In the bid to address Africa’s poor agricultural productivity, international players are set to forbid and even criminalise traditional seed saving practices across the continent. This misguided thrust is driven primarily by corporate interests actively assisted by first world governments and front organisations such as Africa-Bio, which parade as non-governmental organisations.
Africa is situated on the most recent frontier of international agricultural intervention for several reasons. First is the reality that the continent lags significantly behind the rest of the world as far as agricultural productivity is concerned. This is largely the result of poor investment and support for agriculture across the continent, exacerbated by the inability to compete with subsidised first world food commodities.
Secondly, Africa has more arable land available for cultivation than any other continent. This is unsurprising given that China, India, the USA, Western and most of Eastern Europe, along with other little islands like Japan and the United Kingdom are collectively smaller than Africa by area. Africa’s vast landmass, coupled to inadequate historical investment and support into agricultural development makes the continent an attractive investment destination for both speculative and developmental reasons.
Third is the pressing reality to feed Africa’s growing population, set to more than double from its present 1.1 billion, to an estimated 2.4 billion by 2050. Given the high proportion of food insecure Africans, the development of the continent’s agricultural production is a moral and economic obligation for both the African and the international community.
These overlapping realities have created a veritable rush to assist Africa to help itself. However this assistance has been motivated by widely differing and often conflicting aims and consequences. On the one hand are speculators seeking to cash in on the financial opportunities. On the other are supposed philanthropists and development agencies which are not always what they appear to be.
Speculation is a bad tool for development. Speculators have long been a bane of developing nations and particularly of Africa. The continent has a history of exploitation and continues to haemorrhage money, losing tens of millions of dollars daily in illicit flows. Africa loses far more in the value of illicit transfer of material goods and financial flows than it gains in investment, aid and assistance.
The recent thrust to impose a strict and unsuitable intellectual property regime on the sale and trade of seed threatens to worsen this problem by increasing control of the entire agricultural supply chain in corporate hands, removing it from smallholder farmers.
Subsistence agriculture has long been portrayed as inefficient by western development experts, not only in terms of productivity but more specifically because of its insignificant contribution to capital flows. Even successful subsistence and smallholder farmers move very little money through the agricultural supply chain and are therefore not seen as contributing toward economic growth.
Smallholders are nevertheless still profoundly vulnerable. The immediate risks they face are the consequence of crop loss through climatic events like floods, drought, or pest infestations. This has traditionally been dealt with by cultivating a wide variety of crops, trees and livestock by way of insurance.
Because such a system is inherently complex and fragile to interference, it is easily destabilised by ill-informed external interference. Quick fix, technological interventions are an almost open invitation to the law of unintended consequences.
Besides the increasing threats of land grabs and the consequent loss of arable farmland from traditional control to large foreign owners, proposals to modernise traditional seed saving and sharing customs have sinister implications.
The general motivation to improve traditional seed quality is not entirely unfounded. However the technocratic approach to managing this transition, linked with the introduction of strict, restrictive intellectual property law is poorly suited to African farming methods and communal systems.
A short word here on the notion of smallholder farming and the tendency to reject it outright as unsuitable to this day and age. The reality is that smallholder farming has been shown to be far more conducive to community and regional food security than large-scale industrialised agricultural production methods.
The publication of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology and Development (IAASTD) report in 2008, sponsored by the World Bank and various UN agencies, clearly stated that food security relies on what it calls the multifunctionality of agricultural production. This means that farming is not only about producing food, although that is the primary aim. It is also about culture, medicinal plants, the maintenance of ecological integrity, self-sufficiency and other outcomes which are not directly financially aligned.
Several institutions have emerged out of the drive to improve African agriculture. First is the African Union agricultural programme, the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). Second is the externally funded African Green Revolution for Agriculture (AGRA), founded by the Gates foundation, now also supported by both the US and UK governments, along with private and corporate interests.
While both the CAADP and AGRA are ostensibly well-intended and have developed many useful initiatives, their drive to improve the seed supply chain is arguably the most risky intervention of all. The most obvious threat is the direct intervention of the world’s largest seed companies. While these powerful entities purportedly wish to provide assistance, they have continually applied pressure to impose a restrictive, intellectual property regime with continental implications.
South Africa has been used as a springboard for this interventionist expansion into sub-Saharan Africa. Its own seed market is now controlled by the world’s two largest seed companies, Monsanto and DuPont’s Pioneer. Because these companies are deeply invested into seed research, buying up seed companies and genetic data – for instance Monsanto purchased Malawi’s national seed company some time ago while Pioneer recently acquired South Africa’s last large seed company Pannar in 2011 – they maintain tight control of their investments through intellectual property regimes.
These companies also sell genetically modified (GM) seed and agricultural chemicals. While both AGRA and the Gates Foundation have supported GM technology as a real solution to food security, the IAASTD report downplayed any significant potential. Experts feel that GM is a technical response to broader, more systemic problems such as poor infrastructure, markets and concentrated supply chains.
Across the developed world these modern GM and hybrid seeds are protected by strict intellectual property regimes, notably by an intellectual property regime known as UPOV 1991. The seed companies, along with South Africa’s seed organisation SANSOR, the US State Department and the UK Department of International Development have all applied significant pressure on African governments to adopt UPOV 91.
As a result the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) has unilaterally drafted a protocol in order to push for the adoption of UPOV 91 through government regulatory processes. If CAADP and AGRA truly wish to assist improvement of seed quality and if the promise that new seed varieties being introduced to this end will actually have no patent or intellectual property protection as claimed by the supposed benefactors, then it is clear that UPOV 91 is not just a clumsy tool to manage this matter, but is in fact entirely the wrong instrument.
Strong grassroots opposition has arisen against the protocol to introduce UPOV 91 as it will effectively outlaw traditional seed saving and sharing. A statement drafted by more than 75 national and regional agricultural NGOs and civil society organisations has strongly objected to the ARIPO protocol and called for its withdrawal.
However the reality appears to be that powerful vested interests are fixated on securing control of African agricultural production through force, artifice and stealth. This flies in the face of the International Declaration on Human rights and that the principle that equality of fair opportunity be afforded to both innovators and those who develop and rely on traditional seed rights.
It would be counter-productive to deny Africans the right to fairly and equitably feed themselves without undue interference. Africa certainly needs innovation but it cannot be so that one form of innovation is permitted to outweigh or dominate another. In order to be just and ethically acceptable, the development of African agriculture needs to occur consultatively, not by stealth or by seeking to dominate through abuse of first world mechanisms devised to perpetuate an extension of the colonial model from which the continent has yet to fully emerge.
Controlling seed means controlling food production. It is the right of Africans to choose how they farm and not to fall victim to indebtedness through being forced to purchase seed from a predatory agricultural-industrial complex.
A shortened version of this article was first published on SACSIS, the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service – http://www.sacsis.org.za
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