For over two decades, and in defence of life and democracy, diverse constituencies in Africa have promoted the rights of small farmers and their seed systems, and have expressed and continue to express concern related to the use and governance of modern biotechnology on the continent. We include smallholder farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk, hunter/gatherers, indigenous peoples, citizens, environmentalists, scientists, and cooperative civil society mechanisms. All are legitimate rights holders on the continent, of whom the African Union (AU) is supposed to be a representative mechanism.
We, the undersigned, are therefore dismayed and angered at the way in which the African Union’s Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture, now the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, Blue Economy and Sustainable Development, has proceeded with the development and planned validation of two sets of guidelines related to our food and seed systems – Continental Guidelines for the Use of Biotechnology to Enhance Agricultural Productivity for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa (Draft Report) and Development of Continental Guidelines for the Harmonisation of Seed Regulatory Frameworks in Africa (Draft Report). The AU Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture is holding a meeting this Monday 23 August 2021 where it aims to validate these reports, so that they can be sent to and finalised at the AU Summit in October this year.
We completely reject both sets of draft guidelines, and the validation process, for three main reasons.
Firstly, the process around them has been utterly undemocratic. In the case of the draft biotechnology guidelines, despite historical input and active efforts to engage by representative CSO bodies in a number of ongoing AU processes, there has been no effort to include key interest groups in this particular and controversial sector. There are related significant impacts on African human rights and development trajectories of our continent. The AU has before recognised the uncertainties and unresolved issues surrounding new and emerging technologies not only in Africa, but globally. It is therefore expected that any processes related to continental harmonisation should be undertaken in an appropriately judicious, inclusive and democratic manner. However, the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty for Africa (AFSA) were only (informally) informed of the development of these guidelines late on Friday 13th August 2021; and the process of guideline development has reportedly been ongoing since March 2021!
The process for the draft guidelines on seed harmonisation was opened up for consultation in April 2021, but since then the revised draft now includes highly problematic provisions that were included without further consultation. For example, the latest draft is now promoting UPOV as the basis for harmonising plant variety protection on the continent. UPOV is an authoritarian instrument of intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement that is about collecting profits for commercial seed breeders at the expense of human rights and the agricultural heritage of our continent, and to the detriment of farmers’ rights and peasants’ rights in particular, as derived from Article 9 of the ITPGRFA and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other Rural Workers respectively. This speaks to the larger issue of lack of democracy on the continent, including in the AU. Processes like seed and biotechnology harmonisation have been decided behind closed doors between industry and the AU, with no participation by the majority of small-scale farmers. This way of operating is a betrayal of the democratic rights of the African people and we will fight tooth and nail against it.
Secondly, the guidelines do not reflect the needs of the African continent, smallholders and ecologies, and are blind to the real solutions that exist. In particular, many agro-ecological initiatives are being promoted and developed for sustainable, environmentally friendly agriculture based on farmers’ seeds. Instead of proposing a framework for regulating biotechnology like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the continent, the biotechnology guidelines shamelessly promote modern biotechnology through biased and distorted narratives, and even problematise the precautionary approach as a barrier to wider biotechnology diffusion. The likes of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and other pro GMO institutions such as Alliance For Science have for a long time advocated for GMO uptake and for associated regulatory changes in the interests of transnational agricultural input companies.
In the case of the guidelines for seed harmonisation on the continent, we will not be fooled by the inclusion of farmer managed seed systems (FMSS), which seek to incorporate them into the logic of the commercial seed breeding system, which will further subordinate farmer seed systems to corporate domination. Farmers’ rights can only be realised by defending and strengthening farmer managed seed systems in their own right, as part of the fulfillment of a broad array of human rights. We will not hand over farmer managed seed systems to transnational corporations by allowing them to be swallowed up by UPOV seed laws and the commercial seed value chain.
Our fundamental rejection of the process for harmonising both biotechnology and seed frameworks on the continent is therefore that, thirdly, they are about forging regulatory systems that form the continental scaffolding for the corporate consolidation of our seed and food systems. That the AU is playing an active role in coordinating the corporate takeover of our seed and food systems is deplorable, and all those African representatives organising this process should hang their heads in shame. You are accountable to African people and ecologies, not to powerful corporations and the northern governments that promote their interests. We will never stop defending our continent, its people, its agricultural and ecological heritage, and the right of us all to determine our own futures free from the authoritarian objectives of corporations and even our own governments. We will always defend life!
We therefore demand that:
- The proposed validation of the draft reports on the guidelines is immediately suspended
- That processes related to the seed and food system futures of the continent are subjected to thoroughly democratic procedures in which relevant constituencies are meaningfully consulted and positioned as the key drivers of any related efforts
- The African Union upholds the precautionary principle
- Processes around seed on the continent must be driven by farmer constituencies, not the seed industry. In particular, any process aimed at farmer managed seed systems must ensure the full realisation of farmers’ rights as human rights, and ensure adequate geographical representation from smallholder farmer organisations from across the continent from the beginning. All related processes underway must be immediately suspended until this is put in place.
- The AU immediately desists from any continental efforts to promote corporate theft of our genetic heritage and food sovereignty through modern biotechnology, and therefore ensures that African rights holders are fully represented in all discussions, genesis and policy processes related to decision making around biotechnology.
Organisations that endorse this statement: