African small farmers struggle for seeds

Whether biotechnology can help end hunger has been at the centre of debate for many years. Poverty and hunger have continued to grow in many parts of the world, and the use of technology to speed up the growth of plants and to make them resistant to insects has been promoted as a solution to world hunger. Africa, for example, has experience many droughts and crop failure, and biotechnology is promoted because of its quick and mass production of food. It is the terms and conditions of such trade and of investment deals that often lead to problems for poor countries and for small farmers. For example, monopolies over seed-markets while destroying traditional seed systems. The danger for a total monopolisation of the agricultural sector by companies such as SynGenta, DuPont/Pioneer, Bayer, ChemChina, and Monsanto, to mention some, are hardly a secret today. This trend does nothing but increase threats to food sovereignty for the independent non-commercial producers, as well as small farmers who struggle to maintain an unhindered supply of fertilisers, pesticides or continue to buy new generations of seeds.

As happens with all new technology, the interests of the big companies lead to many problems for those who adopt the technology. In Kenya, and Africa in general, the negative impact of agricultural biotechnology are showing. Farmers in Kenya traditionally save and  share seeds with members of the extended family and others in the village. This sharing can spread to nearby villages. When selling, trade is expanded to as many villages as possible. However treaties and trade agreements signed by the Kenyan government forces the African country to prevent the kind of community sharing that is part of the traditions of the small farmers.

Kenya is a member state of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and this is a very powerful source of pressure for the East African nation, much like all other member states. It compels the government to adopt certain agreements which do not favour local independent production in the long run. Other agreements are negotiated by biotechnology giant corporations against the breaking of their patent rights, as provided for by WTO. This has the impact of stifling the diversity of seeds, as GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are “protected” legally. Small farmers are not allowed to share the seeds, and the technology that is used by the big companies also prevents the plant from producing seeds that the farmers can store and use in the following years. This makes small farmers dependent on the companies for new seeds every year.

Some of the sources of pressure for African states to allow the privatisation of seeds include the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, the treaties adopted between individual countries, and a free trade agreement that is still being negotiated. This agreement will force small farmers to buy seeds from companies from the USA and Europe.

In many parts of the world small farmers have formed organisations to resist the power of the multinational companies and their control of seeds around the world. One of the organisations that has taken up this struggle is Via Campesina. Via Campensina is an international organisation of small farmers with more than 200 million members in 81 countries. There are more than 182 organisations that are affiliated to Via Campesina. An important campaign of Via Campesina is the Seed Campaign. According to Elizabeth Mpofu, the Via Campesina coordinator in Zimbabwe, “we want our governments to protect our traditional crops and not to introduce costly new varieties which require agrochemicals which damage nature and our health. We cannot let our culture die. We need resources to raise awareness of the benefits of traditional crops, particularly among the new generation that is being seduced by unhealthy food.”

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