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AGRICULTURE-AFRICA: Seeking Diversity, Resilience and Farmer Control

Raffaella Delle Donne

CAPE TOWN, Jun 19 2009 (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.

Putting the right seeds in small farmers' hands is vital. Credit: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

Putting the right seeds in small farmers' hands is vital. Credit: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

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.

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