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A smallhold maize farm in Rwanda. (Photo: Flickr/Neil Palmer/CIAT)

Secretive and Seedy: How Aid Donors are Opening the Agribusiness Flood Gates

When big agribusiness teams up with international aid organizations to corner the market on seeds, everyone loses.

Ian Fitzpatrick

A secretive conference, co-organised by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), one of the world’s largest donors, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) takes place in London today, 23 March 2015.

The meeting bears the ludicrously long sobriquet ‘Multiple Pathways for Promoting the Commercial and Sustainable Production and Delivery of Early Generation Seed of Food Crops in Sub-Saharan Africa.’ To give it a more succinct description, this is a meeting where corporations will discuss how to increase their control of the global seed sector. 

The list of invited participants reads like a roll call for some of the most renowned actors in the agribusiness world. Syngenta (the world’s third biggest seed and biotechnology company), and its ‘greenwashing’ relative, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, will make an appearance, as well as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and donor organisations like the UK’s Department for International Development and The World Bank.

The invite list is entirely made up of corporations, development agencies and aid donors. Not a single farmer organisation was invited. But then, why invite a farmer organisation when your aim is helping companies sell new seed varieties? 

From what we’ve seen of the pre-meeting documents that were circulated, the aim of the conference will be to share findings of a report by Monitor Deloitte on developing the commercial seed sector in sub-Saharan Africa.

The neoliberal agenda and food sovereignty

The report recommends that in countries where demand for patented seeds is weaker (i.e. where farmers are using their own seed saving networks), public-private partnerships should be developed so that private companies are protected from ‘investment risk’. It also recommends that that NGOs and aid donors should encourage governments to introduce intellectual property rights for seed breeders and help to persuade farmers to buy commercial, patented seeds rather than relying on their own traditional varieties. 

Finally, in line with the broader neoliberal agenda of agribusiness companies across the world, the report suggests that governments should remove regulations (like export restrictions) so that the seed sector is opened up to the global market. 

This neoliberal agenda of deregulation and privatisation, currently promoted in almost every sphere of human activity – from food production to health and education – poses a serious threat to food sovereignty and the ability of food producers and consumers to define their own food systems and policies.

The two organisations organising the conference, BMGF and USAID, are two of the main driving forces behind the adoption of commercial, patented seeds among poor farmers in Africa. When seed markets are dominated by a handful of companies selling their patented seeds, farmers’ ability to save, exchange and sell their own seed varieties is threatened.

Small farmers hold the keys

We know that up to 75% of the seed varieties needed to produce our food are currently in the hands of small farmers. We also know that smaller farms are more biodiverse, and therefore more resilient to crop disease and climate change than large plantations. 

But despite the incredibly important role that small farmers play in preserving seed varieties and creating resilient food systems, large donors like BMGF, USAID, and DfID (particularly with its support of the New Alliance initiative) seem more interested in supporting big business and promoting policies that make it easier for agribusiness companies to control seed markets. In fact, BMGF and USAID’s priorities are laid bare in the report. They include increasing the role of large seed companies in the seed sector, together with helping small and medium-sized companies produce their own patented seed varieties. 

The recent Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology, which was backed by Via Campesina, one of the world’s largest social movements with over 250m members, and dozens of other farming and food producing groups, is as clear about the problem: 

“The corporate model over-produces food that poisons us, destroys soil fertility, is responsible for the deforestation of rural areas, the contamination of water and the acidification of oceans and killing of fisheries. Essential natural resources have been commodified, and rising production costs are driving us off the land. Farmers’ seeds are being stolen and sold back to us at exorbitant prices, bred as varieties that depend on costly, contaminating agrochemicals.”

It is also clear about the solution, stating that agroecology, within a food sovereignty framework, offers us a collective path through the current food crisis. A truly sustainable food system recognises the fundamental contribution that small farmers make to it through their preservation of seed diversity and farmers’ own innovation, research and breeding skills. It also recognises that farming is political and a sustainable farming system requires us to challenge the current power imbalance in the food system and put the control of seeds and other resources into the hands of the estimated two billion small farmers, fisherfolk, peasants and pastoralists that currently feed our world.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Ian Fitzpatrick

Ian Fitzpatrick is a food sovereignty researcher with Global Justice Now.

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