Africa’s Sovereignty Over Food

Local food and seed systems must be rebuilt for Africans, write Mariam Mayet, Stephen Greenberg and Linzi Lewis.

By Mariam Mayet, Stephen Greenberg and Linzi Lewis  African Centre for Biodiversity
in Johnnesburg
Inter Press Service

Africa is facing dire times. Climate change is having major impacts on the region and on agriculture in particular, with smallholder farmers —many of them women — facing drought, general lack of water, shifting seasons, and floods in some areas. 

Smallholder farmers are often women because in the prevailing division of labor, women are generally responsible for food acquisition and diets. Smallholder farmers are facing the loss of agricultural biodiversity, deforestation, declining soil health and fertility, land and water grabs by the powerful, loss of land access, marginalization and loss of indigenous knowledge and generalized lack of essential services and support.

A cassava farmer in Ghana's Northern Region. (Neil Palmer with CIAT via Flickr)

A cassava farmer in Ghana’s Northern Region. (Neil Palmer with CIAT via Flickr)

At the same time, economies are weakening and remain heavily dependent on foreign aid, with extractivist interventions from outside. There is a strong authoritarian orientation in governments in the region, with secrecy and lack of transparency and accountability, weak and fragmented civil society organization and top-down development interventions.

There has been corporate capture of key state institutions, decision making processes and functions. Seed and food systems have been appropriated for multinational corporate profit.

Unchecked Corporate Power 

At present, corporate power is almost unchecked in agricultural input supply. The dominant narrative of agribusinesses being indispensable for feeding the world holds great sway on the continent, where corporations have captured policy making processes.

Although most seed on the continent is sourced from farmers’ own savings, sharing and local markets, this system is not recognized in policies and laws in most countries. Instead, farmer seed practices are marginalized and generally denigrated as poor quality and backward.

(Linzi Lewis)

(Linzi Lewis)

The predominant thrust of agricultural and seed policy and programming on the continent is to seek to replace them. Multinational corporate interests, with support from key continental, regional and national state institutions and agencies, are driving two trends. One is large-scale commercial industrialization by a global agribusiness coalition, or through a Green Revolution smallholder strategy to integrate a layer of smallholder farmers into corporate value chains for the export of bulk commodity crops such as maize and soya.

Women play an essential role in the selection, saving, and sharing of seeds, as part of a broader network within farmer-managed seed systems, shaping the agricultural diversity that meets needs of local populations.  This applies to both staple crops, as well as other food crops. In many ways, this pool of genetic resources, which women continue to develop and maintain, is the backbone of human society.

The restrictions placed over reproductive materials, i.e. seed (including all cultivation materials), and the centralized decision-making around reproduction towards uniformity, homogeneity, ownership, creates greater inequality, amplified vulnerability and a reliance on external inputs, which places the future of food production at greater risk.

Increasing restrictions on use, lack of support for these activities and even their criminalization makes production conditions more challenging for all smallholder farmers

(Neil Palmer with CIAT via Flickr)

(Neil Palmer with CIAT via Flickr)

Restrictions on seed use, what may and may not be produced and how, translate into limits on food diversity at the household level, which is a key element of nutrition.

Since the majority of seed cultivated on the continent is saved on farms, exchanged and locally traded by farmers, this provides a solid base for alternative seed sovereignty systems to thrive outside the credit and corporate market.

For small-holder farmers in Africa, the importance of farmer seed systems as central to conserving biodiversity, ensuring nutrition diversity and supporting livelihoods has been highlighted in a huge body of work over the past 30 or 40 years.

However, these systems can benefit from external support. A key priority for smallholder farmers in Africa is resilience in the face of harsh weather events. This requires seed variety adaptation and greater agricultural diversity. Women are the primary custodians of our seed diversity, the custodians of reproduction, of life. This highlights the struggles of farmers’ rights, of reproductive rights, to self-determination, and to maintain life-supporting systems.

An ecological, food-systems-transition coalition, based on agroecology and food sovereignty, has found some traction in Africa and globally, but remains relatively weak, fragmented and under-resourced.

Farmers, with support from civil society groups, are doing important work on agroecology and sustainable agriculture, but are often unable to break out of their localized practices.

These need to urgently connect with others on the continent into a bigger and more coherent movement for change, especially radical feminist movements on the continent.  Together, we can fight back and contest the hegemony of large-scale commercial farming and corporate agri-business. We must, together, rebuild and strengthen local food and seed systems for all Africans.

The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) is a nonprofit organization based in South Africa with staff in Tanzania. It carries out research and analysis, learning and exchange, capacity and movement building, and advocacy to widen awareness, catalyze collective action and influence decision making on issues of biosafety, genetic modification (GM) and new technologies, seed laws, farmer seed systems, agricultural biodiversity, agroecology, corporate expansion in African agriculture, and food sovereignty in Africa.


13 comments for “Africa’s Sovereignty Over Food

  1. Babyl-on
    March 11, 2019 at 10:11

    One family – the Cargill family – owns millions of acres of arable land throughout Africa as well as on other continents. That family is the world’s largest by far family farmer. They are big enough to be able to burn the Amazon without any problem and have never stopped.

    The global reality of the West is that it is a Feudal system not capitalist.

  2. TomG
    March 10, 2019 at 09:25

    We certainly have not beat back the hegemony of big ag in this country. I’m not sure how we think we are going to do so on the African continent until we contain the Bayer/Monsanto/Cargil chokehold in the ‘developed’ countries of the world no place more so than the USA. The ‘virtues’ of yield and draught resistance of patented seed stock is queued up and ready for climate change and no doubt the WTO and INF will cram these products down the throats of African agriculture just as they do the rest of the world. Divest here of these corporations if we want any meaningful sustainability in small scale agriculture.

  3. March 10, 2019 at 06:51

    Probably being unfair, but the above sounds like a grant application with every catch word imaginable.

    The point made: “Restrictions on seed use, what may and may not be produced and how, translate into limits on food diversity at the household level, which is a key element of nutrition.:

    That I understand and having farmers having to depend on patented seas should not be allowed or seed should be provided gratis. As to agricultural practices, it is undeniable that economies of scale pay great dividends in agriculture and countries are not going to be food independent or close to it without larger plots of land, however owned, Cooperatives are obviously one way.

    Admittedly, as Americans with out good wealth, ample land, and a strong agricultural research backing have a hard time understanding the problems of poor countries, both economically and politically. Living a few years in Ethiopia with its extremes of wet and dry weather and primitive animal husbandry practice, I have some appreciation, but little real understanding.

    • March 10, 2019 at 06:53

      Sorry, not good wealth but good weather.

  4. Michael
    March 10, 2019 at 05:35

    These authors should read John Perkin’s book on Economic Hit Men. Africa is the new frontier with incredible resources, like a ripening fruit for American big banks and huge corporations to pluck. The African countries will receive huge ‘modernizing’ loans, their corrupt leaders will get huge bribes and skip the country, those ‘who play well with others’ in the big cities will get some advantages of the modernization, but the bulk of the people will lose what little social programs they have, and face extreme austerity. It is the American way and unstoppable.

  5. Tom Kath
    March 9, 2019 at 19:43

    Such an important subject so ridiculously diminished and distorted by pretending it is a “women’s power” issue.

  6. mike k
    March 9, 2019 at 17:36

    Africa is a great capitalist success story – with millions reduced to extreme poverty and a small number inside and outside the continent making billions of dollars. After all profits equal success don’t they?

  7. Virginia
    March 9, 2019 at 14:37

    Nice to see this — African women taking the lead in agriculture — in conjunction with International Women’s Day. Thank you, Consortiumnews, for publishing this. Many women in the States with small children see a need for growing their own produce. They deserve championing and society’s support.

    • Amy
      March 11, 2019 at 23:35

      Silly. Ask yourselves why it’s so often the women doing the majority of the farm work? Go look up the reclaimed farms of south Africa. Watch the videos. It’s mostly women working. If this is female empowerment… well then they have arrived.

  8. Mark Stanley
    March 9, 2019 at 13:14

    The need for genetic diversity within any given plant species is so blatantly obvious that it’s difficult to comprehend how anyone could deny it—but they do, or the reality is conveniently ignored.
    Meanwhile, Big AG marches on, supported by academics and governments. Control the food supply. So much has already been written on this.
    Since about 1550, potatoes have evolved from the tiny finger-sized tubers traded from South America to ones like the African lady is holding in the image. Outside of the lens of history, it has predominantly been the common people who selected for quality, size, disease resistance, drought tolerance etc. I tip my hat to those men and women who have, over the centuries patiently worked unheralded. We will never know who they were.
    Instead we study the sociopaths, alphas, and psychopaths—the Alexanders, the Napoleons, the Hitlers, and the Hillarys.

    What is wrong this picture? Human psychology really needs a re-boot.

    How many Americans know who Luther Burbank was? The next time you’re chowing down on some fries that came with your burger from Rat-In-The-Box, thank Mr. Burbank—it was he that developed that potato: the Burbank Russet. That disease resistant selection was developed on the heels of the Irish potato famine, which was a result of Phytophthora infestans infecting a monoculture. The Irish mostly grew just one kind of potato that turned out to be susceptible.
    Now we have Big Brother toying with monoculture

    • michael
      March 10, 2019 at 05:42

      Excellent observations! Not so long ago Henry Wallace was an intellectual innovative farmer and FDR’s VP. He was dissed as an out-of-touch idealist, replaced by Truman by the corrupt politicians (even then!)

      With the temperature increases, there will be need to develop plants that have heat resistance (Africa seems an obvious source as does other equatorial third world agricultures with heritage seeds. (A bigger problem is that we have lost most of our insects, which pollinate important food crops, and we have no idea why. )

  9. Sam F
    March 9, 2019 at 13:10

    While interesting, the role of radical feminism is not as clear as the argument about the destructive effects of unregulated agribusiness. International sympathy may be thereby aroused, and the more the better. But regulation of market economies, aid from developed nations, and liberation from corrupt governments, will all be essential to justice for the developing nations. Restoration of democracy in the corrupt former democracies of the west must be the first step.

  10. Brian James
    March 9, 2019 at 12:29

    FEBRUARY 12, 2019 Pesticide Levels In Families Dropped By 60% After One-Week Organic Diet: Study

    A new peer-reviewed study shows that eating a completely organic diet—even for just one week—can dramatically reduce the presence of pesticide levels in people, a finding that was characterized as “groundbreaking” by critics of an industrial food system that relies heavily on synthetic toxins and chemicals to grow crops and raise livestock.

    Nov 3, 2014 Monsanto Caused 291,000 Suicides In India

    In this video Luke talks to Dr. Vandana Shiva about the current situation in India and how GMO’s have affected farmers there. Dr. Shiva is an Indian environmental activist and anti-globalization author.

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