by Chris Walker & Oliver Tickell – The Ecologist, 24 October 2014
Ghana’s government is desperate to pass a Plant Breeders Bill that would remove farmers’ ancient ‘seed freedom’ to grow, retain, breed and develop crop varieties – while giving corporate breeders a blanket exemption from seed regulations. Now the farmers are fighting back.
Farmers in Ghana are on the frontlines of a battle. The national parliament has just returned from its summer break – and the first item on their legislative agenda is the government’s controversial Plant Breeders Bill.
The proposed legislation contains rules that would restrict farmers from an age-old practice: freely saving, swapping and breeding seeds they rely on for their own subsistence, and to feed the country.
Under the laws, farmers that use seed varieties claimed under new intellectual property rights by individuals and companies anywhere in the world risk hefty fines or even imprisonment.
According to the Ghanaian government and its corporate backers, the new laws would incentivise the development of new seed varieties and ensure crops are safe and saleable.
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 warn that the Bill would hand control of the country’s seeds to giant corporations like Monsanto. They fear the laws would allow corporations to exploit farmers, capture profit and push GM seeds in to the country’s food system. It’s why campaigners have dubbed the bill ‘the Monsanto Law’.
Resistance is fertile
“The economic impact on the lives of farmers will be disastrous”, says Duke Tagoe of Food Sovereignty Ghana (FSG). “The origin of food is seed. Whoever controls the seed control the entire food chain.”
He draws particular attention to the Bill’s “infamous” Clause 23, which states: “A plant breeder right shall 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.”
According to Tagoe, the effect of PBB’s Clause 23 is to “allow corporations to limit what Ghana’s government can do, while Ghana’s government will lose power to limit what corporations can do within Ghana.”
“If Ghana passes the Plant Breeders Bill it gives away control of its agriculture, and gives away its control of its own food supply for nothing but empty promises. The Plant Breeders Bill makes a gift of Ghana’s land and agriculture to the Agribusiness TNCs. With this law, the TNCs can flood Ghana with GMOs and demand Ghana pay the price they set.”
A statement by FSG Chairperson Ali-Masmadi Jehu-Appiah added: “We have every reason to believe that Parliament is being blackmailed by USAID and the G8/G7 whose intention is to advance the interests of their agribusiness Trans National Corporations, TNCs. Their tool is the G8 New Alliance, G8NA. They clearly do not care about Ghana.
“IMF funds are almost certainly being held hostage waiting for passage of the Plant Breeders Bill. We know from the experience of other countries that Millennium Challenge Account payments are tied to GMOs and GMO related bills, such as our Plant Breeders Bill. We know promised money may be withheld from Ghana pending the coerced passage of the bill.”
Indigenous and peasant farmers unite
“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 Ghana National Association of Farmers and Fishermen.
“This system aims to compel farmers to purchase seeds for every planting season.” Across the world, the group argues, farmers have got in to dangerous levels of debt at the hands of companies which have come to control their seed supply.
The ‘Civil Society platform on the Plant Breeders Bill’ was launched in Accra last Thursday by the Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Organisational Development (CIKOD) and the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana (PFAG).
Its aim is to follow the parliamentary debate – and pressure Government to drop the Bill in its entirety, or amend it to remove any measures injurious to agriculture in Ghana.
As Charles Nyaaba of the Peasant Farmers Association explained to Ghana Web, the platform would also promote alternatives to GMO and other industrial agriculture models:
“For instance, we are now trying to create seed banks, and those seed banks will be used to identify our indigenous foods that are getting lost in the system.”
The Platform would further be used to promote food sovereignty in Ghana and protect the rights of small-scale farmers to produce, select, exchange and sell their local seeds – and prevent possible contamination of their seeds by genetically modified (GMO) seeds from agribusiness.
Corporate ‘plant protection’ trumps farmers’ seed freedom
Ghana’s proposed seed laws are the latest manifestation of a worldwide push by corporations to takeover food systems. Currently, 70% of the world’s food is produced by small-scale farmers. But in recent decades they have lost land, markets and livelihoods to corporate investors.
In 2013, the World Bank announced that “Africa represents the ‘last frontier’ in global food and agricultural markets.” Global corporations are now moving in fast to buy up Africa’s formerly independent seed companies.
And governments, including the British and US, are using aid and the promise of corporate investment through benevolent-sounding programmes like the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition to leverage pro-corporate policy reforms in Africa. Giant agribusinesses including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Monsanto and Syngenta are already lining up for the spoils.
As part of this, Ghana, along with other African states, signed up to ‘plant variety protection’ (PVP) laws promoted under the highly-criticized International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) 1991.
But as FSG Chairperson Ali-Masmadi Jehu-Appiah explains, there is no legal requirement for them to do this: “Some MPs claim, or have been misled to believe, that Ghana must pass the UPOV-bill as it stands, to be in compliance with the World Trade Organization, the WTO.
“This is not the case. We do not need to be part of UPOV. Developing countries such as Ghana have full rights under the WTO to pass their own ‘sui generis’ bill. This simply means that Ghana can design a bill that will meet the specific needs of our country and protect Ghanaian farmers and Ghanaian plant breeders.”
Farmers worldwide resist corporate enclosure
Backing from corporate investors, aid donors, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has ensured that PVP has been on the agenda of governments worldwide.
Yet farmers are fighting back. The resistance to Ghana’s seed laws follows mobilizations in Europe, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere in Africa against the international UPOV regime.
Earlier this year, small-scale farmers across Europe successfully halted EU-wide plant variety protection laws. In September, Guatemalan farmers, indigenous groups, and women’s organizations won a victory when their congress repealed the country’s own Monsanto law after 10 days of widespread street protests.
The battle over control of seeds is key to the worldwide movement for food sovereignty: a vision for sustainable food grown for and by the communities that rely on it, not corporations. The onset of industrial agriculture has led to a 70% decrease in agricultural biodiversity worldwide.
That’s bad news for small-scale farmers needing to adapt to environmental and market changes. Yet farmers the world over are reclaiming their seeds and standing up for resilient, productive livelihoods in the face of corporate control.
UK Action: email your MP to contact International Development Secretary Justine Greening about the ‘Monsanto law’ in Ghana.
Chris Walker is a researcher on WDM’s Food Sovereignty campaign.
Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.
This article is based on an original article by Chris Walker published on New Internationalist under a Creative Commons licence, with additional reporting by The Ecologist.