Towards biodiversity advocacy in Africa: a wakeup call to raise our voices against profit-oriented policy regimes

by Dr Daniel Maingi – Programs Manager – Growth Partners Africa and Coordinator Kenya Food Rights Alliance.

Seeds do not have boundaries, nor do they respect them. They are apolitical and must not be restricted by man-made trade barriers since they belong to and benefit all humanity. Seeds are alive and give life. They are fundamental to the right to food and sustainable livelihoods and development. Seeds and life forms should be shared to benefit the environment and humanity as nature always intended.

As life forms, seeds contribute immensely to the preservation and improvement of nature through Ecosystem services. Seeds provide life forms – such as trees and plants – that capture water and produce food; that help regulate and control climate, pests and disease; support nutrient cycles and oxygen production. Not least in importance, seeds provide biodiversity that affords limitless medical, cultural, spiritual and recreational benefits to communities.
Communities never sought to confine seeds and biodiversity into geographical and regional boundaries. However, life forms tend to radiate from certain distinct areas.

These are geographical centres of origin (or centres of diversity) where a group of organisms, either domesticated or wild, first developed their distinctive properties. European explorers, such as Christopher Columbus (1493 A.D) picked and spread worldwide, only plant and life forms that they considered of value to exploit and profit from through trade. When Columbus gathered the first plants to take back with him to Spain, little was he aware that he was ushering in a long period of gradual change in food. The movement of new crops and raw materials from the New World to the Old, fundamentally changed the flavor of food the world over and introduced new cuisines.

It is this selective picking of a few plants considered of value to agriculture and food – that set in motion a narrowing of biodiversity and a constricted dependence on only a few crops. The world food supply has grown increasingly dependent on a shrinking list of crops, such as wheat, maize, rice and potato, in the past 50 years. This has had major consequences for human nutrition and global food security. Human diets around the world have grown more homogeneous, accelerating the worldwide rise in obesity, heart disease and diabetes, which are strongly affected by dietary change.

Such a great dietary change had occurred in Ireland when, between 1845 and 1849, the potato blight wiped out a million souls and caused another million to emigrate. The whole region had developed a single-crop dependence – an importation of a domesticated Peruvian potato, which was developed and narrowly bred to be a super producer under European conditions. In modern times, breeders appreciate the importance of wild relatives which are the natural relatives of domesticated crop plants. The Irish Potato blight would not have occurred if there had been efforts to widen the diversity within and between the potato varieties that had become the foundation of Irish food security.

There were also no efforts to diversify the diet away from the potato. The policy lesson – national food security grounded on a narrow base of food crops is a recipe for national disaster and the first nail in the coffin of national security and an erosion of sovereignty. In depending on a single crop like maize, are African nations learning the age-old lessons of the folly of single crop dependencies even in the face of potential disaster indicators such as climate change and pests like the fall army worm?

Locating the origin of crop plants is basic to plant breeding. This allows the discovering of wild relatives, related species, and new genes especially dominant genes, which may provide resistance to diseases and climate change adaptation. Knowledge of the origins of crop plants is important in order to avoid genetic erosion, the loss of germplasm due to the loss of species and landraces, loss of habitat (such as rainforests), and increased urbanization. In our day and age, seed corporations have exploited this knowledge for profit. How?

Through raids into national and international seed banks, and scientific expeditions to far-flung regions to collect life forms that may have potential in providing genes that confer advantage such as disease and pest resistance, adaptation to climatic stress, or even increase exploitable produce like fibre and starch. Such knowledge exploitation ends up being locked in patent protected varieties and hybrids that represent huge profits to Seed merchants. Of import to national and regional governments in Africa, is the need to preserve sovereignty over their genetic resources and over fair advantages conferred in laws written (bilateral, multilateral) to enhance trade and technical cooperation.

Often African nations have been at negotiating tables as unequal partners, with limited knowledge and little legal and technical understanding of the end-game of their developed world partners. A raft of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA’s) currently being negotiated in Africa, automatically make them forfeit reprieves already set in other international laws. This shoves these least developed countries (LDC) into unequal trade partnerships, especially in regard to our natural resources which include our genetic biodiversity. It is a policy strategy that civil society equip themselves with a basic understanding in negotiation skills or at least be familiar with the pitfall of unprepared government officials purporting to represent them in trade and environmental negotiations.

The policy and legal frameworks written to facilitate and run national, regional and international seed banks (including the dooms day vault – the so-called Svalbard Global Seed Vault-) are skewed to the advantage of financially endowed corporations and their surrogate system –the CGIAR (Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers). Yet these seed banks are subject to the Nagoya Protocol on Access and benefit sharing (ABS). ABS states the way in which genetic resources may be accessed, and how the benefits that result from their use are shared between the people or countries using the resources (users) and the people or countries that provide them (providers).

Parties to the Nagoya Protocol agreed that further work is needed, and urge Parties that have not yet done so to, inter alia, develop ABS measures, including on compliance, and to take steps to support the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and local communities in the implementation of the Protocol and to raise awareness among relevant stakeholders and encourage their participation in the implementation of the Protocol.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) assimilated the 1991 rules and laws developed by the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV ‘91). It grants exclusive Intellectual Property Rights to commercial breeders and undermines farmers’ rights. The global policies relating to agricultural research and trade in seeds is now influenced greatly by UPOV, and by proxy – the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO – in English speaking Africa) and by OAPI (Organisation Africaine de la Propriété Intellectuelle- in francophone Africa). UPOV is the only international organization with legal oversight over plant variety protection to profit breeders and patent holders over natural life forms. Any African country wishing to trade under the WTO rules is automatically listed and restricted as non-compliant if its regulations are not compatible with UPOV laws. Likewise, both ARIPO and OAPI are developing harmonized legal frameworks that, once in force, state that only certified seed shall be traded in the region and that only registered persons are legible to trade or deal in seed. The harmonized legal instruments set out stringent, expensive and burdensome variety release, registration and certification processes and requirements while undermining the practice of reuse, saving, sell and free exchange of seed in the region. In essence, it stands to criminalize and marginalize farmers’ seed and farmer managed seed systems.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), adopted in 2001, is a global response to promote the conservation of plant genetic resources and to protect farmer’s rights to access and have fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of their use. This would be an acceptable response to the UPOV quagmire facing farmers – if its proposals were legally binding and not just mere guidelines. Non abidance to UPOV laws is punishable through trade embargo. The ITPGRFA framework are also legally binding, but there is a marked hands-off emphasis on implementation. The two legal instruments are not mutually supportive at the moment. The result is that Farmers’ rights, and the spirit of recognizing the immense contributions of farmers, are diminished and trampled upon by the UPOV ‘91 and the intellectual property protection awarded to corporate breeders.

Genetically engineering (GE) of life forms represents a big departure from the thousands of years of man’s interaction and conservation of genetic resources. GE has the potential to permanently change the inherent nature of seeds and life forms. Since genetic resources belong to all humanity including future generations- the convention on Biological diversity (CBD) has developed binding legal framework – Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (Biosafety laws) – for the protection of Biodiversity. In addition, the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress was adopted as a supplementary agreement to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. It aims to contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity by providing international rules and procedures in the field of liability and redress relating to genetically modified organisms. It requires that response measures are taken in the event of damage resulting from living modified organisms, or where there is sufficient likelihood that damage will result if timely response measures are not taken. For us in Africa, this means we must be at the forefront of any negotiations and decisions on questions of environmental release of GE products, gene drives , gene editing and geo-engineering.

Lastly, the Swakopmund Protocol on the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Folklore entered into force on May 11, 2015. This is a limited yet legally binding agreement of just the 19 English Speaking ARIPO state members. The protocol has far reaching implications on the ownership and use of the knowledge shared by communities – be it for medical, cultural, spiritual and recreational benefits. Moreover, this protocol forces local communities to divulge and register their treasured indigenous knowledge, innovations and technical breakthroughs with ARIPO Headquarters in Zimbabwe, if they ever expect protection and or benefits from other parties who appropriate with a commercial endpoint.