Biodiversity as a Solution to Agricultural Production


Agricultural Biodiversity: African alternatives to a ‘green revolution’

Andrew Mushita and Carol Thompson


Although the global agricultural crises affect the African continent most adversely, African farmers and scientists offer successful alternatives to industrial monoculture. Andrew Mushita and Carol Thompson argue that while the ‘green revolution for Africa’ promotes private foreign ownership of genetically modified seeds and focuses on increased yields of a few crops, African alternatives honour farmers’ rights and agricultural biodiversity, through innovative legislation and protocols, in order to increase sustainable food production.


In 2002, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asked, ‘How can a green revolution be achieved in Africa?’ After more than a year of study, the expert panel he had commissioned replied as follows: the diverse African situation implies that no single magic ‘technological bullet’ is available for radically improving African agriculture…. the panel concludes that African agriculture will require numerous ‘rainbow evolutions’ that differ in both nature and extent among the many different types of farming systems and institutions throughout Africa – rather than a single Green Revolution (InterAcademy Council, 2003: xviii,
By 2007, Annan agreed to be the executive director of the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, which proposes exactly the kind of agriculture the panel of agricultural experts from around the world (including South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico, Japan and China) rejected: monoculture of one or two crops with the goal of increasing yields through the use of chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides) and biotechnology (patented genetically modified (GM) seeds). Kofi Annan, by dismissing what agricultural experts recommended and following the dominant corporate approach, symbolizes the extent and depth of public misunderstanding of African agriculture.
The current array of agricultural crises across the globe affect the African continent the most, from agrofuels replacing food to market failures and privatization of living organisms. Because of their place in the international division of labour (including South Africa) as primary commodity exporters, with little or no value-added processing, African economies remain vulnerable to the vagaries of both weather and markets. It is the continent that will be most adversely affected by climate change, further impoverishing the deprived: over the last two decades, the number of poor in Africa has doubled to 300 million or over 40 percent of the continent’s population (World Bank, 2008: 26).
Given these dire situations, how could Africa possibly offer alternatives to the dominant industrial agriculture of ‘green revolutions’? After briefly summarizing the various threats of the global agricultural crises to African food security, this article analyses African alternatives to industrial monoculture, focusing on their approach to farmers’ rights via model legislative frameworks and an initiative that awards and disseminates African innovations. 

Global agricultural crises – The view from Africa


As the demand for agrofuels seems to be insatiable, global corporations are noticing Africa for its extensive land masses, while not seeing the hungry. Calling Africa the ‘green OPEC’, they assert that 15 countries in Africa have a total combined land area greater than all of India ‘available’ for agrofuel production (GRAIN, 2007: 36), not bothering to explain what ‘available land’ means in the context of a food deficit continent.
Industrialized countries have set ‘green’ targets for agrofuel consumption that they cannot fulfil with their own local production. For the European Union to meet its 2010 goal for agrofuels, it would take 70 percent of its farmland; for the US goal, it would require 43 percent (Tsiko, 2007: 32; Convention on Biological Diversity, 2008: 4). The agrofuel ‘craze’ therefore very much depends on industrialized countries taking command of land in South countries in order to grow agrofuel crops.
To further the problem, the amount of plant material needed is massive. Lester Brown (2006, offers the comparison that the amount of grain required to fill the 90-litre petrol tank of a 4 × 4 vehicle once with maize ethanol could feed one person for a year. The grain it takes to fill the tank every two weeks over a year would feed 26 people.
The amount of African land coveted by investors, therefore, is massive; the following are some examples: 3.5 million hectares in Mozambique; Ethiopia, 1.2 million ha.; Benin, 600,000 ha.; Tanzania and Zambia, over 500,000 ha. (Community Technology Development Trust, 2008: 11). No matter how the land is allocated – from leasing to contract farming – its use will be overwhelmingly for foreign consumption. Such major tracts of land designated to meet foreigners’ energy needs signals, once again, the expatriation of African lands. Exporting crops for overseas consumption while Africans go hungry is a historical pattern all too familiar on the continent; it is certainly not the hope of 21st century African agriculture.
Further, under free trade regimes, if there are no controls over exporting agrofuels (leaving 50 percent for local use?), they cannot contribute to increased energy demands of a developing continent. The lessons from Nigeria are all too clear: the largest oil producer on the African continent and tenth in the world, Nigeria imports 70 percent of its fuel (Rothkopf, 2007: 333, 335,

Food security and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Much of the criticism about agrofuels is to be countered by GM crops, to grow faster and to create plant materials less resistant to crushing (seeds) or to pressing (sugar cane). Frustrated by global consumer resistance to GM plants in food or oil crops, the biotech industry sees agrofuels as a major impetus to promote these patented specialties, opening up vast areas for GM production. Concerns about GM technology, therefore, are especially important for crops that are both food and fuel, for the GM crops could easily contaminate local maize, soya or cassava, making it vital to invoke the precautionary principle of the biosafety protocol, ratified by most African governments, before GM fuel crops are released across the continent.

Market failures in agriculture

The dominance of the ‘willing seller–willing buyer’ market approach to land redistribution is quite new in the history of land reform, dating from the 1980s. The serious problem of treating land simply as a commodity in the marketplace is best illustrated by the case of Namibia. At independence in 1990, only 4,000 white farmers owned about 50 percent of all arable land. From 1990–2007, abiding by the ‘willing seller–willing buyer’ principle, only 209 farms were acquired. At this rate, it will take 100 years to acquire just 25 percent of the commercial land. This market approach offers no provisions for the farm workers on the land that is sold (30,000 total on the 4,000 farms), leaving their expertise, their employment and the fate of their families to the whims of the buyer (Harring and Odendaal, 2008: 2–5). Neither is there any land use plan nor agrarian reform policy offered to guide the new owners.
By 2002, the government of Namibia concluded that the ‘willing seller–willing buyer’ market approach failed to address land inequities, poverty reduction or environmental conservation. Both Namibia and South Africa are moving toward expropriation of land as a necessary means to correct economic apartheid in land. Southern Africa is learning from the negative experience of land grabs in Zimbabwe, yet the commodity market approach can be similarly inequitable and destructive of livelihoods.
Recent studies in Southern Africa give empirical data about the additional failure of markets to provide farm inputs and services for smallholder farmers. Private banks do not offer credit at affordable interest rates. Prices for crops sold to private traders do not cover the cost of the inputs (seed, fertilizer and water). Government agricultural extension workers and public research on seed varieties have all but disappeared as a direct result of the policy by international agencies to remove the government from agriculture,1 but they have not been replaced by the private sector. As one report from Malawi summarizes, ‘Ten years on, it is evident that the expected benefits of the liberalisation of both input and outputs markets has failed to penetrate the remote rural markets’ (Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy, 2007: 23).
Privileging private traders and agricultural supply companies results in their deliveries only going to those who can pay on time. Across history, no industrialized agricultural exporter has left its farmers to the wild caprice of monopoly markets, local or global; their governments continue to partner with the farmers to provide strategic food security. Yet African agriculture suffers greatly from the systematic removal of the public sector from food crop production, and along with the extensive poverty, the continent remains the most vulnerable to global agricultural crises.

African biodiversity wealth

Africa has a rich biodiverse wealth of vegetation types, wildlife, agricultural crops/plants and livestock. The agro-biodiversity of Africa is characterized by complex agricultural systems mainly dominated by smallholder farmers who usually grow a range of diverse crops in a single field. There are about 18 recognized farming systems in Africa that can be grouped as a maize-dominated system, a cereal/root crop system, a root crop system and an agro-pastoral millet/sorghum system, all within overall mixed cropping. These together positioned the African region as a centre of origin and diversity for many plants of importance to the world at large. Part of Africa’s food heritage that fed generations, this genetic wealth, if properly valued, can offer important contributions towards making Africa a well-nourished continent.


This genetic wealth of Africa is mainly recognized by those who want free access to genetic diversity, with the goal of later patenting both the knowledge and the germplasm. Stories of stolen genetic treasures echo across the continent; like traditional story tellers, when a botanist or agronomist ends his or her account of the latest theft, another joins in to give yet another account, often in voices of anguish and despair. Here we offer a few details of just one current case from Southern Africa (for a thorough analysis, see Mushita and Thompson, 2007).
The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (FAO, 2007, recognizes about 7,600 breeds, developed over 12,000 years by farmers and pastoralists, and warns that ‘twenty percent of classified breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry are now considered to be at risk of extinction, as the world’s livestock production has become increasingly based on a limited number of breeds. Since 2001, an average of one breed per month has become extinct’ (FAO, 2007: 3).
Searching for a broader genetic base by which to save a livestock industry therefore becomes the impetus for biopiracy. Accessing the gene pool of other animals with favourable characteristics is more crucial than respecting indigenous knowledge or thousands of years of breeding. In addition, if the new acquisition succeeds in the marketplace, the profits are not shared.
Evolving 7,000 years ago from the wild ox, the humpless African cattle differ greatly from those brought to the continent from Asia about 3,000 years ago. Their name, ‘Tuli’, derives from the Ndebele word utuli, meaning dust, which depicts the harsh environmental conditions under which they were bred in southwest Zimbabwe (Mushita, 2003).
Tolerating tropical diseases and surviving on much less water than other breeds, Tulis’ lighter colours help them endure intense sunlight and heat (Harvey, 1986). They thrive on low-nutrient grasses, the dominant vegetation of semi-arid areas. Highly fertile, they are capable of weaning a well-grown calf every year, and loss of calves is very low compared to other breeds. Custodians of the breed, the communities developed local knowledge and technologies for improving the cattle within the prevailing environmental conditions and social needs (for food and draught power). The current animals represent many generations of selection and cross-breeding for desired improvements.
In 1987, Australian cattle breeders approached the Cattle Producers Association of Zimbabwe for embryos, and the government of Zimbabwe approved exportation of frozen cattle embryos to Australia. They have been successfully cross-bred for disease resistance. By the 1990s, the US Department of Agriculture found that Tuli proved their merit in withstanding harsh environmental conditions. The North American Tuli Association promotes the breed as follows: NATA intends to expand their activities by spreading the benefits of the Tuli cattle to many countries within the Western hemisphere….the Tuli breed can provide the missing link to bridge the gap in cattle genetics, the gap being adaptation to heat and nutritional stress combined with carcass merit (North American Tuli Association, 2007: 1,
Neither the government of Zimbabwe nor the foreign cattle associations consulted with the local communities or recognized their contribution in any way.
The current race by industrialized countries to access, research and isolate traits required by the beef industry will soon lead to the patenting of all useful genes of the Tuli cattle, without the involvement of the local communities who nurtured the breed. While Tuli traits are hailed as second to none in countries that abrogated international agreements to access the genetic materials, the peoples who developed the breed in the first place are forgotten, left to fight abject poverty alone. Communities in the semi-arid Tuli areas of Zimbabwe are annually afflicted by droughts and food insecurity (living on less than US$ 1 a day), while the cattle they originally bred are contributing immensely to the global beef industry.
Those who accessed the genetic materials freely, without regard for international laws, will continue to play a more predominant role in trading and controlling exchange or use of Tuli genes. While research points out that the juicy and tender beef traits of Tuli cattle are transferable to other breeds, no one is willing to ensure the reverse: ‘juicy and tender’ benefits to the custodians and original breeders of Tuli cattle. 

African agricultural answers

Farmers’ rights and the African Union model legislation

The principle of farmers’ rights dates from the mid-1980s, propelled by increasing demands of plant breeders’ rights (PBRs) groups within the context of global negotiations on environmental protocols. Farmers’ rights enable farmers to conserve, develop and utilize crop genetic diversity, and to reward them for their contributions to the maintenance of the global genetic pool for the benefit of humankind.
Farmers in all regions of the world consider genetic resources a common heritage of humankind and are sharing their technologies, local knowledge systems and practices freely. In contrast, the formal sector seed system is making demands for PBRs while biotechnologists are taking intellectual property rights (IPRs) on life forms, which are exclusive in their nature. The World Trade Organization (WTO) and other international treaties provide comprehensive rights to plant breeders and minimize any provisions for farmers’ privileges in all facets. Accordingly, plant breeders’ materials cannot be used without the permission of the breeder concerned. In this regard, there is an urgent need for countries to explore various options for affording farmers their customary rights of seed saving and multiplying and exchanging seed within their communities.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA – FAO, 2004, is one international law binding contracting parties to recognize the enormous contribution that indigenous communities and farmers have made, and will continue to make, for the conservation and development of plant genetic resources, which constitute the basis of food production throughout the world. The principle of farmers’ rights originates from the realization that farmers domesticated and facilitated the process of crop adaptation to varied eco-systems and practised diversity farming that ensured sustainable use of plant genetic resources. Therefore, Article 9.2 of the ITPGRFA states that in accordance with national needs, each contracting party should take measures to promote farmers’ rights that are inclusive of the following:
  • protection of traditional knowledge relevant to plant genetic resources;
  • the right to equitably participate in sharing benefits arising from the utilization of plant genetic resources;
  • the right to participate in making decisions on matters related to the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.
What is also important to note is that the ITPGRFA further states that there is nothing limiting any rights that farmers have to use, exchange and sell all farm-saved seed or propagating material, subject to national law.
Predating the ITPGRFA, the African Union (2000, Model Law for the Protection of the Rights of Local Communities, Farmers and Breeders, and for the Regulation of Access to Biological Resources offers a legislative framework for farmers’ rights to save, exchange, use, sell and share local knowledge related to their planting materials. The AU Model Law can be used as a sui-generis alternative that complies with the obligations of the WTO or the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Under legislative consideration in several countries, the model law provides flexibility for governments to craft national legislation consistent with their political orientation, national objectives and level of socio-economic development.
One of the primary topics for consultation in the process of domesticating farmers’ rights will be determining the relationship between individual rights of private property and social rights of farmers and communities. The WTO gives no recognition to social rights, only to private property rights, while the CBD, the ITPGRFA and the AU Model Legislation all recognize the rights of groups (e.g. farmers) as equal to those of individuals (persons and corporations). Most African governments are members of WTO and the ITPGRFA, which means that in formulating legislation for farmers’ rights, these two legal principles need to be reconciled at the national level. Although the two do not have to be exclusive, they are often treated as such in debates over PBRs. Those promoting GM seeds under the guise of a ‘green revolution for Africa’ would not countenance farmers’ rights, and therefore, they violate the priority of the very farmers they insist they are aiding.
The AU model legislation also directly addresses the issue of biopiracy, such as the Tuli cattle case discussed above. The legislation adapts the CBD principle of prior informed consent (PIC), which is a precondition for removing any genetic material from any country. The AU implementation of the principle requires that both the national government and the local community give consent before genetic material can be taken, and further confirms that the community may refuse removal. For the Tuli cattle, the local communities were not consulted and therefore such a removal would be considered illegal. Further, the AU implementation would require that benefit-sharing of any profits be returned to the community, a reciprocity not honoured by the Australian or North American cattle industry. Africans are showing the way to turning international principles into practical policies that honour smallholder farmers.

African Biodiversity Stewardship Recognition Award (ABSRA)

The promise and power of Africa’s biodiversity wealth are the keys to unlocking African food security and food sovereignty. There are ample indications that little-known local plants of Africa may have outstanding genetic compositions that would help in solving Africa’s food challenges, as well as global agricultural problems. The genes for fighting off devastation induced by drought, pests and diseases, and by the current pressing challenges of climate change, may, for example, already exist, and would ideally contribute to Africa’s own unrecognized and underutilized agricultural science.
There are past and present efforts of many contributors that go beyond the evolutionary processes. These individuals, communities or institutions have contributed to the development and promotion of Africa’s biodiversity wealth. One incentive for enhancing such efforts is the recognition of those who have already contributed, and to prepare space for those who will play their role in the future. Such an approach will facilitate the sustainable access, utilization and inter-generational transfer of technologies and capacities required to innovatively manage Africa’s genetic resource base.
Because the wealth of the existing biodiversity is the basis for the future of agricultural Africa, it is essential that those who care about this wealth, and work toward improving its potential for use, are acknowledged. The ‘African Biodiversity Stewardship Recognition Award’ (ABSRA) fulfils this goal, as an African initiative for recognizing those who make contributions towards the conservation, development and sustainable use of African biodiversity wealth and associated knowledge.
A component of the award finances the sharing, across the continent, of the knowledge and processes for which the award was granted. Focusing on technical exchange, this initiative will encourage sustainable biodiversity conservation, recuperation and restoration of lost genetic resources, and a culture of diversity farming. Other African communities learning about appropriate responses to particular agricultural threats will stimulate replication, mainstreaming and visible profiling of such practices and systems – successful alternatives to the ravages of industrial monoculture.
This ABSRA is a continental response to yet another outsider intervention bringing inappropriate high-cost technology under the auspices of AGRA. The logic, goals, and economic and legal premises of the two could not be more different. AGRA’s approach focuses on increasing yields above and beyond any other agronomic characteristic, while ABSRA promotes the idea that biodiversity can feed people better than high yield monoculture. AGRA works to privatize knowledge as quickly as possible through the patenting of processes as well as end products (both of which are often stolen from traditional knowledge). Its ‘green revolution’ mentality refuses to honour farmers as plant breeders or scientists, while ABSRA encourages smallholder farmers, recognizing both their farmers’ rights to exchange and propagate seeds and their scientific innovations for sustaining biodiversity.
Outdated and disproven ways continue, for they profit those with scientific and financial power. African smallholder farmers, however, are already demonstrating what a recent international assessment of agriculture stated in rejecting green revolutions: ‘Business as usual is no longer an option’ (UNESCO, 2008: 4). The international assessment advocates that funding and research be redirected towards the needs of smallholder farmers. African agronomists and scientists fully agree on, and already have answers to, transforming agriculture into feeding people nutritious food, rather than feeding cars or corporate profits. The industrialized countries need ‘aid’ from Africa, in the forms of shared knowledge and technology to preserve global agricultural biodiversity for future generations. 


1 The ‘Berg Report’ (World Bank, 1981) called for the removal of ‘inefficient’ government interventions in agriculture, from grain marketing boards, to research stations, to rural credit schemes and agricultural extension workers. Over the next two decades, this policy was systematically implemented across the continent.

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