This week, farmers in Ghana are on the frontlines of a battle. The national parliament is due to return from its summer break and first thing on the agenda is the government’s Plant Breeders Bill. The proposed legislation contains rules that would restrict farmers from an age-old practice: freely saving, swapping, and breeding seeds they rely on. Under the laws, farmers that use seed varieties claimed under new intellectual property rights by individuals and companies anywhere in the world risk hefty fines or even imprisonment.
According to the Ghanaian government and its corporate backers, the new laws would incentivise the development of new seed varieties and ensure crops are safe and saleable. Yet in recent months, farmers, campaigners, trade unions and faith groups have taken to the streets in the cities of Accra, Tamale and beyond. They warn that the bill would hand control of the country’s seeds to giant corporations like Monsanto. They fear the laws would allow corporations to exploit farmers, capture profit and push GM seeds in to the country’s food system. It’s why campaigners have dubbed the bill "the Monsanto Law".
"The Plant Breeders Bill aims to replace traditional varieties of seeds with uniform commercial varieties and increase the dependency of smallholders on commercial varieties," says the Ghana National Association of Farmers and Fishermen. "This system aims to compel farmers to purchase seeds for every planting season." Across the world, farmers have got in to dangerous levels of debt at the hands of companies which have come to control their seed supply. "The economic impact on the lives of farmers will be disastrous," says Duke Tagoe of Food Sovereignty Ghana. "The origin of food is seed. Whoever controls the seed control the entire food chain."
Ghana’s proposed seed laws are the latest manifestation of a worldwide push by corporations to takeover food systems. Currently, 70 per cent of the world’s food is produced by small-scale farmers. But in recent decades they have lost land, markets and livelihoods to corporate investors. In 2013, the World Bank announced that "Africa represents the 'last frontier' in global food and agricultural markets". Now governments, including the British and US, are using aid and the promise of corporate investment through benevolent-sounding programmes like the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition to leverage pro-corporate policy reforms in Africa. Giant agribusinesses including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Monsanto, and Syngenta are already lining up for the spoils.
As part of this, Ghana, along with other African states, signed up to "plant variety protection" (PVP) laws promoted under the highly-criticized International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) 1991. Backing from corporate investors, aid donors, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has ensured that PVP has been on the agenda of governments worldwide. Yet farmers are fighting back. The resistance to Ghana’s seed laws follows mobilizations in Europe, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere in Africa against the international UPOV regime. Earlier this year, small-scale farmers across Europe successfully halted EU-wide plant variety protection laws. In September, Guatemalan farmers, indigenous groups, and women’s organizations won a victory when their congress repealed the country’s own Monsanto law after 10 days of widespread street protests.
The battle over control of seeds is key to the worldwide movement for food sovereignty: a vision for sustainable food grown for and by the communities that rely on it, not corporations. The onset of industrial agriculture has led to a 70-per-cent decrease in agricultural biodiversity worldwide. That’s bad news for small-scale farmers needing to adapt to environmental and market changes. Yet farmers the world over are reclaiming their seeds and standing up for resilient, productive, livelihoods in the face of corporate control.