¿Business profit or diverse food systems?

A new report unveils how corporations and governments are actively pushing for commercial seeds in West Africa having profound implications on people’s diets and rights.

In West Africa, more than 80 % of the seed used by peasant communities stems from traditional species and varieties, and are selected, saved, used and exchanged according to customary practices. Despite guaranteeing diverse food systems and rural people’s rights, these traditional seed systems are under attack, as governments, corporations and development agencies proactively promote commercial seeds and intellectual property rights.

A new report launched today by the     Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition and the Global Convergence of Land and Water Struggles – West Africa describes the mechanisms behind a forced transformation towards farming and food systems that serve the interests of business. Based on discussions with more than 400 peasants in Burkina Faso, the report shows the profound implications for the lives of peasant communities of the introduction of commercial seeds. These range from the loss of peasant varieties, over more external input-dependent farming models, to less diverse diets.

Commercial seeds, leading to dependency

“Peasant seed systems are based on communities’ knowledge as well as on species and varieties, which they have selected and constantly adapted to the environment over centuries,” says Rosalie Ouoba of the Burkina Faso Platform of the Global Convergence of Land and Water Struggles – West Africa. “For peasant communities, seeds are more than a ‘genetic material,’ but a part of the web of relationships that they entertain with nature. Some communities that were interviewed described seeds as the ‘soul of the peasant’. Women, and elderly women in particular, play a crucial role in the conservation and selection of traditional varieties.” Because of their adaptability, peasant seeds are also a key element for communities’ responses to climate change, as rain patterns in the region become more irregular.

While peasant seed systems ensure peasants’ control over the entire cycle of seed production and use and, consequently, gives them a large measure of autonomy and independence, the commercial system engenders a need to buy seeds and inputs. This, combined with legal and/or technological restrictions on seed saving and use, mires the peasants in increasing dependency. In addition, peasants maintain an enormous diversity of species and varieties through their seed systems, which is the basis of rich and diverse food and nutrition.

Corporations are “dividing the pie”

The spectacular failure of GMO cotton in Burkina Faso sheds a light on the consequences of a production system that is dominated by some few companies and transforms peasant communities into passive recipients of seeds and agrochemicals, while their farming activities are restricted by exclusive, patent-protected rights. “The introduction of GMO cotton exacerbated the debt-cycle in which cotton growers find themselves at the bottom of a transnational value chain. Their complete dependency on the national cotton companies and the agribusiness TNC Monsanto, let them no choice but to grow GMOs using the chemical package that is sold by the very same companies,” underlines FIAN International’s Natural Resources coordinator, Philip Seufert. Until today, no independent assessment has been made about the consequences of eight years of GMO cultivation.

“Peasants’ rights to seeds are guaranteed by international law, including the human rights framework and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,” Seufert continues. “However, these rights are not being implemented and states have focused their efforts in harnessing the intellectual property regime, which limits peasant’s access to and use of seeds,” he adds.

Fighting against the legal grey-zone
Indeed, human rights obligations require states to recognize, protect and support peasant seed systems, preserve biodiversity and effectively protect people from the risks of biotechnology. However, current laws in West Africa leave the status of peasant seeds and their management in a grey-zone, which exposes them to biopiracy and confines them into so-called “informal” seed systems. At the same time, national and subregional policies promote the industrial production of commercial seeds and the establishment of a commercial seed sector.

Against these trends, social movements and peasants’ organizations are mobilizing to protect their seeds and advance their rights, through laws and policies that are based on agroecology and the right to food. Processes like the one towards a UN Declaration on the Right of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas or the development of guidelines for the implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), provide important entry points. West Africa’s diversity of species and varieties is a treasure, which was developed and is kept by the region’s peasant communities, and whose importance stretches to all of humanity.