A group of civil societies and farmer related NGOs are raising alarm over continuing patenting of traditional crop varieties by big agribusiness firms and multinationals, that is now threatening to lock out farmers from these crops as they now become pricey and out of reach.
The agribusiness companies have been appropriating these plant varieties, hybridising them, and then patenting the hybrids which has meant that once released in the market they become exorbitantly expensive for the small scale farmers who have traditionally relied on the crops due to their superior high yielding drought resistant traits.
With increased enforcement of intellectual property rights, the civil societies now fear that the rich pool of Africa’s indigenous seed varieties could soon be entirely in private hands.
Already farmers are starting to feel the effect of this patenting with certain maize varieties that have been favourite among farmers and readily available now beyond the reach of the farmers. For example a 2-kg bag of hybrid maize seed which traditionally cost Sh100 now goes for Sh400 and has been branded under a different name. “We have to buy it because it is the one that does well in our soils and we have been using it over years. We just dont understand why it has shot up that much in price. We just cant afford it,”said Kungu Mware a farmer in Sabasaba area of Central Kenya.
The same case applies to Sorghum Gardam, favourite among farmers for its drought resistant traits. While farmers have usually bought a Kilo at between Sh150-200 the branded one ranges between Sh500-Sh600, “we can no longer plant it, we cant afford it,”said Mutisya Wema a sorghum farmer from Mwingi.
The coalition of civil society organisations, which includes Bridgenet Africa, African Biodiversity Network, Rights Food Alliance Uganda and the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, are therefore protesting, in particular, against the policies of certain agribusiness firms which focus on hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and credit.
“We are concerned that our biodiversity is under threat. The Green Revolution was touted as a success in Asia, but it also resulted in the complete destruction of indigenous plant varieties as hybrid rice and wheat were adopted wholesale. We don’t want that replicated here,” says Gathuru Mburu, co-ordinator of the African Biodiversity Network and Director of the Institute for Culture and Ecology.
The coalition insists that it is not opposed to crop breeding, which they say has been taking place for ages in the country, but faults the breeding where farmers cannot replant the seed of the harvest and have to buy fresh seeds every season and chemical fertilizers.
“It is trapping farmers in an expensive system — and making sure that people cannot freely share seeds as they have always done,” said Mburu.
Statistics from Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture show that almost 80 per cent of farmers plant with seed saved from the previous harvest, or obtained from community seed banks.
Written by Alice Ndita for African Laughter
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