported seeds for their agricultural needs, over time and amid growing impacts of climate change, it has become increasingly clear that using local seed varieties is a more sustainable and practical approach. These seeds are better suited to the Tunisian climate, with the ability to resist pests, tolerate drought, produce high yields, meaning they could be integral to farmers’ efforts to adapt to the impact of climate change. As a result, farmers are now turning to more traditional practices and are reusing those local seeds. Why did imported seed varieties come to dominate Tunisian agriculture in the first place? What have been their wider effects? And how might local seed varieties offer a sustainable alternative to imported seeds? This article will explore the history of the agricultural sector in Tunisia and how the current climate crisis is leading some to rethink the country’s dominant agricultural model.

The region of Oued al-Khail lies in the far south of Tunisia. Known for its harsh climate and poor soil, it is here that farmer Radwan el-Tais has transformed three hectares of agricultural land into an eco-tourism experiment. El-Tais, who has inherited the land from his father, has used permaculture to grow his produce, an environmentally friendly method that uses local and organic sources, instead of imported and chemically altered products. With this agricultural approach, El-Tais has used exclusively local seed varieties and has grown enough produce to be self-sufficient, providing for his family and those he welcomes in his farm.

El-Tais has faced significant challenges in ensuring the sustainability of his project. These have included the difficulties in finding local workers to work in the farm, the harsh desert climate, and the impact of Tunisia’s current economic crisis on such a small eco-tourism project. He, however, remains confident in his ability to surmount these challenges: “I wish to develop my products and add other natural products, such as honey, to nurture our ancient food heritage,” he explains. El-Tais says that he devotes most of his time to agriculture, encouraging farmers to abandon the imported seeds that have dominated Tunisian agriculture and pushed out local Tunisian seed varieties. For him, local seed varieties directly link Tunisia’s agricultural identity and heritage.

Although local seeds are more appropriate for the area, many farmers opt for “hybrid seeds,” a type of seeds created by intentionally genetically crossing two distinct varieties of the same plant species. They are cultivated and used for specific characteristics, such as increasing crop yields in the short-term. I

El-Tais believes preserving traditional farming practices is essential, but it is not the only reason he uses local seeds: these seeds are well-suited to the area’s climate and can help reduce the impact of extreme weather events caused by climate change, such as floods and drought. Although local seeds are more appropriate for the area, many farmers opt for “hybrid seeds,” a type of seeds created by intentionally genetically crossing two distinct varieties of the same plant species. They are cultivated and used for specific characteristics, such as increasing crop yields in the short-term. In the long-run, however, these hybrid seeds tied farmers into an exploitative relationship with global grain manufacturers, as these seeds cannot be replanted, require the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and increase water inputs, and have ultimately been found to be harmful to the soil’s fertility. 

Tunisia and the green revolution

Following independence from France in 1956, Tunisia pursued an extensive program of land reclamation, breaking up the large French landholdings that were found on the most fertile lands in the eastern coastal Sahel and Cap Bon in the north of the country. After a brief experiment with cooperative farms in the 1960s, liberalization from the 1970s onwards saw a turn toward export-oriented crops such as olives, citrus fruits, dates, and vegetables grown for the European market. 

In 1986, Tunisia initiated its first agricultural sector adjustment loan, which resulted in state lands being given to large-scale farmers and a shift toward irrigation-fed crops that require fewer agricultural laborers. However, during the reign of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the agricultural sector was impacted by corruption and patronage, as regime loyalists were granted monopolies over the export of agricultural products and access to the country’s most fertile lands. This period also saw the overuse of Tunisia’s water resources, with deep wells being drilled to supply large farms and the tourism industry.

Tunisia’s ongoing grain crisis

Since the 1970s, Tunisia has subsidized staple foods such as flour, vegetable oil, rice, and sugar. In addition, although direct subsidies on pasta and couscous were removed in 1993, these products remain subsidized indirectly via the support of semolina, which is used for their production. With a domestic focus on export crops, Tunisia became a net importer of cereals, despite having once been the “breadbasket of the Roman Empire.” While subsidies have cushioned Tunisia’s poor from the fluctuations in global food prices, it has placed increasing pressure on Tunisia’s budget and its farmers. In Tunisia, small to medium farms make up the majority of the agricultural sector, with more than 50 percent being below 5 hectares in size. Eventually, small farmers often give up on farming because they lack support and access to loan systems.

A 2014 World Bank report noted that budgetary support for Tunisia’s agricultural sector represented just 0.5 percent of GDP in 2010, which was largely targeted at subsidies for fertilizers, hybrid seeds, and bran. In contrast, in 2022, its spending on food subsidies was approximately 4.2 billion dinars ($1.4 billion). These costs have been heightened by the consecutive crises of supply chain issues associated with the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the country’s continuing negotiation of its latest International Monetary Fund bailout package, as well as successive poor harvests—this year’s harvest is estimated to be 15 percent smaller than the country’s five-year average and its grain crop a third of last year’s

In April 2023, USAID announced that, alongside the World Bank, it would finance the purchase of 25,000 metric tons of American durum wheat to help Tunisia weather these multiple crises and ensure Tunisia is supplied with essential food supplies. In the same month, it was announced that the African Development Bank would also assist Tunisia in the purchase of a further 75,000 tons of soft milling wheat. 

A local seed revolution and Tunisian food sovereignty

It is becoming increasingly clear that the kind of intensive agricultural model based on water-intensive hybrid seeds is not only unsustainable but has also eroded Tunisia’s food sovereignty and created damaging dependencies on global grain markets. What, then, might be the alternatives to this model? And how might Tunisia transition toward sustainable agricultural practices and food sovereignty?

A group of Tunisian development academics, agronomists, activists, farmers, and journalists have looked to expose exploitative agricultural policy and call for changes to agricultural legislation and best practice in Tunisia. These include people such as the founding member of the NGO Observatory of Food Sovereignty and Environment, Habib Ayeb, the agronomist Aymen Amayed, the researcher Leila Riahi and the activist Nada Trigui.

One such call has been calling for the abolition of Article 4 of Law 99-42 of May 10, 1999, which effectively bans the use of local seed varieties in commercial farming. Another issue discussed is the absence of any legislative and legal framework that protects Tunisian local seeds.

While less stable than hybrid crops and susceptible to changes in taste and shape, mahmoudi seeds are hardier and more likely to adapt to climate change.

Instead of hybrid varieties, progressive agriculturalists are calling for the reintroduction of local seed varieties, known as mahmoudi seeds, which mutate depending on environmental and climatic conditions. While less stable than hybrid crops and susceptible to changes in taste and shape, mahmoudi seeds are hardier and more likely to adapt to climate change. It is expected that the temperature will rise by 2 degrees by 2050, and with it, the next competition in the world will be for water and local seed varieties, which requires the protection of local genetic resources as of now.

Increasing awareness of local seed varieties could help increase the shift toward using these varieties and supporting the agricultural sector. The reintroduction of local seed varieties sits within a broader, holistic model of food sovereignty. In the words of Tunisian researcher and agronomist Aymen Amayed, “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.” 

With the worsening of Tunisia’s economic crisis, the growing impact of climate change, and the willingness of farmers to use local seeds and other innovative practices, now is the right time to start putting together a more sustainable agricultural model that would ensure food sovereignty and security for Tunisia in the longer term.


Malak Altaeb is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on food security in North Africa, and Achref Chibani is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on climate change in the Middle East and North Africa region.

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