Governments in African countries justify rush to formalise the seed sector citing acute food scarcity in the continent
Africa is grossly food-insecure and a net importer of food. According to the United Nations, the continent will have the world’s highest number of people living in hunger — 433 million — by 2030. It spent $35 billion on importing food in 2020 and the amount is estimated to increase to $100 billion by 2030 as the gap between demand and local production widens.
How the agriculture sector performs has ramifications for the economy. The sector accounts for 32 per cent of Africa’s gross domestic product and employs more than 60 per cent of the continent’s labour force, largely in the poorest countries. Nearly three-fourths of sub-Saharan Africa’s (SSA) population is small and subsistence farmers, but it accounts for over 75 per cent of the agricultural output.
According to The Seed Sector in Africa: Status Report and Ten-year Action Plan (2020-2030), a report published by the African Union Commission (AUC) in 2021 to guide the continent’s agricultural policy: “At the farm level, yields must increase if surpluses available for trade are to be realized. Current yields of staple cereal crops in Africa are low and near stagnant at around 1 ton/ha for maize, as compared to 4 tons/ha in other developing regions.”
The AUC assessed that increasing area under agriculture was not sustainable. So, it suggested:
Key to increasing productivity is adoption of high-yielding varieties, fertilizers, and other inputs. Of all the inputs, high-quality seed is perhaps the most important, as it determines the upper limit of what farmers can achieve. Improving access to new high-yielding and climate-smart hybrid varieties requires increasing seed production and expanding distribution through increased competition in the seed system.
An analysis of agriculture policies of 40 African countries by DTE shows that access to improved high-yielding varieties of seeds and bringing in the private sector have been clearly articulated as the strategy for agrarian boost.
This sets the confrontation line between the two seed systems. Africa’s seed sector is predominantly informal. Millions of small-scale farmers in SSA still supply 80 to 90 per cent of all the seeds planted in Africa.
In the informal seed system, farmers obtain, develop, produce, maintain and distribute seeds from one growing season to the next. The seeds are retained from previous harvests or acquired through farmers’ social networks.
This system also holds the rich diversity of seed, including varieties that are relevant to farmers and adapted to local weather conditions. It is a very dynamic system having the proven capacity to reach to the most remote farming communities. This system does not come under the quality regulation systems of governments.
On the other hand, only 20 per cent of farmers in SSA have adopted improved crop varieties, the lowest in the world. This formal sector is regulated by national seed committees and quality standards controlled by national seed certification agencies.
The new policies aim to increase this significantly. The formal private seed sector has been witnessing a boom, after deregulation of the seed industry back in early 1990s.
IHS Markit, a subsidiary of S&P Global, in its Commercial Seeds Market in Africa 2021 report said the African seed market has seen a huge growth since 2014, reaching nearly US $1.9 billion in 2019.
“Our forecast is that the commercial seed market in Africa is expected to resume its robust growth following a down year in 2020, reaching $2.95 billion in 2025,” it stated.
“Quality seeds are a prerequisite to successful agriculture and constitute a major pathway for the success of regional food security goals, with the potential to increase overall productivity by nearly 40 per cent. Seed companies are well positioned to develop and provide access to quality seeds in Africa,” the report adds.
Though still nascent, the commercial seed market is cornering significant shares in major crops like maize, which accounts for 42 per cent of the African commercial seed market.
These two seed systems are governed by different sets of global treaties and agreements.
For the farmer seed systems, rights of farmers have been articulated in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture; the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas; and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
These instruments protect farmers’ rights to freely save, reuse and exchange seeds. The industrial seed sector, dominated by multinational corporations, operates under legal regime of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV).
In recent times, all the major pan-Africa progress in the agriculture sector revolves around formalising the seed sector. Often, such policy decisions have been taken without any consultation or public scrutiny.
On February 16, the African Union’s policy organs adopted the continental guidelines for “the harmonisation of seed and regulatory frameworks and the continental guidelines for the use of biotechnology in food and agriculture in Africa” in a not-so-transparent way. This endorsement was leaked to the media much later.
Civil society groups have been opposing these guidelines for years. The guidelines are part of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AFCFTA), a free trade deal rolled out in 2018 after 54 of the 55 countries signed the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.
In addition, the draft document on biotechnology guidelines has promoted modern biotechnology through biased and distorted narratives, even problematising the precautionary approach as a barrier to wider diffusion of genetically modified products on the continent.
Earlier, on September 23, 2021, African non-profits and activist groups working on seed sovereignty and peasants’ rights opposed the African Union’s presentation of the “common position” during the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS).
The groups said: “As social movements in Africa we reject both the UNFSS and the AU’s position, which allegedly represents all of us Africans, as further entrenchment of the corporate capture of our food systems.” Over 200 organisations signed this statement.
These groups ran a campaign against UNFSS last July when they issued the “Common African Statement” to reclaim Africa’s food sovereignty and transform the industrial food system.
“The documents, including a background paper prepared for summit dialogues and a draft policy brief for the summit, bring into focus plans for the massive industrialisation of Africa’s food systems,” said Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB).
ACB also released a statement on March 4, 2021, that said the “dialogues are deaf and blind to the converging systemic crises we face today, and the drastic urgent re-think it demands”.
The real push for the seed sector’s switch to the industrial level started with the formation of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2006.
At an event in 2004, the then UN Secretary- General Kofi Anan had given a call for “a uniquely African Green Revolution” to boost agricultural production and eradicate poverty.
As a follow up to this, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation established AGRA, with its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.
The first major initiative of AGRA was to launch the Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS) in 2007 with a capital of $150 million over five years.
The core of this initiative is to make high-quality seeds to farmers. For this, PASS focuses on:
educating a new generation of African crop breeders; breeding and releasing new crop varieties; helping local seed entrepreneurs establish companies; and building agro-dealer networks.
But to achieve all these, as a strategy, PASS puts all its attention to “a continual search process to identify interested groups and individuals to establish and manage local seed companies.”
Soon, the Howard G Buffett Foundation, the US Agency for International Development and the Dutch government committed funds to PASS, making the total investment to $285 million over a decade.
PASS now has operations in 17 countries. It primarily supports private sector intervention in seed production, not on the farmer seed system.
For most of the groups that oppose the introduction of the new seed system, AGRA is the fountainhead of it. They allege that AGRA has an overt intent to centralise seed production in just a few multinational companies.
AGRA first set up the African Seed Investment Fund (ASIF) that invests capital in seed companies for delivering quality-certified seed to smallholder farmers.
This fund came handy for many start-up seed companies since commercial banks usually do not fund such “high risk” ventures. Lending credence to the allegation of this fund privatising or corporatising the seed sector, most of the seed multinationals like Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, SeedCo and Vilmorin are big players in seed sector in countries where ASIF is actively disbursing.
These are also the countries that have aggressively brought in policy and legal changes to ensure that the profits and interests of companies investing are protected through enforcement of intellectual property rights.
Of late, AGRA has come under critical public scrutiny. First, it started with a clear target and deadline: to double yields and incomes for 30 million small-scale farming households while halving food insecurity by 2020.
In February 2022, an independent evaluation by US-based consultancy Mathematica said that the AGRA “did not meet its headline goal of increased incomes and food security for 9 million smallholders”.
No country is on track to reach the goal of doubling productivity, with only Ethiopia and Malawi showing staple crop yield growth of 50 per cent by 2020. Three countries — Burkina Faso, Kenya, and Nigeria — have shown a decline in productivity.
The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) in a letter dated September 7, 2021, urged all donors to stop funding this false solution and shift their support to agroecology — a healthy, sustainable, resilient and culturally appropriate food system for Africa An evaluation published in the journal Agricultural Economics in November 2013 says that AGRA grants for improvised seeds have led to huge government expenditure on inputs.
High-yielding hybrid seeds need more inputs like fertilisers and also irrigation facilities. This evaluation, covering 2010-11, said while AGRA disbursed $40-50 million a year, the total government expenditure on inputs reached to $1 billion a year, or more than 20 times of AGRA’s funding.
Such input subsidy programmes (ISPS) are “one of the most contentiously debated development issues in sub-Saharan Africa,” saide a paper published in the journal Food Policy in 2018.
“After ISPS were phased out during the 1980s and 1990s, the landscape has changed profoundly since the early 2000s. at least 10 African governments initiated a new wave of subsidy programs that were designed to overcome past performance challenges,” it states. Of these, programmes in three countries — Malawi, Tanzania and Ghana — were designed and catalysed by AGRA.
Malawi’s Affordable Inputs Program (AIP) — a $199.2 million programme, which began in 2020 and is supported by AGRA, allows subsistence farmers to purchase farm inputs at a subsidised cost with the government paying over 70 per cent of the share. The World Bank, too, criticised AIP.
Another 2020 study by US’ Tufts University evaluating the impacts of AGRA found that yields have not reported that high an increase.
“Over the 12-year period in which AGRA operated, from 2004-6 to 2016-18, maize production in the 13 countries increased 87 per cent, but that production gain was due more to a 45 per cent increase in area harvested than it was to yield increases, which improved only 29 per cent,” said the study.
An assessment in July 2020 by the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya says that “AGRA’s most supported and subsidized crop, has declined by 4 percent since AGRA started. So have yields for many other staple crops. So rural poverty remains high, and the number of severely undernourished Kenyans increased 4 per cent, even before the pandemic.”
On March 14, the ongoing reforms in the seed sector in Africa found prominent mentions in the 49th Regular Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Michael Fakhri, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, said, “Africa is facing pressure from industry to align seed legislation with UPOV, thereby enacting laws that allow seeds to be patented.”
He hinted that the various legislations being adopted in Africa supported the corporates, taking away the farmers’ rights over seeds, and proposed that “All member states enact Farmers’ Rights within their legislation and prioritise national and international support of FSS, in order to reconcile the legal contradictions between UPOV and Farmers’ Rights.”
Fakhri also called on UNHRC to be vigilant of agrichemical giants that are using food as a weapon to destroy communities, land and biodiversity for profit.
“When we talk about seed systems, we talk about the right to life itself. Whoever controls seeds, controls life. This is why human rights require us to put all seeds into the hands of all the people.”
Groups critical of these seed laws also cite a recent UN resolution to protect the farmers’ rights over seed. On December 17, 2017, the UN General Assembly approved the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas.
This declaration extends human rights protection to farmers whose “seed sovereignty” is threatened. It was approved, with 121 countries voting in favour; eight against and a sizable 52 abstaining. Developing and poor countries mostly voted in favour while the developed countries largely abstained.
The US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Hungary, Israel and Sweden voted against the declaration indicating the polarised debate over seeds and ownership.
Ideally, this declaration should have triggered country-level efforts to protect farmers’ rights, like in Malawi the rights of small farmers over their farm-saved seeds.
Timothy Wise, senior advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, US, in his 2019 book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food, indicts governments for throwing away solutions of organised agriculture, with corporate-controlled technology and seeds, and of misleading farmers on solutions to farm crisis.
He has junked the solutions of consolidating small farms and sees the developments as a power play between formidable businesses and the world’s small farmers. For Africa, this is another phase of its long fight over resources.
Additional reporting by Collins Mtika, Suzgo Chitete and Tikondane Vega in Malawi, Kelvin Mbewe and Newton Sibanda in Zambia, and Felix Mwakyembe in Tanzania.
This was first published in Down To Earth’s print edition (dated 1-15 May, 2022)
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