Africa: Is Africa About to Lose the Right to Her Seed?

Seed and the control of seed lies at the heart of agriculture.

In Africa around 80% of seed comes from local and community saved seed resources. This seed is adapted to local conditions. It forms an integral part of community food security and agricultural integrity. This entire traditional system is now under threat.

A broad front of commercial interests, aided and abetted by the World Bank, the American Seed Association and government agencies, along with front groups, academics and so-called philanthropists, are endeavouring to alienate this crucial resource.

The international seed industry, owned by massive multinational pesticide companies involved in promoting hybrid and genetically modified (GM) seed, is both a primary beneficiary and protagonist of this thrust. While the motivation is ostensibly to assist the development of African agriculture, the impacts will be widespread and dire.

Simply put, the proposal is to create a harmonised system of control around the presently fragmented African seed trade regime and create a system based on what is projected as modern best practice.

This includes uniform adherence to the strict 1991 Act of the International Union for the Protection of Plant Varieties (UPOV), across the board, for Africa. Because of the stringency of UPOV, the real impact of this will be the loss of control of the seed supply by indigenous small farmers. The consequences for food production and social cohesion across the continent will be dire.

Once locally adapted seed varieties are lost, dependence on outside seed suppliers will rapidly become unaffordable. The implications will reverberate far beyond food production.

Indebted farmers are at direct risk of losing land tenure. On the one hand this causes accelerating urbanisation and social dislocation. On the other, good agricultural land is appropriated by large conglomerates. There is already a massive thrust by nations and corporations to gain land tenure in fertile tropical African agricultural zones.

The impetus behind this change in the seed regime has been building for some time. Consolidation within the powerful South African seed industry - the biggest in Africa - was recently finalised.

The South African competition appeal court permitted the sale of the last remaining large South African seed company, Pannar, to the US multinational Pioneer, a subsidiary of DuPont. Pannar has well established African networks.

This merger firmly shifts control of South Africa's extremely valuable seed industry into the hands of the world's two largest, US owned seed companies, now ideally placed to use South Africa as a bridgehead into Africa.

More ominously, it effectively removes the ready possibility of further evolution of competition in the industry. This has serious implications for indigenous seed trading and seed saving networks.

The rationale of the seed industry is apparently simple: if there is not a sufficiently robust mechanism to protect their intellectual property, their primary income stream is at risk.

On the other hand development organisations like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) swear that new seed being developed for Africa will be freely shared for the benefit of smallholder farmers. There is clearly a serious disjuncture between what is said and what is happening.

These massive seed corporations bring the lessons learned in South America to Africa. There, the growth of the soya industry, initially in Argentina and more recently in Brazil, occurred with no attempt to control the spread of GM seed by the owners of the intellectual property.

In South America this was herbicide-resistant GM soya, patented by Monsanto. In fact its spread was covertly encouraged. This non-hybrid seed was therefore saved, re-used and traded amongst growers in the region, first in Argentina, later into Brazil and Paraguay - so called 'Maradonna' seed.

Yet once the soy industry became established, Monsanto reacted aggressively and claimed royalties on all the soy grown throughout the region, claiming right to its patented intellectual property.

It used various means, such as appropriating percentage of sales on delivery or demanding that overseas purchasers pay a direct royalty, even though its patents were not recognised in Argentina.

Similar attempts in Brazil were overturned in the courts with Monsanto instructed to return billions of dollars to farmers. It is presently attempting to circumvent the ruling by entering individual agreements with farmers. Yet the South American standoff between powerful farmers unions and the seed giants continues.

The seed industry does not wish a similar situation to develop in Africa. Hence the insistence that African seed laws are upgraded to the most restrictive, first world legislation, supported by the World Bank, World Trade Organisation and the International Intellectual Property Office, WIPO. What is occurring is a de facto case of neo-liberal enclosure of the foundation of agricultural productivity in Africa.

African farmers have long recognised this threat. Back in 1997 the Organisation of African Unity initiated a proposal to develop a "Model Legislation on the Protection of the Rights of Local Communities, Farmers and Breeders and for the Regulation of Access to Biological Resources," known as the African model law. This was endorsed by the African Union in 2000.

While the African model law recognises plant breeders' rights, these rights are limited and patents on seeds, such as are allowed on GM seeds under UPOV and WIPO regimes, are excluded. This approach is recognised and permitted under WTO exceptions under the sui generis rule. This principle has been adopted into Indian seed laws, where similar concerns exist.

A substantial number of broad indigenous farmers networks throughout Africa have condemned the draft protocol to accept the ratification of UPOV. Most SADC nations have already agreed in principle to accept the provisions of International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources on Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), which enables far more flexibility and participation in seed transactions than the restrictive proposals of UPOV, yet this agreement too is threatened.

This matter appears to be coming to a head. Several quasi-'indigenous' seed organisations such as the African Seed Trade Association (AFSTA) and Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa (ACTESA), funded by USAID, have, without due consultation with representative farmers groups in these areas, pushed for the ratification of UPOV 1991. On the other hand properly mandated farmers' networks demand that national consultations be held to discuss and analyse these proposals.

What is at play here is a direct conflict between peasant farmers networks and the neo-colonial attempt to subvert African agriculture by restrictive, first world regulation. The Southern African model is being repeated in East and West Africa, through similar comprador networks.

What will happen should UPOV be broadly adopted? As soon as indigenous seed becomes contaminated by patent protected seed varieties, all rights to share and trade that seed will be lost, forever.

The irony of this is profound, as the very germplasm, which Monsanto and Pioneer rely on is the result of thousands of years of peasant breeding that remains categorically unrecognised. What is good for the goose is clearly not good for the gander. The end result will only see one winner, which will certainly not be indigenous African farmers.

If there was ever a time for the vocal proponents for African unity and values to step forward, it is now. Should they fail, African leadership will be harshly judged for enabling the next phase of neo-colonialism to unfold unopposed.