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  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 
African conditions.

"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 
GM crops.

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] 
technology."

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 
African countries.

"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 
Programme.

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 
chemical fertilisers.

"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 
health.

"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.