AGRICULTURE-AFRICA: Seeking Diversity, Resilience and Farmer Control
Posted on June 20th, 2009
Global Geopolitics Net Sites / IPS
By Raffaella Delle Donne
CAPE TOWN, Jun 20 (IPS) - The Alliance for a Green Revolution in
Africa (AGRA) claims that its "stress breeding", high-yield seed
program and its emphasis on grassroots farmer input will boost
agricultural production among poor, small scale farmers. But NGOs and
environmentalists say AGRA's Programme for Africa's Seed System
(PASS) is essentially a top-down, corporate driven approach that
further threatens food security on the continent.
Like its predecessor, AGRA's 'new' Green Revolution views food
shortages as a crisis of demand-and-supply and has initiated what Joe
de Vries, director of PASS, describes as a "farmer participatory"
program that aims to develop strains of crops specifically suited to
"It is our belief that Africa's farmers need to move beyond
subsistence farming and that by doing so they will benefit, and so
will African consumers through greater abundance of food in local
markets," says de Vries.
For many NGOs working with subsistence farmers, AGRA's model has more
to do with increasing Africa's production of commercial crops for
export and opening up markets for agribusiness than it does with
contributing to food security.
"The need to increase yield is a neat argument that is easily
swallowed by governments and citizens.It does not necessarily lead to
ending hunger, especially when that yield is headed for a global
market and remains inaccessible to the majority", says Haidee Swanby,
researcher at the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB).
One of the main criticisms levelled at AGRA is that it has not taken
cognizance of the 2008 report by the International Assessment of
Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development
(IAASTD) which suggested that food sovereignty is inextricably tied
to traditional and ecological agricultural models. "AGRA is not
building on the systems and knowledge that already exist, they are
still encouraging farmers to move to a foreign system that is reliant
on external inputs and they must become reliant on corporations and
expert knowledge," argues Swanby.
The African Centre for Biosafety, along with international
organisations like Food and Water Watch and the Oakland Institute are
particularly concerned that AGRA's "improved" seed program is laying
the foundation for the introduction of GM crops in Africa.
Bill Gates, whose foundation supports AGRA, also funds several other
agricultural initiatives in Africa developing GM crops. AGRA falls
under the Gates Foundation's Global Development Program, whose senior
programme officer is Dr. Robert Horsch - an employee of biotech giant
Monsanto for 25 years and part of a team that developed Roundup Ready
Earlier this year, alarm bells were raised in the anti-GM camp when
AGRA signed a five-year agreement with the Earth Institute at New
York's Columbia University, which is headed by Jeff Sachs, an
outspoken and avid supporter of GMOs.
But Joe de Vries says that AGRA is not funding the development of GM
crops or seeds: "For now, our focus is limited to conventionally-bred
varieties. We feel confident that major changes can be brought about
simply by developing and deploying this [current breeding]
Rural people's organisations like South Africa's Trust for Community
Outreach and Education (TCOE) believe that AGRA has publicly steered
clear of GM technology largely because it is such a contentious issue
and because legislative frameworks are not yet in place in most
"Although AGRA claims that it does not make use of GMO seed, it is
careful not to take a principled position on this contentious topic,
thus leaving the door open to incorporate these into the plan at some
future stage", says Siviwe Mdoda, coordinator of TCOE's Land Rights
The fact that AGRA is developing seeds that are privately-owned
remains a contested issue within debates about food security and food
sovereignty in Africa. Funded by a large corporate network which
includes chemical, seed and fertiliser companies, AGRA has helped
start up private seed enterprises specifically targeting small-scale
farmers in Mozambique, Mali, Malawi and Rwanda to meet, according to
de Vries, the growing demand for hybrid seed.
AGRA has also been working closely with African governments who are
interested in instituting subsidised seed packages with incentives
like free seeds and fertilisers for the first year and subsidised
packages for the next three or four years. Through these seed
packages, argues Mdoda, farmers who for generations have owned their
own seeds will become locked into a cycle of dependency on seeds
which they have to then continually purchase, along with specific
"AGRA should be supporting seed saving and indigenous seed banks, not
encouraging the production of patented varieties that are not
suitable for use in the next planting season," he says.
For Joe De Vries, the only solution to uplifting Africa's rural poor
is to increase agricultural production by helping farmers to access
seeds for the 68 new varieties of crops like cassava, sorghum and
maize that PASS has released which can be used together with
fertilisers: "In order to access quality technology, you have to pay
for it - the alternative is hunger. The way to break free from the
cycle of poverty is to get better seeds and produce more food".
De Vries, an expert in plant-breeding and genetics, believes that
because Africa's soil is so depleted, it is unfeasible to grow food
without increasing the use of fertiliser and says that AGRA has being
working with African agronomists, scientists and farmers to find a
balance between organic and inorganic methods of sustaining soil
"Inorganic fertilisers, used in judicious amounts which are in
balance with the environment, have helped free billions of people
from hunger throughout the world," he says.
Swanby and Mdodo believe that poorly-educated and impoverished
farmers have little chance of competing with large-scale commercial
farmers, and that if food security was the priority, AGRA would be
concerned with addressing issues such as access to land and water,
fair trade and ownership of resources: "In terms of production
systems, yield is not as important as diversity, resilience and
farmer control over resources," says Swanby.
All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service, 2009.