Save Our Seed: The Battle for African Seed Independence, Food Security and Sovereignty

By Glenn Ashton · 22 Sep 2014

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Picture: Myles Power
Picture: Myles Power

In order to address Africa’s poor agricultural productivity international players are intent on criminalising traditional seed saving practices. This thrust is directed by a triumvirate of corporate interests, actively assisted by first world governments and front organisations parading as non-governmental organisations.

Africa lies at the frontier of international agricultural intervention for several reasons. Firstly the continent lags badly in agricultural productivity. This is largely due to poor investment and agricultural support.

Secondly, Africa has more unexploited arable land than any other continent. Africa’s vast area, inadequate historical investment or support into agricultural development makes it an attractive investment destination for speculators and development alike.

Thirdly Africa’s population is set increase from its present 1.1 billion to 2.4 billion by 2050. Because of endemic food insecurity, agricultural development is a moral and economic obligation for both the African and the international community.

These facts have resulted in a new rush to assist Africa to help itself. However this assistance is motivated by often conflicting aims and consequences. While speculators seek to cash in on opportunities, philanthropy and development are not neutral either.

Africa has a history of exploitation. It continues to haemorrhage money, losing tens of millions of dollars daily in illicit flows. Speculation, aid and assistance are seldom unconditional.

This is borne out by the recent drive to impose an unsuitable, first-world intellectual property regime on the sale and trade of seed. This will worsen this problem by firmly placing control of the agricultural supply chain into corporate hands, further disempowering the smallholder farmer community.

Western agencies have long portrayed subsistence farming as inefficient, not just in terms of productivity but primarily because of its failure to contribute to capital flows. This sector circulates very little money through the agricultural supply chain, even when farmers are food secure. This lack of financial clout renders the sector profoundly vulnerable.
They are also at risk of crop loss through climatic events like floods, drought, or pest infestations. This has traditionally been managed by cultivating a wide variety of crops, trees and livestock, creating insurance through diversity.

Because these systems are inherently complex they are easily destabilised by ill-informed external interference. Quick fix, technological interventions are an open invitation to the law of unintended consequences.

It is also incorrect to portray smallholder farming as inefficient and unsuitable. In fact it is more conducive to community and regional food security than large-scale industrialised agricultural production methods.

This was underlined by a World Bank and UN expert report which explained how food security relies on a “multifunctionary” approach to agricultural production. Farming is about more than only producing food; it is also about culture, medicinal plants, the maintenance of ecological integrity, self-sufficiency, governance, public participation and inclusion.

Several institutions have emerged to drive the improvement of African food production. 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 and Rockefeller foundations, now also supported by the US and UK governments, along with powerful private and corporate interests.

While both of these are well-intended, producing some good results, their thrust to improve the seed supply chain is arguably the most risky intervention of all. While the broader drive to improve traditional seed quality is not entirely unreasonable the technocratic approach which informs the transition, linked to strict and restrictive intellectual property law, is unsuited to communal African farming methods.

The most obvious risk is the direct intervention of the world’s largest seed companies. While these powerful entities purportedly wish to assist, they have applied constant pressure to impose this restrictive intellectual property regime.

South Africa has been a springboard for this intervention into sub-Saharan Africa. Its own seed market is effectively controlled by the world’s two biggest seed companies, Monsanto and DuPont’s Pioneer. Because of their investment into seed research and genetic material – for instance Monsanto purchased Malawi’s national seed company, 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 GM is a technical response to broader, more systemic problems like poor infrastructure and concentrated supply chains.

These GM and hybrid seeds are protected by strict intellectual property regimes, notably by an instrument known as UPOV 1991. The seed companies, South Africa’s seed organisation SANSOR, the US State Department and others have applied significant pressure on African governments to adopt UPOV 91.

Consequently the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) drafted a protocol to facilitate the adoption of UPOV 91 through government regulatory processes. However CAADP and AGRA have promised that new seed varieties will not be patented or have intellectual property protection. Therefore UPOV 91 is not just poorly suited to achieve the stated aims, but is entirely the wrong instrument.

Grassroots opposition has emerged as it is felt that UPOV 91 will effectively outlaw traditional seed saving and sharing. A statement drafted by more than 75 representative national and regional agricultural organisations strongly objects to the ARIPO protocol and calls for its withdrawal.

Despite this, powerful vested interests remain fixated on securing control of African agricultural production through force, artifice and stealth. This is directly counter to the principle that equality of fair opportunity be afforded to both innovators and those who develop and rely on traditional seed exchange.

While Africa needs innovation, it cannot be so that one form of innovation is permitted to outweigh or dominate another. The just and ethical development of African agriculture must be consultative, not achieved through stealth or domination. Using first world mechanisms to perpetuate the colonial model is by definition neo-colonial.

Controlling seed means controlling food production. Africans must choose how they farm. They cannot be allowed to become perpetually indebted to a predatory agricultural-industrial complex.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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22 Sep

Very Useful

I have learnt a lot from Ashton's pieces on these questions.

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