Experts Argue Against Commercial Seeds in Africa
By Bennett Oghifo
The argument against the policy-backed use of seeds generated in laboratories for farming in Africa is getting more strident, as experts contend that these industrial seeds have not and are not improving farm yields over the traditional age-old seeds used by generations in Africa.
This was the fulcrum of discussions at a recent virtual roundtable of experts and journalists at the Second Africa Network Media Cafe, jointly organised by Centre for Science and Environment, Down To Earth India, and Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA), Kenya.
The experts, who discussed the ‘State of Africa’s Seed Business’, were Timothy A Wise, Senior Advisor, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis, USA- On the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and what it has meant for the continent and its farmers; Susan Nakacwa, Africa Programme, GRAIN, Kampala, Uganda – On the traditional farmer seed systems of Africa and their future; and Daniel Aghan, Secretary, MESHA, Nairobi, Kenya – On his perspectives on the subject, as one who works on and writes on agricultural issues and concerns in Africa.
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Richard Mahapatra, Managing Editor, Down To Earth, New Delhi, India, who presented “Seed Shift: The Down To Earth Investigation”, a report of investigation of the seed challenge in some African countries, also discussed the dire impact of the war between Russia and Ukraine and its ripple effect on the wheat and grains market around the world, particularly in Africa where starvation stares most of its population in the face. Wheat and other grains are traditionally steeple foods in most of Africa.
Mahapatra stated that Africa has potential to feed the planet for at least 200 years, but that Africa is a net importer of food and Africa’s food sector is getting more attention presently.
A recent study by DownToEarth magazine published by the CSE, a think tank in New Delhi, India, shows that in the last 5 years, 20 countries have rolled out seed policies/laws. Fifty two of the 56 countries on the continent have formalised or adopted or just about to do so, in the seed sector. The cover story of DTE is based on reports from three African countries and the research was done in Delhi. “No other continent is witnessing this kind of development in the seed sector,” Mahapatra said.
The campaign is a continent-wide “seed trade harmonisation”. This is a fight between “the 80” and “the 20” systems or the farmer seed system and the industrial seed sector.
He said all these laws and policies cater to the industrial sector and stated that polarisation was taking place, undoubtedly, with the farmers and the industrial seed sector squaring for a fight over the standardisation of seeds and for which crops. They want to have only one way of managing the seed business, which would eventually lead to the cultivation of smaller portions of land but have high yields because of the hybrid seeds and the introduction of other inputs like fertilizers.
However, these new laws/policies will legitimise the industrial seed sector and criminalise the traditional seed utilisation systems.
Speaking on his research findings titled, ‘False Promises, the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)’, Timothy A. Wise, a Senior Adviser with Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), Minapolis, U.S.A, discussed efforts to expose AGRA’s impact on the seed sector in Africa, as well as its overall impact on food security in Africa.
Wise conducted an assessment, in 2020, of the 15 year-old initiative that has swallowed millions of dollars, after he found out there was no comprehensive evaluation of this initiative. Also, a recent donor-sponsored evaluation shows it is failing farmers in Africa, he said.
AGRA, founded in 2006 to ostensibly assist farmers in Africa, mainly has funding from the Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, as well as from donors such as USAID. Additional support for their ambitious goals came from African governments that are providing about a billion dollars for seeds and fertilizers.
Now, they are instituting laws and policies that criminalise African seeds and asking farmers to call their age-old seeds grains and not seeds.
Susan Nakatwua of GREEN is concerned about the suggestion that the traditional seed system that is prevalent in Africa is regarded as an informal seed system and is unrecognised in the agricultural process because they are deemed unfit to bring about development in agriculture.
Another aspect examined was information flow about seeds in Africa. “A major hindrance to seed trade in Africa is inadequate information flow. We have too much information that we do not need, and we need too much information that we do not have,” Aghan Daniel stated in his presentation titled, ‘African seed sector: Key issues to note’.
According to Aghan, “African farmers need quality seeds. And Africa needs to increase its share of the global seed trade. The current contribution of less than 2 per cent only presents an opportunity.”
He stated that Africa is a minor player in the global seed trade (contributes only 2%), and approximately 80% of the farmers in the region save seeds for replantation. The seed is one of the most basic and important agricultural inputs. It forms the third-largest inputs market after agrochemicals and farm machinery, globally.
“The global seed market is expected to grow at a rate of 6.8% by 2021 to USD73 billion. Uptake of high yielding varieties and hybrids is as low as 8% in some countries,” he said.
The African seed market, he said, “is segmented into seed type (non-GM/hybrid seeds, GM seeds, and varietal seeds) and crop type (grains and cereals, oilseeds, vegetables, and other crop types). By geography, the market is segmented into South Africa and Rest of Africa.
“But now we are talking about gene editing, where genome editing (also called gene editing) is a group of technologies that give scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA. These technologies allow genetic material to be added, removed, or altered at particular locations in the genome.”
Discussing challenges caused by lack of PVP laws in Africa, Aghan said the Plant Variety Protection (PVP) Act provides patent-like rights to Breeders, Developers and Owners of plant varieties, stating that few countries have signed it.