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Ghana’s battle for seed sovereignty

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Ghana’s battle for seed sovereignty

Whoever controls the seed controls the entire food chain. If Ghana’s Plant Breeders Bill passes, small-scale farmers’ rights over this essential resource could go straight into the hands of transnational corporations, write Ali-Masmadi Jehu-Appiah and Chris Walker.

This month, Ghanaian farmers could see the way they control an ancient and essential resource, their seeds, change forever. Members of Ghana’s parliament have been due to resume negotiations on the Plant Breeders Bill 2013 since mid-October. The proposed legislation would put in place intellectual property laws that would allow companies and seed breeders anywhere in the world to gain ownership over seed varieties they claim to have created. Farmers would be prevented from saving, adapting or exchanging these varieties within traditional seed economies, risking heavy fines or even imprisonment if they do.

President John Mahama’s government claims that the laws would incentivise the breeding of safe, saleable and productive seeds to improve the country’s food security. Yet in recent months, farmers, campaigners, trade unions and faith groups have taken to the streets in the cities of Accra, Tamale and beyond. They fear the bill would allow a takeover of Ghana’s seeds and broader food system by transnational corporations (TNCs). It’s why campaigners have dubbed the bill “the Monsanto Law”.

TNCs indeed stand to make vast profits from the Plant Breeders Bill. Seed companies would be able to claim ownership of varieties that have adapted through millennia of indigenous seed breeding but which have been finely altered in a lab, possibly through – thanks to concurrent policy reforms in the country – genetic modification. The Bill does not require the seed breeder to disclose the origin of the genetic material used to develop the variety it wishes to protect or compensate the farmers affected, opening the doors to what opponents are calling “bio piracy”.

Across the world, farmers have got into dangerous levels of debt at the hands of companies which have promoted “improved seeds” and come to control their seed supply. The Ghana National Association of Farmers and Fishermen fears this will be the case with the proposed bill. “The Plant Breeders Bill aims to replace traditional varieties of seeds with uniform commercial varieties and increase the dependency of smallholders on commercial varieties”, says the association. “This system aims to compel farmers to purchase seeds for every planting season.”

Ghana’s bill follows a global push by governments towards new laws promoted under the controversial International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). This trend aims to promote “harmonised” intellectual property laws worldwide, accommodating a truly globalised seed economy. With backing from aid donors, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and corporate investors, plant variety protection legislation is gaining pace around the world. But resistance is also growing, and legislation has been stopped in its tracks by widespread protests in both Guatemala and at the European Union this year alone.

Food Sovereignty Ghana and other campaign groups have raised particular alarm over Clause 23 of Ghana’s bill. This declares that the right of a plant breeder protected under the legislation would be “independent of any measure taken by the Republic to regulate within Ghana the production, certification and marketing of material of a variety or the importation or exportation of the material.” It is, in effect, a legislative “lock-in”. “We fail to see how in a country based on a constitutional rule, the rights of the plant breeder …[are] being made independent of any measure taken by the Republic to regulate within Ghana,” says Food Sovereignty Ghana.

The government has claimed that such legislation is a condition of Ghana’s membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Yet WTO member states are permitted to develop “sui generis” legislative frameworks to suit the needs and context of each country. With the bill failing to provide specific protection for small-scale and indigenous farmers, opponents accuse the government of falling prey to hard lobbying from both the US government and TNCs.

Ghana’s proposed seed laws are the latest manifestation of a worldwide push by corporations to take over African food systems. Currently, 90% of Africa’s food production comes from small-scale farmers. But alongside issues such as land-grabbing, control over seeds and genetic material forms a key frontier in the battle for control of food systems in which small-scale farmers are increasingly losing control of their livelihoods. Seed companies including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta, who together already control 53% of the global seed market, are now gaining access to sub-Saharan Africa’s markets with the help of initiatives including the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. Activists fear that community models of seed development and trade will be all but swept aside. “The origin of food is seed,” says Food Sovereignty Ghana. “Whoever controls the seed controls the entire food chain.” 

(Ali-Masmadi Jehu-Appiah is the Chairperson, Food Sovereignty Ghana. Chris Walker is a Food Campaigner, World Development Movement, UK.)

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