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Africa: Seed Sharing or Biopiracy

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Dec 20, 2007 (071220)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Sharing of seed is the essence of our planet's agricultural biodiversity. Without the open palm offering seeds, we all lose. Current policies, however, are closing the fist around seed, evident in the strong drive for individual access and monopoly ownership of genetic resources, as opposed to open access and collective principles of communities." - Andrew Mushita and Carol B. Thompson

In their new book, Biopiracy of Biodiversity: Global Exchange as Enclosure, Andrew Mushita and Carol Thompson explore a wide range of issues related to food security, biodiversity, and the conflict between pressures for industrial agriculture and preservation of the lives and livelihoods of small farmers, particularly in Southern Africa. But the issues discussed go beyond one region, posing questions about the sustainability of agriculture and the environment in both rich and poor countries.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a small number of brief excerpts from the book, touching on only a fraction of the issues raised by the authors on the basis of extensive first-hand experience and research, with full credit given to the traditional wisdom and scientific ingenuity of African farmers themselves. The book is available from the publisher, Africa World Press

Among recent reports and website on related issues, see particularly:

"A New Green Revolution for Africa?" December 2007

"An African Call for a Moratorium on Agrofuel Development" November 2007

Outcome of Meeting of African Farmers' Groups in Mali, December 2007 and

Updates and reports on trade and agriculture

For links to previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on agriculture and related issues, see

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Biopiracy of Biodiversity: Global Exchange as Enclosure

by Andrew Mushita and Carol B. Thompson
Africa World Press, 2007

Selected Excerpts

From Acknowledgements

Biodiversity is a marvel of complexity, for many species are situated in one place, unique to a site; yet biodiversity spreads and grows only if the species are exchanged and travel across the ecosystem to new sites, adapting slowly to new climes. ...

Sharing of seed is the essence of our planet's agricultural biodiversity. Without the open palm offering seeds, we all lose. Current policies, however, are closing the fist around seed, evident in the strong drive for individual access and monopoly ownership of genetic resources, as opposed to open access and collective principles of communities. ...

This study comes to the conclusion, startling to most of those outside the continent, that Africa has answers to its food deficits and food insecurity. It is not one answer but rather, reflects the vast diversity of soils, terrains, waters and species on the continent. Plowing that diversity into monoculture for increased yields or into privatization in the name of incentives perpetuates general models that have failed. Other approaches, some very old and some quite new, will sustain Africa'?s biodiversity, and therefore, its food security.

The story extends much beyond Africa in that the alternative policies offer lessons for other countries and other peoples, especially those eating chemical foods. Africa demonstrates that none of the dominant international policies - from food production to patenting to trade - is inevitable. Viable and sustainable alternatives are not only possible, but already exist. Resisting biopiracy in order to harvest biodiversity, African alternative approaches show how to sustain the open palms exchanging seeds. ...

From Chapter I

"If someone asks you for seed, you cannot refuse her." - Zimbabwean farmer

The essence of seed exchange is sharing, for plants reproduce themselves without human intervention. ... Because seeds are a gift to each one of us, they are a gift to all. Ancient cultures increased this wealth by sharing seed, by giving it away. Such an action, reflecting nature's example, increased biodiversity across the globe. ...

In this way, the maize seed has traveled from central Mexico across the Great Plains to Canada. In less than 300 years from the 1500s, it traveled around the globe and became established as a major food crop?from the Mayans and Aztecs to the Shona and Lunga in Africa, to Sikkim and Bhutan in the Himalayas to China, the Philippines, and Indonesia.1 Maize has become the staple food, the center of spiritual rituals, the seed of healing for highly diverse peoples.

Yet the terrible other side of this story is that all this richness, beauty, and wealth - germinating from sharing - is now threatened. It is being destroyed by refusal to share, by hoarding for a false, ephemeral prosperity. It is being destroyed in the name of science, of law, and "just reward," in the name of innovation, power, and of profit.

The open palm offering seed to share is received by a clenched fist, symbolizing enclosure of the global gene pool. ...

Maize in Southern Africa has often been cited an exception [to the dominance of cash crops] because it is both a cash crop and a food crop, eaten three times a day by many families while supplies last. However, maize became more and more a cash crop, including after independence from colonialism, for it entered the formal market, was valued by governments for food security storage, and for export to earn foreign exchange. Almost exclusively, the amount of the maize harvest or storage defines "food surplus" or "food shortage" in Southern Africa. This formal perspective dominates any other; if there is not enough wheat, maize could substitute. But if maize supplies are insufficient, it is announced by international monitors that "famine" is pending. A crop may feed millions, but if there are inaccurate international figures about the tonnage exchanged informally ("illegal" cross-border trade), it does not exist on official statistics. Yet Africa devotes more hectares to sorghum and millet than to all other food crops combined, and it remains a major food grain in the Southern African region.

After more than a decade of clarion calls for emergency food aid to save starving Southern Africans, followed by reduced international responses, somehow the "millions" rarely starved. Why? Was the international response so quick, so efficient in getting to remote areas that the disaster was averted? Yes, partially. International agencies do not imagine the drought crisis, but report the conditions of cash crops accurately; the agencies are vital to thousands and save lives every crisis year.

But the millions? They are saved by their own production of alternative foods. They are saved by the biodiversity of food sources; many of the 2000 indigenous food crops are still preserved in the rural areas (not only sorghum and millets but bambara nuts, many tuber and root crops, fruits - monkey orange, water berry, marula, baobab). Traditional ecological knowledge designates some highly drought- resistant plants to be eaten only in times of dire need. Botswana alone has 250 plants that are used specially as "famine food." The millions are also saved by urban agriculture, where minuscule plots of spare land are planted, not in flowering shrubs copying European gardens, but in food crops; in Lesotho, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, many an urban family sustains themselves, not with less than below- poverty-level wages, but with urban agriculture. ...

[Yet] In many areas of Southern Africa, government resources were directed to develop maize and diverted from sorghum. ...In Southern Africa, maize became overwhelmingly the commercial food staple. Technology and marketing created its status as the commercial monoculture, but fortunately, it never reached monoculture for food production.

Small-scale farmers (women) continued to grow sorghum on small plots for home consumption. As nutritious as maize for carbohydrates, vitamin B6, and food energy, it is more nutritious in protein, ash, pantothenic acid, calcium, copper, iron, phosphorus, isoleucine, and leucine. One of the most versatile foods in the world, one can boil it like rice, or crack it like oats for porridge, or bake it like wheat into flatbreads, and pop it like popcorn for snacks. ...

Sorghum is highly drought-resistant because strains have been bred for flowering to occur, not when adequate rain has fallen, but according to daylight length. Therefore, even if the rains are late or inadequate, some plants will flower because of the change in day length. Light, not water, gives the signal for blooming. In spite of the fact that indigenous knowledge designated these diverse and rich uses of sorghum, most scientists have ignored its genetic wealth: "sorghum is a relatively undeveloped crop with a truly remarkable array of grain types, plant types, and adaptability. Most of its genetic wealth is so far untapped and even unsorted. Indeed, sorghum probably has more undeveloped genetic potential than any other major food crop in the world." ...

Today, extended families still keep each other alive during droughts. They do need outside food assistance. ...However, sharing what little there is keeps people alive. Sharing extends the grain much beyond the donors' calculations; after each drought in Southern Africa over the last decade (1992, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004), the donors note how minimal food aid tonnage kept so many alive. Estimates of those at risk at the beginning of a famine season are not exaggerated, but minimal imports of food seem to prevent starvation. [While] communities are too poor to prevent malnutrition in a drought; they have time and again prevented massive, widespread starvation.

An excellent farmer takes pride in her seed - and shares it with the community. Part of the sharing is scientific; to see if these few seeds that taste better can germinate well in a field with worse soil, or drier terrain. Or perhaps the neighboring relative is a better farmer and will be able to propagate more of the ?new? seed. Part of the sharing will be commercial, exchanging good-quality seed for some oxen power to plow a small plot. Those with smaller plots often farm more intensively, and therefore, carefully watch over seed. They may be poorer in money terms or land, but richer in quality seed. Seeds are still a highly valued gift, for each one propagates many hundreds more. ...

In many, not all, parts of urban Southern Africa, the fields are brought to the city. In Dar es Salaam (a city of over 2 million), almost every little patch of land (too little to be called a plot) has some food crops planted - from delicate-leafed mchicha (a type of spinach) to the broad-leafed, majestic banana trees. In Harare and Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe, the small patch is so carefully and intensively farmed that one maize expert estimates the yield would be as high as the very best commercial farmer (about 10 tons/hectare, which is about 2.5 acres). But they don't have hectares, or even quarter hectares, but patches measuring 5 x 3 meters. Urban agriculture is so extensive throughout Zimbabwe that its yield is what keeps people alive in an economy with 60 percent unemployed. Have you ever wondered how any mother could keep her sanity if she lives in a country with rampant annual inflation (especially for bread and cooking oil), and unemployment of 60 percent, with 80 percent living below the poverty line? Those figures are lethal and describe more than one African economy. Too many die every day. But most survive through their own traditions of sharing their indigenous knowledge and recent innovations; they grow their own food, save seed, and exchange it. They plant on every open corner of earth. They share the harvests. ,,,.

Selection of seed is assigned to the most adept - male or female - who has a good eye and knowledge to select the most robust. The better farmers choose seed from the best plants in the field. "Best" defines the strongest, the one yielding the most grain, with the preferred color, pest resistance, and drought resistance. Africans prefer not to select a plant simply because it has the highest yield. Many more traits are equally valued, not the least of which is the taste and texture of the grain. Selection chooses vigor, taste, color, texture, and yield. A plant scientist from Zimbabwe laughed as she said, when the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) comes with advice, the agenda is always "yield, yield, yield"? She said Zimbabweans are equally interested in several other traits. ... A Tanzanian plant geneticist stated that they refuse to breed only for yield for that is "monoculture within monoculture" - preferring one trait of hundreds within one crop of hundreds. He pointed out that American seed breeders ignore taste because the industry manufactures taste with additives of sugar and citric acid. ...

The struggle over control of seed is passionate: Corporate leaders think they can make billions; many scientists aspire to manufacturing "new" species; the promise of new cures tantalizes. It is complicated: ...

At one time, over 3,000 species were used as human food. The director of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reminds us: "Today only 150 plant species are cultivated, 12 of which provide approximately 75 percent of our food and four of which produce over half of the food we eat. This involution has increased the vulnerability of agriculture and has impoverished the human diet." Unless you are growing your own food and saving heirloom seed, you are vulnerable.

Yet we can't each grow our own food. Many of us prefer other professions. We can, however, listen to those who have endured for centuries by sustaining biodiversity, and thereby, the health of their environment, their families, their cultures. And we can all debate the issues. The potential negatives are too dangerous to be left to any one government, any one scientist or discipline, or any one people. ...

"Biopiracy" refers to the ancient act of taking wealth, "looting," by force. Bioresources have been freely shared over the centuries, as peoples exchange seed, plants, and animals for breeding; what is very new (since 1985) is that seed, whether an offered gift or a stolen cultural secret, is then patented, made into private property. Biopiracy is removal of the organism, whether by literally taking the plant or seed and claiming ownership, or by destroying it. ...

Chapter 3 on the patenting of biodiversity begins by addressing how the World Trade Organization (WTO) incorporated the first international law to require intellectual property protection for living forms (microorganisms). The goal within the WTO, dating from 2000, is to extend patent laws over all plants and animals (Article 27.3b). Countries that are the source of global biodiversity, however, are resisting this approach ... extending intellectual property rights (IPRs) over seeds and plants challenges scientific logic and threatens biodiversity. ... [These] plans to extend IPRs from microorganisms to plants and animals have not succeeded, even though they have been vigorously pursued by the most powerful countries and global corporations. ..

Chapter 9, "Choice Seed - Seed Choices," compares and contrasts international protocols for seed exchange from agencies trying to reconcile the demand for patenting, the respect for indigenous knowledge, and the need to preserve biodiversity as a policy for food security. The Africa Union Model Legislation fulfills the intent of the WTO (TRIPs) without accepting patenting. ... African agronomists are not simply stating that individual ownership of seed eradicates its roots, removes its heritage - but are demonstrating how to propagate diversity while sharing. ,,,

From Chapter 2

... today, seed or biotechnology corporations "take" knowledge and resources from others in three different ways. First, as with traditional botanical gardens, they often give no recognition to the original cultivators, and second, if they change one gene, they add the legal precept that the corporation now owns the whole living organism as private property. ... Third, the piracy becomes more fierce when the companies state that not only is the modified wealth their own, but the original cultivators cannot use the seed or plants without paying tribute (royalties) to the newly declared owners. Through the patenting of plants and seeds, corporations privatize traditional ecological knowledge as a commodity to sell ... To those who oppose patenting of living organisms, privatizing a plant with a heritage dating back thousands of years, for one's own profit and prestige, is tantamount to theft. ....

From Chapter 4

The creation of the Green Revolution research centers (e.g., the International Rice Research Institute, the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat) was the product not only of an effort to introduce capitalism into the countryside but also of the need to collect systematically the exotic germplasm required by the breeding programs of the developed nations. Western science not only made the seed the catalyst for the dissolution and transformation of pre-capitalist agrarian social formations, it also staffed an institutional network that has served as a conduit for the extraction of plant germplasm from the Third World.

Yet the end result is the same. Only a very few indigenous strains are selected for international preservation. As farmers turn to hybrids, the rich variety of indigenous strains are lost forever. Since the initial thrust of the Green Revolution, plant breeders and agronomists have begun to recognize the value of local, open-pollinated varieties (OPVs) and many of the international research centers, such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), now pay almost as much attention to those as to the hybrids. For example, in Southern Africa, the International Crops Research Institute for Semi- Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) center at Matopos, Zimbabwe, has developed new strains of sorghum and millets, small grains used traditionally for semi-arid, drought-prone areas. Many strains are OPVs. ...

The first principle of Southern African small-scale agricultural policy is diversity, for crop diversity lowers risk, while industrial agriculture increases it. ...

Southern Africa is probably too reliant on too few varieties of maize. Some peasant farmers are returning to production of sweet potatoes, which are more nutritious than maize, have lower growing costs and tolerate variable rains. Drought-resistant sorghum can be mixed with white maize to make mealie meal, adding nutrition. The goal should not be a Green Revolution in white maize, too dependent on ample rains, but rather a diversification of staple crops. Monoculture failures in the 20th century point to diversification for the 21st, to provide food security under changing weather conditions as well as higher levels of nutrition on the same hectarage. ...

A second principle in Southern Africa agricultural policy is to value - not destroy -small-scale farmers and their indigenous knowledge systems (IKS). Just as diversity can replace fabricated seed monoculture, small-scale farmer innovation can also replace industrial inputs. Zero tillage, for example, is now recommended for many crops, for it disturbs the topsoil less. Annual plowing exhausts the soil humus within 10 years of the land first being opened up (much faster in areas of former rain forests). As humus levels decline, there is loss of soil fertility, making it more susceptible to erosion. ...

An agricultural practice called integrated production and pest management uses knowledge of life cycles of pests to control their populations with appropriate crop rotation, timing of planting, and use of natural predators. It includes land preparation, water and soil fertility management, and conservation of biological diversity including natural enemies of pests. Integrated pest management emphasizes arresting the trend of increased pesticide dependence and recognizing coexistence of pests. Begun in 1993 in Southern Africa, it is in operation in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, with active field programs for maize and vegetables.

A third principle is to recognize that farmers can best solve their own problems, for they are researchers, plant breeders, and seed savers in their own right. ... Small-scale farmers directing research agendas have been successfully pursued in Tanzania, and the goal now is for rapid expansion of this approach. Initially targeting farmers in Arusha and Kilimanjaro districts, the SADC/ICRISAT pilot project received 100 research requests from farmers in 1999/2000. The Northern Zonal Agricultural Research Fund (NZARF) directed the requests to relevant Tanzanian research institutes. Thirty research projects were funded, reflecting well the priorities of the farmers: improved multipurpose trees, intercropping of maize/pigeonpeas (black-eyed peas), use of local resources as mineral supplements for livestock, integration of protein-rich fodder crops, improved vegetable varieties for lowland conditions, use of indigenous cover crops to improve maize yields, screening of natural pesticides, and many more.64 Each project was specific to a district or part of a district; there was no requirement that the research provide valid or reliable results for several districts, or a whole Tanzanian region, and certainly not for all of Tanzania.

The above three principles (food crop diversity, valuing small-scale production based on indigenous knowledge, farmers solving their own problems) are not simply theoretical aspirations. They signify policies being implemented in widely varying projects throughout Southern Africa. These approaches demonstrate a reversal in thinking from industrial agriculture that reconstructs the ecology, plants, producers and consumer taste to fit the manufactured product of the global corporation, all with the goal of increasing profit rates. Southern Africa rejects that food production is most efficient on a world scale. Local seed breeders, government researchers, and environmental NGOs in Southern Africa claim the opposite: indigenous and locally improved multiple food varieties are the best food security, providing nutritious food suitable to local tastes from plants that can withstand the vagaries of local conditions and are highly adapted to interaction with local fauna.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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