food sovereignty

SOS – Save Our Seed: The battle for African seed independence, food security and sovereignty.

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.

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A shortened version of this article was first published on SACSIS, the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service –
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Revitalising Agriculture: Healing the Land, Feeding our Nation

Revitalising Agriculture: Healing the Land, Feeding our Nation

By Glenn Ashton · 30 Jun 2014

South Africa is a harsh country, a place of extremes. Producing sufficient food for our people has always been a difficult challenge.The new Minister of Agriculture, who can only be an improvement on the previous incumbent, is an interesting choice.

Senzeni Zokwana is the national chairperson of the South African Communist Party, as well as having headed up the National Union of Mineworkers. He has no background in agriculture, in common with his deputy, ex-Police commissioner Bheki Cele. He appears to be a capable and popular leader. Hopefully he will be able to focus clearly on addressing the serious shortcomings within the agricultural sector which remains essentially unchanged since 1994.
We are faced with two competing pressures in agriculture. On the one hand we continue to rely on an intensive, industrial farming model to produce most of our staple crops, dominated by maize. These crops are largely grown by white farmers who still control the majority of arable land. This model has serious impacts on both the land and our water resources.

Industrial farming is intrinsically linked to the dominant economic model: maximise profit while externalising impacts and costs. Instead of driving reform, this model has served to further concentrate land ownership amongst fewer owners while simultaneously failing to address the chronic levels of food insecurity. Jobs have declined and tenure has been eroded.

On the other hand there is increasing political pressure to reform the agricultural sector as a whole, while also redistributing and reforming land holdings. Agricultural sustainability and diversity are part of this reformation process.

It is the unenviable task of the government to manage this delicate balancing act and address these often competing requirements. Many feel that Minster Zokwana has been handed a poisoned chalice.

The departure of Minister Joemat-Pettersen is welcome given her inability to grasp the nettle of agricultural reform. Rather than dealing with core issues she fiddled with patronage based small-scale farming initiatives, which have yet to realise any significant or sustainable material gains toward food production, employment or land reform. The last five years have essentially been wasted.

While Zokwana has no agricultural background, his socialist roots may incline him toward addressing the gaping inequalities in our agricultural system, both in terms of access to sufficient land and in terms of allocating sufficient resources to produce food and livelihoods from that land. There is an innate irony that his present office can directly assist his retrenched colleagues from the mining industry, most of whom hail from rural, agrarian roots. However, translating his ideology into action is another matter.

The directorate of the Department of Agriculture was substantially restructured under the watch of the previous minister. It is top-heavy with administrators involved in pastiched programmatic structures while critical human resources like extension officers, who provide real, practical assistance to farmers, are by the department’s own admission, thin on the ground.

The Department’s Directorate of National Extension Services has a director of extension reform but no director of extension support. In other words the fundamental interface between the department and farmers is presently rudderless and poorly staffed, despite the department recognising that extension services are seriously compromised.

More worryingly, the department has considered reforming extension services along public private partnership lines. This would be a major retrograde step. This is one reason why the present minister has inherited a poisoned chalice – ideology and patronage have trumped sound policy formulation.

President Zuma’s recent State of the Nation Address explicitly recognised the importance of agriculture to the nation, both from the perspective of employment creation as well as from its essential role in providing food security.

Yet, since coming into office, his new government has been unable to make any sense of the competing agendas behind agricultural reform and production. Recent proposals to allocate shareholding to farmworkers appear to be little more than a side-show, which may incidentally compromise the investment climate.

More seriously, these kinds of proposals are incapable of tackling, let alone resolving the underlying land reform and restitution tensions. The spectre of food insecurity looms over vast swathes of the nation. This is exacerbated by the lack of a cogent national food security policy, either rural, or increasingly importantly, urban.

The neo-liberal policy paradigms inherent in GEAR, IPAP, ASGISA and the rest of the well-intentioned but acronym filled WEF-friendly jargon have stymied both land and agricultural reform over the first two decades of our democratic dispensation. Our economic obsession with remaining “investor friendly” has seen agricultural policy fixated on a large-scale, industrial farming model, which includes genetically modified crops and energy and chemical intensive inputs. All those have done is maintain the status quo.

On the other hand smallholder and subsistence farmers remain largely neglected or patronised. If and when assistance has been given, it has been fixated on misplaced attempts to leapfrog farmers into the industrial model, usually without suitable support. When inevitable failures occur, everyone except policymakers are blamed.

The government has recently become more sensitised to the critical role that small scale farmers play in ensuring food security, especially given our relationship with BRICS partners, who generally nurture their small farmer sector far more holistically.

Recent Brazilian research emphasises this reality: four out of five farms there are small, largely family run enterprises. They provide nearly 40% of total agricultural production, including most food consumed in both rural and urban areas. This all comes from less than one quarter of the total cultivated area. Similar patterns exist in India and China, which also have focused on linking small scale farmers to markets, as well as on the feminisation of agricultural production.

In 2003, the African Union resolved that governments should direct 10% of budget toward agriculture. South Africa still lags far behind the rest of the continent, disbursing less than one percent of the budget toward improving agricultural production. Our policy remains controlled by males, while women are central to smallholder production.

Where smallholder farmers have been assisted, insufficient marketing assistance has been given. If marketing assistance has been provided, for instance when government institutions purchase outputs, payment is often delayed.

Minister Zokwana has the unenviable task of fitting this jigsaw together. As a primary industry agriculture is indirectly responsible for around a quarter of GDP, through food production and downstream processing. All of the parts of this puzzle – land reform, smallholder farming, food security and production – need to be holistically re-evaluated.

The minister is fortunate that extensive research has been undertaken in this field by various focus groups over the past few decades. The Programme for Land and Agrarian Reform (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape, the African Centre for the Cities at the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University’s Sustainability Institute are just a few institutions which have re-examined the agricultural paradigm.

Agricultural policies and actions over the past 20 years have failed to fundamentally reform the sector. We are in an almost identical situation regarding food security and land tenure as we were in 1994.

Radical intervention holds both high risks and opportunities. We need two things: a national summit of agricultural reform, and coming out of this, a White Paper on how we are to meet these competing requirements while improving access to land and food for our people. It is time for the minister to cast aside the poisoned chalice and start anew, rather than continue to perpetuate the mistakes of the distant and recent past.


This article was first published on SACSIS, the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service –

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

The article is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence: