‘The origin of food is seed,’ says campaign group Food Sovereignty Ghana. ‘Whoever controls the seed controls the entire food chain.’
Today Ghana’s farmers, like many others across the world, face an all-out assault on their right to control the food they grow and eat. It’s a war that pitches massive agribusiness against millions of small farmers and peasants.
Many farmers in Ghana, as elsewhere, have traditionally relied on informal ways of improving and trading seeds. They save seeds from year to year, and work with others in the community to ensure a diversity of strong varieties through community seed banks and farmer-led seed breeding programmes. These methods help farmers pool resources and access productive seeds outside of the market.
This system doesn’t suit those who profit from the commodification and marketing of seeds. Seed and GMO multinational Monsanto plans to spend £30 million expanding its operations across Africa in coming years. Monsanto wants to patent seed varieties that can’t be passed on from farmer to farmer – so small-scale farmers become dependent on purchasing seeds year after year, increasing chemical farming and forcing farmers into debt and potentially out of business.
The plans of seed companies depend on countries adopting a stringent – and enforceable – form of intellectual property regime. That’s the point of the Plant Breeders Bill, currently making its way through Ghana’s parliament.
The bill would establish an intellectual property rights regime for genetic materials that would allow companies anywhere in the world to gain ownership of seed varieties they claim to have developed. The government claims the bill would help foster innovation in seed breeding.
But companies would not have to disclose the origins of seeds they patent, paving the way for ‘bio-piracy’ from poor communities. Opponents fear the bill would hand control of Ghana’s seed markets to giant corporations and have dubbed it ‘the Monsanto Law’.
In November, chiefs and peasant farmers in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana made a vow to vote against all MPs in the next general election if they support the bill. This follows months of street protests in major cities.
These protests by farmers and campaigners already made an impact when the parliament’s speaker insisted that the bill effectively returned to its second reading in order to address public concerns. Ministers had been lambasted for previously holding the bill’s readings when attention was distracted during Ghana’s appearances at the World Cup.
Ghana is by no means alone. The Plant Breeders Bill is just the latest manifestation of a worldwide push for ‘harmonised’ seed laws that would facilitate a truly global seed economy dominated by big business.
The push is being fuelled with aid money from countries such as the UK, which has committed £600 million to a programme called the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. This leverages corporate ‘investment’ in African agriculture. Ten African countries, including Ghana, are receiving aid in return for policy reforms on seeds, land, trade and tax that would open their markets to big business. As a result, corporations including Diageo, Unilever and Coca Cola are promising to expand business in these countries.
But with resistance growing, the UK government is under fire for backing these reforms at the expense of the very community it is claiming to support: small farmers. More than 100 MPs have signed an early day motion calling on the government to stop promoting such programmes, and ministers are facing questions in parliament on the impacts of the seed laws and the New Alliance.
As pro-corporate seed laws gain momentum around the world, so does resistance. This year, reforms were halted at the EU after resistance by small-scale farmers. In October, Guatemalan farmers celebrated as the government repealed its own ‘Monsanto laws’ after ten days of street protests.
The battle for food is well underway around the globe. A corporate-controlled food system is bad for hunger, bad for democracy and bad for independent livelihoods. Campaigners should support Ghana’s farmers fighting in the front line.
More information at foodsovereigntyghana.org
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