The external domination of Africa’s agricultural future

The changing structure of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) threatens the food security of the Global South.

Image credit @rbairdpccam via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Speaking to Indian publication Rural Voice in October 2022, Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, sounded worried: “The process behind One CGIAR poses a direct threat to the right to self-determination and the ability of states to set their own agricultural research agendas … and for local communities to control their own food system.”

“One CGIAR” (Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers) emerges from the international public seed banks established in 1971 to guarantee that the genetic resources of major food crops would be available to all. Farmers’ seed varieties, contributed from around the globe, provide the plant genetic resources for scientific research to breed new crop varieties resilient to climate change and to sustain biodiversity.

Deliberate and quiet, efforts toward One CGIAR extend long in implementation. No mainstream media outlet is reporting on the alarm expressed by Fakhrior signaling the dangers of centralizing the command of 15 international public seed banks under corporate control.

Movement along this trajectory started in 2007, step by step. First, the Gates Foundation increased its grants to international seed banks, from rice to maize to sorghum and millets. According to financial records, for some of these centers (like ICRISAT, the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Tropics), Gates Foundation funding increased from 0% to about 30% of the seed bank’s annual revenue from 2007 to 2010.

In Zimbabwe, where I am based, a policy change did alert smallholder farmers to the beginning of what is now an institutional transformation. For years, ICRISAT-Zimbabwe  gave its foundation seed of a newly bred variety to smallholder farmers to propagate into quantities large enough for sale. Because the original germplasm came from these farmers, it was a way to “benefit share” back to the farmers by fostering a value-added activity of propagating seed for sale.

This reciprocity, which recognized farmers’ free sharing of the genetic wealth of their seeds, all changed in 2010 with no explanation: farmers now had to bid and pay money for the foundation seed, competing with commercial companies. But the financial records of ICRISAT showed sufficient funds for its operations.

The first globally noticed institutional change toward One CGIAR turned the governing board away from a “consultative group” of scientists to a “consortium” with more representatives of global seed corporations. The new organizational decision-making structure empowered the funders over the scientists, symbolized by a new board chair from Pioneer Seed, a subsidiary of DuPont/Dow Chemical.

Giving more power to the “funders” failed to admit that the only tabulation taking place is of cash revenue. The seeds—priceless wealth given by farmers from around the world—are rarely mentioned in policy documents, let alone acknowledged for their wealth.  It is as if the seeds (~770,000 accessions in the 15 seed banks) have no value. Cash exchange is only one expression of value, but it is the only one used to rule CGIAR.

For example, CGIAR’s 2017 Genebank Platform pamphlet reported a new variety of cassava, derived from the gift of Venezuelan farmers. The report read, “KU 50’s pedigree traces back to a key parent called CMC 76, a Venezuelan landrace that was collected in 1967 and conserved in the CIAT [International Center for Tropical Agriculture] gene bank. … The aggregate economic benefits from the adoption of KU 50 are estimated to exceed US$97 million.”

What is the value of the “key parent called CMC 76” versus the “economic benefits … of KU 50 … estimated to exceed US$97 million”? Is CGIAR really saying the value went from $0 to $97 million? By erasing the vast natural capital donated for decades by smallholder farmers around the world to the international seed banks, the few millions of finance capital “ventured” by the “funders” becomes dominant.

By 2016, the deliberate steps from 2010 facilitated changing the vote on the CGIAR board.

All of the Global South countries, whose farmers supply almost all the biodiverse seeds, have a total of 5 votes of 20. The other 15 votes comprise governments (Australia, Canada, EU Commission, Germany, Belgium, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, USA), banks (African Development Bank, World Bank), and the Gates Foundation.

All of sub-Saharan Africa has only one vote, the same as Bill Gates.

Today, under One CGIAR, this board now nominates each center’s Board of Trustees,  eliminating more than 50 years of decentralized decision-making about conservation and the breeding of seeds for biodiverse food crops. The UN special rapporteur states, “One CGIAR would limit the Centers’ ability to organize themselves with some degree of financial and political independence … to nimbly respond to local, national and regional concerns.” He emphasized that CGIAR centers are ultimately accountable to communities.

Currently, material transfer agreements, which must be signed before receiving seed, do not allow patenting of new varieties bred from CGIAR germplasm. However, over the last decade, the board has made exceptions for breweries of maize and for rice. One may expect these “exceptions” will deliberately and quietly become the rule.

Not yet publicly discussed, a central goal of this regime change may be to modify “access with benefit-sharing” of the genetic resources. As the UN special rapporteur warns, One CGIAR may “increase external domination of Africa’s agricultural future.”

Further Reading

Food is power

The World Food Program says COVID-19 will bring about a famine of biblical proportions, so it is a good time to revisit why food has never just been about the simple act of eating. Food is history. Food is identity.