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The work is hard, but the seed is free - for now! Men and women harvest the Ethiopian staple grain teff in a roadside field between Axum and Adwa in Northern Ethiopia. Photo: Alan via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
The work is hard, but the seed is free - for now! Men and women harvest the Ethiopian staple grain teff in a roadside field between Axum and Adwa in Northern Ethiopia. Photo: Alan via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
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Carving up Africa - aid donors and agribusiness plot the great seed privatization

Ian Fitzpatrick & Oliver Tickell

26th March 2015

An elite group of aid donors and agribusiness corporations met in London this week to plan the takeover of Africa's seeds, writes Ian Fitzpatrick, replacing traditional seed breeding and saving by small farmers with a corporate model of privatized, 'improved', patented, genetically uniform and hybrid seeds in a profit-driven market.

For Deloitte, Gates Foundation, USAID, DfID and the agrochemical companies, small farmers and their traditional crop varieties are obstructions on the road to corporate domination of Africa's agriculture that must be swept aside.

A secretive conference, co-organised by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), one of the world's largest donors, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) took place in London  on Monday this week.

The meeting bears the ludicrously long sobriquet 'Multiple Pathways for Promoting the Commercial and Sustainable Production and Delivery of Early Generation Seed of Food Crops in Sub-Saharan Africa.'

To give it a more succinct description, this was a meeting for free market obsessed 'aid' donors and corporations to discuss how to increase their control of the global seed sector. The list of invited participants reads like a roll call for some of the most renowned actors in the agribusiness world.

Syngenta (the world's third biggest seed and biotechnology company), and its 'greenwashing' relative, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, made an appearance, as well as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and donor organisations like the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) and The World Bank.

The invite list is entirely made up of corporations, development agencies and aid donors. Not a single farmer organisation was invited. But then, why invite a farmer organisation when your aim is helping companies sell new seed varieties? Why invite civil society representatives when your aim is to impose a pre-determined profit-driven agenda?

The neoliberal agenda - imposing profit-driven models

Pre-meeting documents show that the central aim of the conference was to share findings of a report by Monitor Deloitte (of which a summary was released to participants) on developing the commercial seed sector in sub-Saharan Africa.

As the conference summary explains, "A next step in this collaboration is the organization of a convening that seeks to share, discuss and vet the results of this study, and identify key implications ...

"Based on a set of representative countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia) and crops (maize, rice, sorghum, cowpea, common beans, cassava and sweet potato), the study provides examples of potential business models that could scale the production and delivery of EGS in a commercially sustainable manner.

"In the case where the public sector still plays a role, the study outlines opportunities for public-private collaboration and increased efficiencies in the sector. Finally, the study concludes by providing generalizable principles and recommendations to help guide key stakeholders as they pursue policies, investments and interventions."

The report recommends that in countries where demand for patented seeds is weaker (that is, where farmers are using their own seed saving networks), public-private partnerships should be developed so that private companies are protected from 'investment risk'.

Forcing farmers to buy seeds every year

It also recommends that that NGOs and aid donors should encourage governments to introduce intellectual property rights for seed breeders and help to persuade farmers to buy commercial, patented seeds rather than relying on their own traditional varieties.

Finally, in line with the broader neoliberal agenda of agribusiness companies across the world, the report suggests that governments should remove regulations (like export restrictions) so that the seed sector is opened up to the global market.

This neoliberal agenda of 'deregulation' (actually regulation for corporate profit) and privatization, currently promoted in almost every sphere of human activity - from food production to health and education - poses a serious threat to food sovereignty and the ability of food producers and consumers to define their own food systems and policies.

The two organisations organising the conference, BMGF and USAID, are two of the main driving forces behind the adoption of commercial, patented seeds among poor farmers in Africa. When seed markets are dominated by a handful of companies selling their patented seeds, farmers' ability to save, exchange and sell their own seed varieties is threatened.

We know that up to 75% of the seed varieties needed to produce our food are currently in the hands of small farmers. We also know that smaller farms are more biodiverse, and therefore more resilient to crop disease and climate change than large plantations.

But despite the incredibly important role that small farmers play in preserving seed varieties and creating resilient food systems, large donors like BMGF, USAID, and DfID (particularly with its support of the New Alliance initiative) seem more interested in supporting big business and promoting policies that make it easier for agribusiness companies to control seed markets.

Challenging corporate agribusiness - food sovereignty and agroecology

In fact, BMGF and USAID's priorities are laid bare in the report. They include increasing the role of large seed companies in the seed sector, together with helping small and medium-sized companies produce their own patented seed varieties.

The entire report makes no mention at all of the essential and continuing role of small farmers in developing and maintaining crop varieties over millennia - the crops that are still providing most of Africa's food today, and embody immensely valuable genetic diversity.

That's because for Deloitte, Gates Foundation, USAID, DfID and the agrochemical companies, small farmers and their traditional crop varieties are obstructions on the road to corporate domination of Africa's agriculture that must be swept aside.

The recent Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology, which was backed by Via Campesina, one of the world's largest social movements with over 250m members, and dozens of other farming and food producing groups, is as clear about the problem:

"The corporate model over-produces food that poisons us, destroys soil fertility, is responsible for the deforestation of rural areas, the contamination of water and the acidification of oceans and killing of fisheries. Essential natural resources have been commodified, and rising production costs are driving us off the land. Farmers' seeds are being stolen and sold back to us at exorbitant prices, bred as varieties that depend on costly, contaminating agrochemicals."

It is also clear about the solution, stating that agroecology, within a food sovereignty framework, offers us a collective path through the current food crisis.

A truly sustainable food system recognises the fundamental contribution that small farmers make to it through their preservation of seed diversity and farmers' own innovation, research and breeding skills.

It also recognises that farming is political and a sustainable farming system requires us to challenge the current power imbalance in the food system and put the control of seeds and other resources into the hands of the estimated two billion small farmers, fisherfolk, peasants and pastoralists that currently feed our world.



Ian Fitzpatrick is a food sovereignty researcher for Global Justice Now, helping to build the case for food sovereignty and agroecology in Africa. Prior to this he worked as a freelance environmental researcher for Sustain, Food Ethics Council and the New Economics Foundation, and was the co-founder of a co-operative bakery in Leeds (Leeds Bread Co-op). Ian has an MSc in ethnobotany from the University of Kent, and a DPhil (PhD) in anthropology from the University of Oxford.

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

This article is an expanded version of one originally published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

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