The Shifting Landscape of African Agriculture: Intellectual Property and the Future of Farming

by Ella

In recent months, the global trade regime has set in motion a transformation in African agriculture that has stirred significant debate and concern. A pending draft protocol on intellectual property rights, championed by the trade bodies supporting the African Continental Free Trade Area, seeks to usher in a new era of proprietary and restrictive food cultivation practices across all 54 African nations. This paradigm shift aims to replace centuries-old farming traditions and methods, raising questions about the rights of farmers to save, share, and cultivate their own seeds and crops to meet personal and community needs.

A central point of contention revolves around the fundamental human right of farmers to manage their seeds independently, pitted against corporate property rights that would prioritize patented foreign-engineered seeds, including genetically modified versions of native crops. If enacted, this protocol could reshape African agriculture into a lucrative venture for global agribusiness, encourage export-focused monocultures, and erode resilience in the face of escalating climate challenges.


The architects of this new agricultural paradigm consist not only of major seed and biotech corporations but also encompass government entities and numerous nonprofit and philanthropic organizations. These stakeholders have strategically expanded and reinforced intellectual property regulations surrounding seeds under the umbrella of “climate-smart agriculture.” While this catchphrase promises climate-conscious improvements to food production, it obscures a far more complex and contentious agenda to restructure global agriculture in favor of biotech and agribusiness interests, rather than African farmers or the climate.


The tightening grip of intellectual property laws on farming activities throughout the African Union represents a significant victory for global economic forces that have been striving for three decades to supplant farmer-managed seed systems and forcibly integrate them into the global agribusiness “value chains.” These changes imperil the livelihoods of Africa’s small-scale farmers and their collective biogenetic heritage, which includes a variety of staple grains, legumes, and other crops meticulously nurtured and safeguarded by their ancestors since the dawn of agriculture.


For the farmers caught in the crosshairs of this global campaign to standardize and privatize their seeds, the stakes are nothing less than the preservation of their right to economic self-determination. In early 2023, an investigative journey through Ghana’s northern savanna region revealed the skepticism, confusion, and anger among farmers who are ostensibly the intended beneficiaries of “improved” patented seeds. Despite facing a harsh eight-month dry season and intensifying droughts, many farmers expressed apprehension about the Western-backed seed regime.


In one such instance, a gathering of seven farmers in Paga, near Ghana’s border with Burkina Faso, convened to discuss rumors surrounding the country’s 2020 seed law. Early reports suggested that the legislation criminalized the saving, sharing, and trading of seeds among neighbors or at local markets. Moreover, it hinted at potential penalties, including imprisonment, for farmers sharing patented seeds—a concept foreign to many of them, much like the genetically modified seeds those patents protected. Farmers, especially concerned about the anticipated approval of a genetically modified cowpea variety, a West African dietary staple, questioned if Ghanaian authorities would imprison cowpea farmers for cultivating and exchanging “unregulated” native seeds.

“The law is real,” warned Isaac Pabia, national secretary of the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana, as he held a copy of Ghana’s Plant Variety Protection Act. He emphasized that the law had been crafted by corporations to regulate farmers’ seed usage.

Section 60 of the Act specifies penalties, with Pabia reading aloud, “A farmer who willfully commits an offense… is liable on summary conviction to a fine of not less than five thousand penalty units… or a term of imprisonment of not less than ten years and not more than fifteen years.”

A solemn silence fell upon the room as the farmers processed this information. They pondered how it was possible for people to face imprisonment of up to 15 years for infringing upon property claims related to crop varieties rooted in their ancestral soil, cultivated for over 5,000 years.

During Vice President Kamala Harris’s recent visit to Ghana, Zambia, and Tanzania, she reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to combating food insecurity and enhancing agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa. In Zambia, she unveiled a $7 billion investment initiative, involving public-private partnerships, to introduce “new technologies [and] innovative approaches” to the agricultural industry, albeit without specifying the nature of these innovations.

Ghana’s Plant Variety Protection Act represents a local manifestation of a broader global effort to integrate all aspects of smallholder farming into the industrial food system. The primary obstacle to this endeavor has been the resilient seed, which, due to its inherent capacity to reproduce, has resisted proprietary control. Since the 1980s, agribusiness and its government and philanthropic allies have sought to impose patent-protected hybrids and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) through national laws and intimidation tactics across the Global South. This campaign has primarily benefited the four-company oligopoly controlling half the global seed market and 75 percent of the global agrichemicals market: Bayer (formerly Monsanto), Corteva (formerly DowDuPont), BASF, and Syngenta, a subsidiary of ChemChina.

Over the years, proponents of chemical- and capital-intensive agriculture have promoted it as a solution to world hunger, starting with the Green Revolution in the 1960s. However, the argument for replacing farmer-cultivated seed varieties with patented versions has evolved. Today, the narrative centers around concerns over “food security” in an era of climate change. Western governments, particularly the United States, frequently employ this rhetoric as they advocate for seed “improvement” in countries like Ghana, which joined the small group of sub-Saharan African nations permitting GMO sales in the summer of 2022, alongside South Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Kenya.

Faustina Banakwoyem, a soya and pepper farmer, aptly expressed the sentiment of many: “We can’t accept this law. The companies will try to entice us by saying their seeds are ‘better.’ Then we’ll become dependent on seeds that you can’t replant. Our seeds are from this soil. It’s colonialism to say what seeds we can use and how to use them.”

Joseph Karimenga, another farmer, echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the threat posed to their survival: “The companies have changed our food culture; now they are using threats to change our farming culture. If we replace traditional seeds with foreign seeds that can’t be replanted, what happens if the new seeds don’t arrive? When people are afraid to share seeds with their neighbors? It’s an attack on our survival.”

The trajectory of expanding intellectual property claims on living organisms dates back to the 1930s. However, these claims have only gained global significance more recently, extending beyond the United States and select European countries. The global debt crisis of the 1980s allowed the United States to condition aid and loans on divestment in agriculture by recipient nations, paving the way for Western agribusiness to penetrate markets in Africa and elsewhere. These same countries spearheaded the globalization of Western patents through the World Trade Organization (WTO), which, upon its founding in 1995, mandated member nations to “provide for the protection of plant varieties either by patents or by an effective sui generis system or by any combination thereof.”

Agribusiness firms with biotech divisions were particularly eager to establish a foothold in Africa, home to a trillion-dollar agricultural sector dubbed the

“last great frontier” by business media. They partnered with Western governments to launch public-private collaborations aimed at introducing African farmers to their seeds and agrochemicals. One such initiative was the West African Seed Alliance (WASA), a joint effort between the U.S. Agency for International Development and agribusiness giants like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer. WASA worked with governments to “transform West African agriculture” by increasing access to “improved seed varieties, fertilizer and crop protection products.”

Nevertheless, the proponents of patented seeds faced an obstacle: mounting concerns about the potential health and environmental hazards of GMOs had given rise to a burgeoning countermovement. In response, a new discourse of “farmers’ rights” emerged in the Global South to challenge the prevailing Northern narrative of “plant breeders’ rights.” Groups opposing the top-down imposition of GMO seeds and input-intensive agriculture rallied under La Via Campesina, an international network founded in 1993 to assert “the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture systems” and to resist the globalizing agenda of the WTO.

In 2003, the movements for food and seed sovereignty achieved a significant victory with the signing of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety—an extension of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. This accord compelled signatory nations to adopt biosafety regulations and oversight agencies to manage GMO crop testing, production, and sale. The protocol effectively curtailed the rapid advance of a genetically modified Green Revolution in Africa.

Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, emphasized the significance of the protocol: “If not for the protocol, it would have been a free-for-all to take over important commodity crops in Africa and elsewhere. The companies would have registered GMOs under laws for conventional seed. There would have been no discussion around biosafety, no regulation. They didn’t want the protocol [because] it was a signal by the international community that GMOs are different and present risks.”

Realizing the need for a more effective strategy in the post-Cartagena era, the pro-GMO alliance established industry-aligned donor groups to overcome legal obstacles and win over African officials, scientists, and regulators, if not yet actual farmers. The Rockefeller Foundation, known for its involvement in the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, played a pivotal role in crafting these new alliances. In 2001, Rockefeller officials convened with executives from five major seed suppliers, including DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto, and DowAgro, resulting in the creation of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). The AATF, akin to WASA but focusing on African agronomists and researchers, aimed to forge partnerships between biotech firms and African scientists.

This unfolding chapter in the evolving landscape of African agriculture reflects a multifaceted struggle encompassing economic interests, intellectual property rights, food sovereignty, and climate change resilience. As African nations grapple with the consequences of these evolving policies, the future of farming in the region remains uncertain, awaiting the outcomes of this profound societal debate.



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