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Africa: Stealth Assault on African Seeds

AfricaFocus Bulletin
January 19, 2016 (160119)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"There is a renewed and stronger assault on seed ... based on legal systems that permit exclusive rights over seeds on the spurious contention that plant varieties were 'discovered' and improved on. But these 'discovered' varieties are the product of the whole history of collective human improvements and maintenance carried out by peasants. To assert exclusive rights over the whole on the basis of small adjustments is nothing short of outright theft." - SouthSouth Dialogue, Durban, South Africa, November 2015

In rich countries, debate about industrialized agriculture often focuses on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the safety and transparency consequences for consumers. In developing countries with large sectors of peasant farmers, this is only a small part of a larger debate on the future of agriculture, pitting multinational companies and large-scale investors against the autonomy and rights of peasant farmers. Land grabbing is highly visible, and has attracted much international attention. Less visible, and potentially even more damaging, is the appropriation of rights to seeds, fueled not only by the companies themselves but also by a concerted campaign to erode farmers' traditional rights to seeds in favor of patents by multinational corporations. This is a issue not only for GMOs, but also for other seeds produced by other breeding technologies.

The debate is filled with acronyms, as well as the claim that "scientific" agriculture will provide food and development benefiting the peasants as well. And the campaign to change laws and erode traditional rights is unrelenting. It is based on the Universal Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV 91), which works for the privatization of seeds by imposing intellectual property rights on plant varieties.

In recent years a drive to extend these laws on "plant variety protection" in African and other developing countries has rapidly accelerated.

This Africa Focus Bulletin contains a recent declaration by groups resisting this drive, and excerpts from a brief article by Dr. Carol Thompson, noting the apartheid-like differential effect of these laws. Also included (just below) are linked to other essential resources on this issue.

For a recent series of short articles featuring interviews with African grassroots leaders (mainly women), visit / direct URL:

For global overviews of the issue, see

Two longer related reports with additional background specifically on African seeds include:

For talking points and previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on agriculture, food sovereignty, and related issues, visit

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

Declaration on Plant Variety Protection and Seed Laws from the South-South Dialogue

Durban, South Africa

29 November 2015 - direct URL:

We, participants at the South-South Dialogue, are members of peasant and civil society organisations and concerned individuals from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe working on issues of food and seed sovereignty, peasants' control of seed production and exchange, and biodiversity. We gathered in Durban, South Africa 27-29 November 2015 to share information and knowledge, and to come to a common understanding on seed and plant variety protection (PVP) policy and laws and strategies for resistance and alternatives in the global South.

We are working in our countries and regions to advance the ongoing global struggle for socially just and ecologically sustainable societies, in which farming households and communities have control and decision-making power over the production and distribution of food and seed.

Human societies and the seeds we use to produce the food that sustains us have grown symbiotically over millennia. Seeds emerged from nature and have been diversified, conserved, nurtured and enhanced through processes of human experimentation, discovery and innovation throughout this time. Seeds have been improved by means of traditional and cultural knowledge transmitted from generation to generation. Seeds are therefore the collective heritage for people serving humanity. Peasants and indigenous peoples have always been the custodians and guardians of the collective knowledge embedded in the wide diversity of seed that has enabled the development of humankind as a species.

However, today capitalist greed poses fundamental threats to the continued conservation, reproduction and use of the biological diversity nurtured for all this time. The forced enclosure of land and other natural resources and its capture and conversion into private property was one disastrous step. This has caused and continues to cause social dislocation and displacement, damaging the social fabric of human societies, severing the connection between people and the land, and consolidating social, collectively-produced wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

There is a renewed and stronger assault on seed, agricultural biodiversity heritage and the knowledge associated with these. Related law and policy making processes are already far advanced in Europe, the United States and other parts of the world and are being imposed on our countries in the South through multilateral and bilateral trade and investment agreements. They are based on legal systems that permit exclusive rights over seeds on the spurious contention that plant varieties were 'discovered' and improved on. But these 'discovered' varieties are the product of the whole history of collective human improvements and maintenance carried out by peasants. To assert exclusive rights over the whole on the basis of small adjustments is nothing short of outright theft.

Efforts to expand this expropriation to the global South are being pursued aggressively by multinational seed and life sciences corporations and their cohorts in state and multilateral institutions. This takes the form of a coordinated political and technocratic crusade to impose uniform and draconian laws and regulations in favour of intellectual property (IP) rights such as plant variety protection (PVP) for private interests, the proliferation of genetically modified (GM) seeds, and exclusive recognition and marketing of seed and plant varieties that pass through breeding and production systems tightly controlled by economic elites.

There are no benefits for peasant and farming households and communities, or for society in general, from these developments. In a few short decades - just a small fraction of the time humans have been engaged in industrial agriculture - this enclosure of the collective seed heritage has spread virulently across the globe. The historical practices of context-specific peasant-managed seed systems we have relied on are vilified, denigrated as being backward and obsolete, and criminalised. Farmers are taken to court and imprisoned for maintaining the biological base as a living system while seed and food corporations make huge profits legitimised by seed and IP laws.

The result is the alarming erosion of agricultural biodiversity and related knowledge, and a deepening threat to the sustainable use of the genetic base, and consequently to food production and ecological balance, and to humanity. Current seed and IP laws violate the ethos of sharing between farmers, which is the backbone of peasant farming systems, seed and people's sovereignty and the basic human right to food.

We cannot stand by passively and watch this legalised dispossession and destruction. We are compelled to resist. We declare our commitment to work in alliance with one another, with peasant and indigenous peoples' movements, and with other likeminded civil society organisations and individuals, to fight the spread of this aggressive and violent system of domination on the basis of autonomy, collective self-organisation, cooperation, sharing, solidarity and mutual respect.

We declare our principled opposition to any form of IP on life forms, seeds and related information or exclusive rights to their use. We reject genetic modification and other current and emerging proprietary technologies in agriculture as these technologies are built on the disintegration of holistic farming systems, the exclusion of farmers from processes of plant breeding and natural resource management, and the control of seeds and planting material in the hands of corporate and political elites.

We reject the imposition of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on its country members, through the Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, to adopt rules allowing the privatization of seeds and related knowledge. We reject the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) type laws and other intellectual property regulation on seeds and plant varieties. It is also unacceptable that bilateral free trade agreements impose on Southern countries intellectual property measures that go beyond the provisions of the WTO.

We are opposed to laws dealing with the marketing and certification of seed. These new seed laws undermine peasant seed systems that have been developed locally over generations of farmers and are geared towards creating massively increased private sector participation in seed trade. In addition, these laws promote only one type of seed breeding. The entire orientation of these seed laws is geared towards genetically uniform, commercially bred varieties in terms of seed quality control and variety registration. What is very clear is that these laws criminalise the marketing of farmers' varieties. The ultimate aim of these laws is to facilitate new markets for commercial seed companies and the occupation by multinationals in the seed sector in the global south and displace and criminalise peasant seed systems.

We oppose the fragmentation of genetic information and the divorce of this information from physical resources through the Global Information Systems (GIS) such as DivSeek (a global information system on genetic sequencing and related knowledge for seed, proposed by the World Bank), since there is the possibility of the use of this information expediting the further privatisation of seeds through international legal systems.

We will fight for laws, policies and public programmes that support and strengthen peasants and communities to continue with their diverse and context-specific practices of plant breeding, selection, production and distribution. We will fight for a more responsible role for public sector activities based on ongoing democratic, participatory and transparent processes of engagement with citizens and inhabitants of our countries and regions. We will continue to defend our rights to produce, use, exchange and sell all seed and planting material. We will work to recover, maintain and expand the use of native and local seed, and the revival of diverse food cultures as the most effective routes to protect biodiversity. We recognise the irreducible diversity that can only be managed through peasant seed production systems and maintained by peasants as breeders and users of seed.

We believe seeds are the people's heritage in the service of humanity that should be managed collectively, democratically and sustainably. We reaffirm the centrality of agricultural producers as the primary stewards of our collective genetic resources, especially women peasants who continue to play a direct role in the maintenance and enhancement of these resources. We commit to supporting peasant households and communities in their stewardship, and to building links with allies, wherever we may find them, to advance the cause of food and seed sovereignty.


Acción Ecológica - Ecuador, Acción por la Biodiversidad - Argentina, African Centre for Biodiversity - South Africa, Articulación Nacional de Agroecología/Grupo de Trabajo en Biodiversidad, Asociación Nacional para el Fomento de la Agricultura Ecológica - ANAFAE- Honduras, Commons for EcoJustice - Malawi, Earthlife Africa Durban, Fahamu Africa, Farmers' Seed Network - China, GRAIN, Growth Partners Africa, Grupo Semillas - Colombia, JINUKUN - COPAGEN, Cotonou, Benin, Kenya Food Rights Alliance, Movimiento de Pequeños Agricultores (MPA) - Brasil, Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana, PELUM Association Zimbabwe, Red de Agrobiodiversidad en la Zona Semiárida de Minas Gerais - Brasil, Red de Coordinación en Biodiversidad - Costa Rica, Red Nacional para la defensa de la Soberanía Alimentaria en Guatemala, REDSAG - Guatemala, Red por una América Latina Libre de Transgénicos Swissaid Guinea-Bissau Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF)

South-South Dialogue Participants (list available in original document)

Apartheid Seed Law

Carol B. Thompson

Pambazuka News, June 3, 2015

[Excerpts only: for full text and references with explicit comparisons to apartheid laws, see the original text at]

[Carol Thompson is a professor emerita at Northern Arizona University, a member of AGRA-Watch in Seattle, Washington, and coauthor with Andrew Mushita of Biopiracy of Biodiversity: Global Exchange as Enclosure, which was featured in AfricaFocus after its publication in 2007.]

Although political apartheid was dismantled by the 1994 election of President Nelson Mandela, a new form of economic apartheid is now stalking the entire African continent.

This new economic apartheid refers to the seed convention known as UPOV 91 (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants), advanced by the European Union, the United States, and the World Bank presuming to protect plant breeders' rights under the World Trade Organization. The EU is requiring its implementation by African governments as a prerequisite for trading under the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), scheduled for 2016.

UPOV91 gives exclusive proprietary rights to plant breeders, who work in modern laboratories full of expensive equipment. The convention gives these breeders, or their corporate sponsors, private ownership over a new strain, extending property rights beyond the seed, to the full plant, and to "essentially derived" products (e.g., flour from wheat).

To obtain this legal ownership, the new variety must be distinct, uniform, and stable (DUS), characteristics not found in farmers' newly bred varieties after their experimentation in the fields. It means that farmers' new varieties are not protected by the UPOV convention and remain free for the taking.

Farmer breeders do not desire seed traits that are highly stable, for they are looking for nuances in traits in order to choose the next seeds for breeding. As one farmer asked, "what do they mean by 'heritage seed'? Aren't the seeds changing all the time?"

During the 20 years of proprietary rights for breeders of DUS varieties, no one can exchange, use, experiment or save the seed without permission, a prohibition eradicating farmers' rights to work with any seeds. Because farmers have cultivated diverse food crops over millennia, two international laws protect farmers' rights (International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and the Nagoya Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity). For African governments to incorporate UPOV91 into national laws, they would have to violate these two treaties.

Farmers' experimentation and freely sharing involve not only seeds but the indigenous knowledge embedded in them. African farmers, for example, know the hundreds of varieties of millets and sorghums or teff, grains more nutritious than maize or rice or wheat, and ones that are regaining interest on the continent because they grow well in semi-arid conditions, while the more familiar maize varieties are not standing up to climate change aridity. Smallholder African farmers grow 20-25 crops on one hectare, sharing knowledge—sometimes formally in farmer field schools but also daily in informal ways—about which variety grows best under another crop, where to place the various crops in terms of moisture percolation in the small field, and especially, variable planting times in case the rains come late, or start early. Farmers know the nutrition value of their biodiverse crops, encouraging children and mothers to partake more of one (e.g., pearl and finger millets) than of another (cassava). And nutrition includes feeding the living soil with leguminous plants rotated with grain crops.

Why would anyone want to destroy farmers' experimentation and knowledge? For the same reason apartheid reigned too long: it is profitable. UPOV91 offers another way to privatize a living organism, accomplished more easily than the difficult job of enforcing a patent across the globe.

[The following comparisons make clear the parallel to apartheid laws, in establishing unequal rights to access to resources that are essential for human survival.]

Segregation with inferiority

UPOV91 is trying to establish, by law, the inferior status of smallholder farmers who breed and do scientific experiments in the field. It legitimizes the corporate plant breeders' entitlement and presumed superiority. The normative law translates back into profit for the corporations benefiting from PVP - plant variety protection. This constructed distinction between two different types of breeding becomes a "ritual of truth".

Aesthetics of segregation

UPOV91 legitimizes the view that "real plant breeders" wear white coats and work in a sparkling laboratory with the latest instruments, while projecting that farmer breeders working in the soil are inferior. Because they cannot produce DUS (distinct, uniform, stable) seeds, they are not breeders. The Gates Foundation's Program for African Seed Systems (PASS) call farmers' seeds "weak" and "recycled", "used for decades". Like apartheid benches "for whites only" in the parks and on the beaches, only a breeder of DUS seeds can sit on the laboratory stool as a recogn1zed seed breeder; farmer breeders do not qualify.

Legal enforcement of apartheid

The pass laws, restricting the movement of Africans at all times, became a core impetus for organ1zing against apartheid from the Defiance Campaign (1952) through "making the townships ungovernable" (1980s). Any "non-white" without a pass could be detained for 90 days, or more, without trial or notification of any lawyer.

Farmer breeders will not be summarily detained, but Canada has already made violation of its UPOV-based law a criminal act, not a civil offense. The U.S. courts have upheld Monsanto's allegations against hundreds of farmers that they stole a "Monsanto gene", when most often, pollen carried by wind fertilized the farmers' crops. With these precedents, the economic apartheid of UPOV91 will most likely be strictly enforced by the courts.


Civil society and farmers across the African continent are organizing against UPOV91, but the threat of the looming European trade agreements (EPAs) remains. Just as civil society resistance in the North changed the context for domestic apartheid, the international community needs to voice and organize rejection of this apartheid seed law.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization recognizes two seed systems: the formal one and farmers', because all breeders are essential to cultivate new food varieties in this time of climate change. Further, farmers are more advanced breeders because their new seeds are already "field tested", whereas laboratory-bred seeds often fail during field trials, not expressing the traits desired. Let us not allow UPOV to gain any "sensibility of normalcy" in segregating and denigrating farmer seed breeders:

The international community's vociferous and sustained rejection of this new economic apartheid would protect the future of food for us all.

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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