A battle is currently being waged over Africa’s seed systems. After decades of neglect and weak investment in African agriculture, there is renewed interest in funding African agriculture.
These new investments take the form of philanthropic and international development aid as well as private investment funds. They are based on the potentially huge profitability of African agriculture – and seed systems are a key target.
Right now ministers are co-ordinating their next steps at the 34th COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) Intergovernmental Committee meeting that kicked off yesterday, 22nd March, in preparation for the main Summit that will follow on 30th and 31st March 2015.
COMESA’s key aim is to pave the way for a “Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) in 2017 under the auspices of the African Union” with uniform regulations, including on agricultural products, seeds and GMOs.
A recent meeting on biotechnology and biosafety was held to establish a “COMESA biotechnology and biosafety policy implementation plan” (COMBIP) to roll out from 2015-2019, “leading to increased biotechnology applications and agricultural commodity trade in the region.”
But read between the lines and its real purpose was to facilitate the planting and commercialization of GMO crops in Africa all at one go, instead of country by country. USAID Regional representatives for East Africa, based in Nairobi, were present to monitor the process and ensure the desired outcome.
New regulations favour industrialisation of farming
And on the agenda for the main COMESA Summit next week is the approval of a ‘Master Plan’ for the implementation of the COMESA Harmonised Seed Trade Regulations agreed last year in Kinshasa.
The regulations, according to the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, “will greatly facilitate agricultural transformation in the COMESA member states towards industrialization of farming systems based on the logic of the highly controversial, failed and hopelessly doomed Green Revolution model of agriculture.”
They “promote only one type of seed breeding, namely industrial seed breeding involving the use of advanced breeding technologies. The entire orientation of the seed Regulations is towards genetically uniform, commercially bred varieties in terms of seed quality control and variety registration.”
No place for small farmers!
“What is very clear is that small farmers in Africa, seeking to develop or maintain varieties, create local seed enterprises or cultivate locally adapted varieties are excluded from the proposed COMESA Seed Certification System and Variety Release System, because these varieties willnot fulfill the requirements for distinctness, uniformity and stability (DUS).
“Landraces or farmers’ varieties usually display a high degree of genetic heterogeneity and are adapted to the local environment under which they were developed. In addition, such varieties are not necessarily distinct from each other.”
COMESA’s key agricultural objectives are to raise production by 6% per year, “integrate farmers into the market economy”, make Africa a “strategic player in agricultural science and technology development”.
To this end USAID is funding COMESA programmes for ‘Coordinated Agricultural Research and Technology Interventions’ and ‘A Regional Approach Towards Biotechnology’ – in other words, to create uniform corporation-friendly regulations for seeds, agro-chemicals and GMOs across the region.
More than 80% of Africa’s seed supply currently comes from millions of small-scale farmers recycling and exchanging seed from year to year. This seed meets very diverse needs in very diverse conditions.
Farmers know the quality of ‘recycled’ seed, selected and saved from their own crops. It is cheap and readily available. New varieties can be introduced through informal trade within villages and beyond. This system may not be perfect, but it has been broadly functional for generations.
New ‘formal’ seed sector ringing warning bells
The so-called ‘formal’ seed sector is a relatively new addition in Africa and has a narrow focus on commercial crops, especially hybrid maize. This commercial seed may offer yield advantages, but only in the right conditions, e.g. when coupled with continuous use of synthetic fertilizer, irrigation, larger pieces of land and mono-cropping – the Green Revolution package.
Seed production in the formal sector goes through a number of stages, starting with breeders’ and pre-basic seed which has high varietal purity; then foundation / basic seed, which is a bulking up of the breeders’ seed; then larger quantities of certified seed are produced for retail sale to farmers.
In most countries in Africa, the public sector was responsible for certified seed production and distribution. Lack of resources, especially following structural adjustment imposed by the World Bank and IMF in the 1980s and 1990s, reduced the effectiveness of this system.
As a result, availability of certified seed was sometimes limited and farmers often found it difficult to access this seed. Farmers continued relying on the tried and trusted seed saved on their farms and exchanged with one another.
The new commercialisation agenda is based on the premise that the public sector is inherently incapable of meeting farmer requirements for quality seed.
This agenda is led by USAID and other G8 countries especially through the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, and philanthropic institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) working hand in hand with multinational corporations (MNCs) including Monsanto, Syngenta, Yara and others.
The EU also funded a key programme, now concluded, the ‘COMESA Regional Agro-Inputs Programme’ (COMRAP), to the tune of €20 million, which aims to “reach farmers in each country to improve their sustainable access to agro-inputs and services”, “strengthen the capacity for the improvement of seed quality” and “harmonise seed trade regulations throughout the COMESA region”.
The first line of attack was to argue for the privatisation of certified seed production and distribution, ostensibly to generate competition. This was identified as a profitable niche in a sector otherwise characterised by low demand, partly because farmers did not have the resources to pay for commercial seed, and partly because their seed needs were already being met through existing systems of production and distribution managed by farmers themselves.
A long and slow process
Over the past two decades, a long and slow process of seed law reviews, sponsored by USAID and the G8, BMGF and others has secured this space for private companies to profit from seed production.
This opened the door to MNC involvement in seed production, including the acquisition of every sizeable seed enterprise on the continent. The focus remained on hybrid maize and a few other commercial crops with high demand at national level, or niche on demand.
It now appears that phase two of the commercialisation agenda is being launched. This begins the process of privatising the production of early generation seed (EGS), the breeder and foundation seed.
Already plant variety protection laws are being enacted to allow for private ownership of germplasm previously in the public domain. Now Green Revolution pundits are looking for opportunities to remove public control of potentially profitable processes in EGS production.
Commercialising early generation seed production
To this end, BMGF and USAID commissioned US strategy consulting firm Monitor-Deloitte to identify private business opportunities in EGS production. The study was conducted in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia on maize, rice, sorghum, cowpea, common beans, cassava and sweet potato.
BMGF and USAID have handpicked an elite group to meet behind closed doors in London in March 2015 to discuss the consultant’s report and to strategise on how to open up another front in the battle to turn African seed into a profit-making venture for MNCs.
What is remarkable about this meeting is that there are very few Africans present. Those who are there mostly represent private sector interests, including seed companies and traders’ associations. There are no farmer representatives.
This raises serious concerns about the transparency and accountability of these processes. The image of colonial robber barons meeting in secret to carve up the African continent arises unbidden in the mind.
Private sector cherry picking with public subsidy
The Deloitte report exposes a typical approach of private sector ‘cherry picking’, where private companies identify profitable activities for their own involvement.
While complaining incessantly about “heavy state involvement” they still insist on selected heavy state involvement to cover unprofitable interventions so that the private sector can take the profitable activities.
These include establishing systems, developing institutions, and even engaging in some productive activities where profits are unlikely but which are needed to allow the profit-making scheme to function.
The report uses cowpea production in Ghana as an example of where the public sector should carry the extremely expensive breeder seed costs to allow the private sector to profit in seed multiplication and distribution.
Breeder seed is prohibitively costly because of low multiplication rates and low demand. But the demand that exists is nonetheless lucrative, so the private sector wants to be involved in those parts of the production process identified as profitable.
Where the whole chain is profitable, Deloitte proposes the public sector be locked out of the production process. Examples are hybrid maize or closed value chains where there is strong but limited demand and early production processes are also potentially profitable, for example hybrid sorghum for brewing.
Deloitte’s proposal to “channel government and donor financing into supporting mechanisms for private investment in seed production” is a route to effectively subsidising MNCs at the expense of building farmer capacity and resilience to produce quality seed to meet their own context-specific needs.
Active role for farmers disregarded
A potential role for farmers in production or distribution of seed is not even considered in the study, from conception to results. Indeed farmers are viewed only as passive consumers of seed produced by others for a profit.
While we can acknowledge that farmer-managed systems are not perfect, these systems have survived through extremely adverse conditions. They undoubtedly form a base for seed production and distribution that can be built on. But they require support, especially from public R&D and extension services.
There is a growing movement in Africa to reassert the enduring importance of farmer-managed seed systems. . Even under ideal circumstances, MNCs will not venture into the production of many small crops where demand is fragmented nationally but is very strong in local pockets.
The MNC business model of economies of scale and standardised products cannot respond to the diverse needs of asset-poor but dynamic African farmers.
Rather than engaging in partnerships with MNCs with dubious long-term benefits for farmers, it will be far better for the public sector to orient the capacity and resources at its disposal to work directly with farmers to build on existing seed production and distribution activities.
By Stephen Greenberg & Oliver Tickell
Stephen Greenberg is a researcher at the African Centre for Biosafety, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is currently coordinating a three year research project in southern Africa to investigate the impact of Green Revolution technologies on the livelihoods of small-scale farming households.
Source: The Ecologist