Nnimmo Bassey tells African policymakers to reject seed colonialism

Original article posted in The Africa Post. Opinion Piece by Nnimmo Bassey:

Conventions such as UPOV may be good for multinational seed companies, but African governments should be protecting local plant breeders and conservationists. Seeds and the environment are central to livelihoods in Africa. Take control of the seeds, and you have the continent by the jugular vein.

That appears to be what is happening under the cover of the Union Internationale pour la Protection des Obtentions Végétales (UPOV). UPOV seeks to move all countries into a uniform legal regime that places the control of seed in the hands of large seed companies.

Several governments signed the UPOV convention in Paris in 1961 and have modified it three times, most recently in 1991. African governments did not take part in the negotiations.

The African Centre for Biosafety says UPOV 1991 imposes a ‘one-size-fits-all’ legal framework that limits a government’s ability to design laws to suit the country’s particular needs or take into account the interests of small-scale farmers.

So far, 71 countries are UPOV members, and only four of them are African: Kenya, Morocco, South Africa and Tunisia.

Organisations with vested interests such as the African Seed Trade Association and the Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa are pressuring African countries to ratify the 1991 UPOV convention.

This is happening without regard to an independent seed protection policy that African countries have championed over the years, drawn up with the understanding that up to 80 percent of the seeds in this region are produced by local farmer-breeders.

Africa-backed initiatives such as the 2004 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, also known as the International Seed Treaty, allow African governments to recognise the contribution of local farmers to the conservation and development of plant resources.

UPOV supporters and the purveyors of genetically engineered (GE) crops face similar challenges.

GE crop companies have found it tough to penetrate the African market beyond a few countries such as South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso.

GE crop models require mono-cropping and heavy inputs such as artificial fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and seeds that must be bought annually rather than being preserved, saved and shared.

The African market has been quite resistant to GE products, and this must have frustrated the seed industry.

GE penetration of some countries outside of Africa has happened through the strategy of contamination first and forced legislation thereafter.

This was the case in countries in South America and a variant of this strategy is an ongoing nightmare for farmers in the US.

When Zambia faced a food crisis in 2002, the country insisted it would only accept GE maize if it was already milled, rather than GE grains.

The government suspected the idea of supplying the grains was to ensure that some got planted and thereafter contaminate native varieties through cross pollination. It resisted the pressure.

Efforts to promote GE cotton among small-scale farmers in the Makhathini Flats in South Africa withered away after much hype at the outset.

Today, international companies are trumpeting Burkina Faso as a success story for GE cotton.

The news of harvests that are inferior to those from regular varieties is largely unreported.

It appears that one of the surreptitious means by which multinational seed companies seek to penetrate Africa is on the back of philanthropy.

In this case it is through the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

AGRA plays on the notion that Africa missed the first ‘green revolution’ that brought major boosts to food production in Latin America and Asia from the 1940s to the 1970s.

This narrative conveniently skips over the soil erosion and diminishing harvests that have accompanied that first green revolution and the fact that neoliberal poison – termed the Bretton Woods structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) – sapped the life out of the sector in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.

AGRA operates under the heavy shadow of GE seed purveyors Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and other seed and agri-chemical multinationals.

It places a lot of emphasis on developing private seed companies and agro-dealers for the production and dissemination of proprietary (and even public sector) seeds.

This fits the pattern in the extractive sector, where small companies carry out exploratory activities before the big players step in and buy out those smaller entities.

UPOV and its uniform laws would remove the life support on which African agriculture has hung since the SAPs.

It will lead to a severe restriction of the farmer-managed seed systems as well as erosion or disappearance of local varieties developed over centuries of experimentation and selection.

African farmers will become dependent on agribusiness’s expensive inputs and many could get into the debt trap.

The UPOV convention is a colonial pill, the negative impact of which will go beyond African agriculture and equally impact African cultures.

Seeds are life and are central to the lives, narratives and well-being of the people. ●

[I][B]The author, Nnimmo Bassey is Director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation & Chair of Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria[/B][/I]