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Africa: The Hidden Issue of "Gene Grabbing"

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Sep 24, 2012 (120924)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Patents on the sorghum genome are the contemporary biotech equivalent of an 18th Century European explorer planting his flag on an ill-understood foreign land and claiming it for himself or his sovereign, as if by divine right subordinating all other interests in the territory." - African Centre for Biodiversity

With the rising interest in African agriculture from international business interests as well as development agencies and foundations, debates about the strategies for food security and agricultural development, as well as the threat of "land grabbing," are prominent in both the media and academic literature. Almost unnoticed, however, is what some critics call the hidden agenda of "biopiracy" or "gene grabbing," namely the privatization of intellectual property in African seeds drawn from the common store of resources developed by African farmers of centuries. Hidden in complex legal language which is far less familiar than the appropriation of land, common genetic resources are used as inputs for products then claimed as the intellectual property of commercial enterprises.

While development of new seed technology, whether through genetic modification or other more traditional hybrid development, is presented as a key component for raising productivity of African agriculture, it also is serving to incorporate African farmers into international value chains in which the profits from what are legally common resources are concentrated in the hands of private multinational companies.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin, not sent out by e-mail but available on the web at, focuses on this issue. Included in this Bulletin are excerpts from a new overview article by Andrew Mushita and Carol Thompson and from a 2010 study from the African Centre for Biodiversity on "The Sorghum Gene Grab."

It is one of a series of three related Bulletins focused on the the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Another Bulletin available on the web at, contains a clear description of the main features of AGRA, excerpted from a new report from the African Centre for Biodiversity.

A third Bulletin, sent out by e-mail as well as available on the web at, contains excerpts from the same report focusing on critical alternative approaches to the AGRA commercialization model of agricultural development.

On the issue of "biopiracy" and "gene grabbing," see particularly, which contains excerpts from the book Biopiracy of Biodiversity by Andrew Mushita and Carol Thompson (

Last week, the trend of merger in the international seed industry advanced another step when South Africa's Supreme Court approved the acquisition by the U.S.-based DuPont Pioneer of a majority share in South Africa's Pannar Seed (see

The official web site for AGRA is

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on food and agriculture issues, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Green Revolution for Africa - food security or invasive policy?

Andrew Mushita and Carol Thompson

New Routes

Life & Peace Institute

Full text, including footnotes, available on

In spite of the Green Revolution sometimes being promoted as an effort to support African smallholder farmers, the authors of this article warn against it as a theft of the African genetic wealth by global seed corporations. The green revolution project ties African 'food security' to global 'food value chains', not to domestic production and consumption. Privatised seeds must be bought at high cost by African farmers who cannot replant, save or exchange them among themselves.

From 2007, the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations established the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA). Today, that private foundation initiative has not only become formal USA foreign policy but integral to the G8 and United Nations' approach to the problem of food security across the African continent. Rajiv Shah, Director of the USA Agency for International Development (USAID) and a medical doctor, who learned about agriculture while working for the Gates Foundation, expressed a new Obama Administration policy by directly linking national security with food production: "You cannot have stability and security as long as regions and countries and communities are deeply food-insecure."

Just ahead of the May 2012 G8 meeting, President Obama unveiled the plan to have governments partner with global corporations to provide food security, stating, "It's a moral imperative, it's an economic imperative and it's a security imperative." Explaining an agricultural initiative as a 'moral imperative' echoes another human rights 'imperative' for the USA to 'prevent atrocities'. The latter was given by President Obama as the reason for sending American soldiers to Central Africa (northern Uganda) from October 2011, with authorisation to shoot to kill in order to stop Joseph Kony of the Lord's Resistance Army. Scholars across the USA and Central Africa have expressed concern over this unilateral intervention, asking instead, that the USA assist in financing peace-keeping initiatives of the African Union. Similarly, scholars and food producers across the African continent question this latest 'securitisation', of food production, as a way to address African hunger.

AGRA, and now official American policy, proposes to engage large global corporations in food production on African soil, using African land, water and labour. Increased production will come from economies of scale, marketing of seed technologies, and coordination of food policies within regions of Africa, all with the goal of linking the more prosperous small commercial farmers and urban consumers to the global food value chain. 'Food security' thus refers to linking Africa's biodiverse, local foods to the global market. Yet global agricultural markets are controlled by a very few corporations, as shown here:

Global Market share

Seed market 58 % Monsanto-USA DuPont/Pioneer-USA SyngentaSwitzerland Groupe Limagrain-France
Agrochemical market 57 % Syngenta-Switzerland BayerGermany BASF-Germany Monsanto-USA
Food processing 58 % Nestl?-Switzerland Pepsi-USA KraftUSA ABInBev-Belgium
Food retailers 56% Wal-Mart-USA Carrefour-France Schwarz Group-Germany Tesco-UK

Source: ETC Group. 2011. Who will control the Green Economy? (December):22, 25, 37, 39.

African smallholders threatened

Foreign control over domestic food production is neither tolerated by Europe nor by the USA, a major reason why both continue to subsidise their farmers. The Uruguay Round in the 1980s to form the World Trade Organisation (WTO) did not proceed in agriculture until Europe grew enough food for regional autonomy. The current Doha Round of the WTO has been stalled for over a decade, over agricultural subsidies and protection, mainly by the USA, the European Union and Japan.4 In spite of this long history, the green revolution project ties African 'food security' to global 'food value chains', not to domestic production and consumption. Such an agenda prioritises feeding Wall Street, more than African people, through expanding the corporate market on the continent. It threatens African smallholder food producers and their food sovereignty.

One manifestation of this threat is the unexpressed goal of AGRA and of USA policy: to access African genetic wealth for gene technologies and animal/plant breeding for corporate profit. African farmers and governments freely share their gene accessions; receiving that gift is not theft. However, AGRA promotes policies that access the genetic wealth without recognition - neither for the indigenous knowledge nor for the genetic parent materials - or benefit sharing with those who cultivated and bred the plants and animals over centuries, if not millennia.

AGRA's technological approach to food production differs from the 1960s 'green revolution' in only one way: hybrid seeds developed for increased yields during that era remained in the public domain, to be freely exchanged among all farmers. Today, AGRA-sponsored seeds are most often privatised by the corporate seed breeder. The farmers must buy the expensive seeds and cannot replant the next generation, nor save or exchange the seeds among themselves for further experimentation. Every year the farmer must return to the 'owner' of a living organism to access a fundamental input for production. Patenting of living organisms is recognised by USA law and advanced through its bilateral trade agreements, while the American government refuses to become party to the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (IT-2004) that ensures farmers' rights to save, exchange, and breed any seeds. The IT also disallows patents for 64 crops and fodders, a very small number, but one representing the majority of crops providing human nutrition.

African farmers refer to the patenting of living organisms as biopiracy, for it gives sole ownership to the corporation that inserted one gene, without recognising the innovations of thousands who developed the cultivar in the first place. Patenting, however, has become only a minor expression of the theft of African genetic wealth, for the 'green revolution' approach has come up with several other ways for accessing the genetic treasures, with no recognition or benefit sharing. The methods for access operate at the international, regional, national, and community levels - while benefit sharing occurs at none.

Ignoring international law

At the international level, the IT calls for sharing commercial profits from any germplasm taken from the public seed banks (International Agricultural Research CentresIARCs), setting up Standard Material Transfer Agreements (SMTAs) to trace the seeds from the international depositories to new strains sold for commercial profit. While the IARCs provide over 694,000 seeds for free access, the SMTAs are not functioning for lack of funding and enforcement. Beyond the issue of patenting, the failure of corporate seed breeders to abide by the mechanisms for benefit-sharing envisaged by international law demonstrates how facilitated access can undermine reciprocity and ultimately lead to theft.

The corporate and government partners justify this ignoring of international law by claiming that it is inoperative until governments domesticate the law into their own legislation. The requirement of 'facilitated access' to germplasm imposes on governments the burdens of implementation and enforcement, however, without ensuring the financing for these administrative tasks. Corporate profits are made off smallholder farmer breeders, while their governments are blamed for lack of enforcement of international law. The treaty was to acknowledge the 'interdependence' of the gene-poor, capital-rich North with the gene-rich, capital-poor South, but the flow of precious resources is all in one direction.

At the same time, Gates Foundation funding is diminishing the public service of these public seed banks. Since 2007, the Gates Foundation has financed many different projects of the IARCs: both ICRISAT (International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Tropics, including sorghum and millet) and CIMMYT (International Centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement), for example, receive 45-55 percent of their annual funding from the Gates Foundation and its allies.

One of the results, discovered in Zimbabwe, is that the ICRISAT/Matopos research station no longer freely shares its foundation seed with smallholder farmers, who originally supplied the station with the genetic wealth of their sorghums and millets; without them, there would be no ICRISAT. The farmers for several years have successfully grown out foundation seed, according to strict quality controls for certification, to produce commercial seed for small seed companies. From 2010, the new policy, enacted as Gates funding increased, requires these breeders to buy back foundation seed, originating from their own cultivars. The reciprocity of freely sharing seed among breeders, a practice encouraging experimentation and innovation, has been turned into a market transaction even within the public seed banks. Instead of increasing benefit-sharing, the Gates Foundation funds policies to eradicate it.

At the regional level, access without recognition or benefit-sharing may also occur through financing seed research to gain corporate control over seed bred from African cultivars. The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), a project of the African Union, but promoted by AGRA, conducts programmes to increase research collaboration across the continent. CAADP accepts AGRA's promotion of the global market as the central mechanism to provide African 'food security'. Although CAADP refers to smallholder farmers, its proposals and workshops ignore indigenous knowledge and farming practices for biodiverse food production. The research agendas are top-down, coming from the corporations wanting to 'train' African scientists and agronomists.

Regional seed laws, uniform across many African countries, can allow foreign corporations to procure permission to introduce a new seed in just one country and then it can be marketed across the region without interference from specific national environmental standards. Individual country laws in Southern Africa have curtailed the spread of genetically modified (GM) seeds from the commercial South African market into the rest of the region. One way to disseminate undesired seed, however, is to create one seed law for the whole region. If the GM seed enters South Africa legally, a uniform seed law, minimising customs inspections, will facilitate genetic pollution across Southern Africa, diluting national biosafety laws and their enforcement. AGRA and its partners are working hard to have the Southern African Development Community adopt a uniform seed law for its 16 member countries.

Global usurpation of local wealth

At the national level, other methods of access without recognition include the purchase of shares in local seed companies by global corporations to gain entry into their seed banks. Monsanto has a five percent share of Seed Co, originally a Zimbabwean cooperative and now the major private seed corporation in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. Zimbabwe has been breeding its own varieties of maize, adapted to local conditions, since the 1930s. As a shareholder, Monsanto can access that knowledge and wealth, along with indigenous varieties of sorghum and millet. In May 2012, the South African Court of Appeals ruled against strong civic organising to prevent Pioneer Seed (DuPont) from acquiring South Africa's largest national seed company, Panaar Seed. The court is allowing the merger to proceed, turning over those indigenous genetic treasures to the single private American corporation. Although 'legal', this global corporate usurpation of local genetic wealth greatly diminishes any hope of African food sovereignty.

With climate change threats to food production, national gene banks are regaining international attention and again, 'facilitated access' is the rule. Plants readily shared, as African governments do, increase the wealth for all, for they abundantly reproduce; new cultivators will create new cultivars. It is when the shared materials are privatised without recognition or benefit-sharing that access becomes biopiracy.

Finally, at the local level, corporate gene hunters in 'joint collection missions' visit fields of African farmers in search of their newest varieties, already adapted to climate change. The corporations seek to learn about field performance where smallholder farmers are growing as many as 20 different crops on one hectare, each one carefully placed to suit the micro-climate of one corner of the field versus another. Corporate agents also move across open fields in order to collect 'wild' plants, only able to determine what to gather by relying on local indigenous knowledge shared by communities. It is not clear what is 'joint' about these collection missions, for the expertise is entirely African, whereas the benefits accrue only to the corporations, as they co-opt complex knowledge and freely acquire genetic materials absolutely essential for their experiments and projects. Although these collections are frequently being undertaken across the continent, the international community only learns of the one or two cases where local knowledge is acknowledged, such as the hoodia plant gathered by the San people (but only after a law suit exposed the theft by Unilever).

Calls for farmers' rights

African farmers' networks organising at every level, from local to global, were the first to alert the international community about the seizure of genetic materials, at the World Social Forum in 2007.9 As early as 1999, all African governments proposed a unanimous resolution rejecting patents on life to the WTO meeting in Seattle, but the Clinton Administration refused to put it on the agenda. Today African governments and civic organisations counter the patenting and other private usurpation of seeds conserved in the public sector with persistent calls for the realisation of farmers' rights (to plant, exchange, and breed any seeds), enshrined in the IT.

In Southern Africa, Zimbabwe's unity government passed Statutory Instrument 61 in 2009 to regulate access to genetic resources and indigenous knowledge. The law requires prior informed consent from local communities before any removal of genetic material can take place. Workshops are being held to inform others of how their governments can adopt similar laws.10 In 2010, Africans were key in finalising the Nagoya Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on 'Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits arising from their Utilization'. Legal instruments, therefore, do exist to curtail the theft, by recognising food sovereignty, based on farmers' rights (IT), standard material transfer agreements (IT), and prior informed consent of local communities (CBD and Nagoya). But implementation and enforcement require funding. 'Philanthropic' foundations and corporate partners are instead funding new ways to access and privatise Africa's genetic wealth.

On the ground in Southern Africa, African farmers have long formed seed communities, where they conserve their heirlooms not only ex situ (on a shelf, in containers) but in situ, deciding which seeds to grow out when. Leaders of the local seed banks are elected, and communities select certain farmers to propagate chosen seeds for the next season. Women form farmer field schools, which can meet as often as three times per week, as they help each other resolve problems arising from soil degradation or pests or lack of water. Growing as many as 20 crops on one hectare requires teaching each other complex knowledge and skills. African smallholder farmers have rejected genetically modified seeds for foods, finding their own breeding brings better results at much less cost. They do not need Monsanto's latest patented 'drought resistant' maize (MON87460), for they grow the more nutritious sorghums that endure drought conditions better than any maize. Of course, African farmers would welcome government assistance, similar to what their European and American counterparts receive, to improve storage and local marketing, to provide agricultural extension services - to facilitate their farmers' rights and choices.

The 'green revolution' strategy is not about saving starving Africans. To summarise the new methods of access, which provide neither for recognition nor benefit sharing: first, AGRA finances those who access free genetic materials but refuse to honour the standard material transfer agreements, enshrined in international law. Second, AGRA and other Gates Foundation projects finance the removal of foundation seed from smallholder seed breeders, turning public seed banks into marketers. Third, through programmes like CAADP and regional uniform seed laws, AGRA takes control over regional agricultural policies to advance commercial agriculture with the goal of increasing global corporate profits via biotechnology, allied with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Fourth, at the national level, corporations integral to the 'green revolution' are becoming owners of local seed companies whose genetic treasures have been collected for decades, while also penetrating national gene banks. Just a few dollars of ready capital gain entry to priceless heirlooms and indigenous knowledge about their nutrition and healing benefits. Finally, among communities, gene hunters use local knowledge to collect treasures conserved in the fields, for this parent genetic material from 'wild relatives' is absolutely essential for the genetic biotechnology industry to continue to profit. AGRA projects do not recognise, and rarely refer to, traditional ecological knowledge.

The green revolution for Africa, a project not only of private foundations but also of the USA government and the G8, advocates the securitisation of African food production by linking it to the global market, while remaining silent about the active privatisation of Africa's genetic treasures, taking place without recognition or benefit sharing. This looting is against international law, but continues unabated, indeed, without public discourse. +

The Sorghum Gene Grab

A Briefing Paper by the African Centre for Biosafety

Edward Hammond, June 2010 /


A rising tide of patent claims is privatizing key parts of the genome of sorghum, an African native and one of the world's most important food and feed crops. In parallel, the hybrid sorghum seed industry is undergoing consolidation as biotechnology companies compete to position themselves to profit from, what they believe will be, a rapidly growing sorghum seed market.

African farmers domesticated sorghum from wild grasses, and they and other farmers worldwide continue to grow the crop, and to develop and nurture its genetic diversity. But African farmers do not stand to benefit from the rush to patent sorghum genes and produce proprietary sorghum hybrids. Instead, the sorghum gene grab will benefit Northern corporations and universities, who care little about Africa's enormous contribution to the crop's genetic diversity or orienting their efforts to African needs.

Two relatively new phenomena - the expanding agrofuels industry and global warming
- are propelling the wave of commercial interest. Sorghum may prove especially useful for agrofuels because of its flexibility. Sorghum varieties can produce sugars, plant matter (biomass), and grain, which can all be converted to bioethanol. And as agriculture adapts to global warming, sorghum's profile is rising because of its tolerance of drought and water scarcity (particularly in comparison to maize), conditions that are likely to become more common in the coming years.

Although important in many world regions, including Africa, India, and China, sorghum has received less attention from industrial agriculture concerns than more widely grown commodity crops such as soya and cotton. As a result, there are comparatively few patent claims over sorghum, and more small enterprises have been involved in sorghum breeding and seed production. This situation is, however, rapidly changing.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) is unfortunately not addressing the problem of sorghum privatization, despite the fact that some of the sorghums under patent claims are held "in trust" for the world's farmers and come from countries who are Parties to the ITPGRFA. This is so for two main reasons:

First, most of the patent claims are from the United States, which has signed but not ratified the Treaty. Second, US gene banks have copies of major parts of the sorghum collection of the International Center for International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and are not applying the treaty's provisions to use and distribution of these copies.

Sadly, the practical result of this situation is that the "in trust" status of tens of thousands of African sorghum varieties appears to be meaningless, a situation that may come as a particular shock to African countries that donated most of ICRISAT's collection. These countries may have believed that the ITPGRFA would provide for more equitable use of these varieties and a measure of protection from proprietary claims.

The Patent Applications

Sorghum patent claims have recently been lodged by US companies, Ceres and Edenspace, as well as by Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University (Texas A&M) and Rutgers University. Key traits that these and other research programs are seeking to control include sorghum flowering, plant growth (biomass), sugar content, and cold and salt tolerance. New sorghum patent claims published since late 2009 include: Many recent patent claims, including the bulk of those lodged by Ceres, Edenspace, and Rutgers University, are broad claims designed to control sets of promoter genes and other generic genetic components of sorghum. These are not claims on a specific gene from a specific variety, such as the patent on an aluminum tolerance gene from a Tanzanian sorghum.3 Instead, they are a grab for strategic territory on the sorghum genome, in an effort to control sequences and mechanisms that can be used in a variety of ways to create sorghum cultivars. These are the contemporary biotech equivalent of an 18th Century European explorer planting his flag on an ill-understood foreign land and claiming it for himself or his sovereign, as if by divine right subordinating all other interests in the territory. ...

"The" Sorghum Genome

There is no single sorghum genome any more than there is a single genome of other higher species. Different sorghum populations and individuals have varying genes. Thus, what is referred to as the sorghum genome is really the genome of a single "reference" variety of the plant.

The sorghum sequencing project was sponsored by the US government's Department of Energy, with participation from ICRISAT and five US universities: Cornell, Rutgers, Mississippi State, Georgia, and California (at Berkeley). The 697 million bases of the sorghum reference genome were published in early 2007.


Sorghum was selected for sequencing because of its current importance as a crop; new interest in its agrofuel potential and the desire to use sorghum as a model for understanding the genome of other grasses of tropical origin that have the same photosynthesis pathway (called "C4").

The scientists chose to sequence a variety called Tx623. Often used in research, Tx623 was released by Texas A&M University in 1977. It is a cross between a so-called "kafir" sorghum and a zerazera variety.6 The "kafir" sorghum, called Combine Kafir 60, was the US descendant of seeds introduced from South Africa in the late 1800s. The zerazera was collected by Texas A&M in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia in 1961.


Sorghum Industry Consolidation and Alliances

In Africa, most sorghum seed is open pollinated and is saved by farmers and replanted, or is shared between farmers or farmers' groups or farming communities. Outside of the African continent and particularly in the North sorghum seed production is more commonly an industry venture and typically, hybrid seed is purchased annually. Sharing and/or saving seed may become illegal if the variety is patented or under plant variety protection or patent claims. Seed saving is less practical because of the characteristics of hybrid seed.

As expectations for the potential future use of sorghum as an agrofuel crop surge, the sorghum seed industry (especially in the US) is in the process of feverish consolidation. Multinational companies are taking over smaller concerns and are forging alliances with universities and other diversified companies to heighten their vertical integration and create larger proprietary portfolios. Ninety percent or more of US sorghum seed, as well as seed exported to Latin America and Asia, is produced on the high plains of the Texas "Panhandle" (the northernmost region of the state), where producing sorghum seed has become a specialty in many areas. Until recently, many Texas sorghum seed producers were relatively small private companies. Since 2008, however, a number of Texas seed growers and breeders have been acquired by larger companies. These larger companies are competing for position in a seed market where more farmers are turning to sorghum because of the demand from agrofuel refineries and the need for drought tolerant crops.

Advanta, an international seed brand now owned by the Mumbai-based conglomerate United Phosphorus, has bought Garrison & Townsend and Crosbyton Seed, both Texas companies. With these purchases, Advanta has captured nearly one-third of the US sorghum seed market (plus some exports to Latin America and Asia, where Advanta already has seed operations).10

In August 2009, NuFarm, an agrochemical multinational based in Victoria, Australia, bought Richardson Seeds and MMR Genetics, also both from the Panhandle. NuFarm is a business partner with Monsanto and, in December 2009, the Japanese giant Sumitomo group took a 20% stake in the company, investing over Aus $600 million. MMR Genetics, which is led by a former Texas A&M sorghum breeder, also has an agrofuel sorghum research and development agreement with Mendel Biotechnology of California.13 Mendel is partially owned by Monsanto, and the two latter companies themselves have an agrofuel collaboration agreement.


In April 2010, Chromatin, Inc, leaped into the sorghum seed market. A Chicago-based biotechnology company backed by venture capitalists, Chromatin, purchased both Sorghum Partners and Milo Genetics (again both Texas companies). In doing so, Chromatin announced its intention to develop and sell genetically engineered agrofuel sorghums - plans reminiscent of those of its rival Ceres.

Meanwhile industry giant DuPont, which has long sold sorghum seed under its Pioneer brand, cut a deal with Kansas State University to license two herbicide resistant traits for use in sorghum, one of which was taken from a Bolivian sorghum plant. DuPont's plan is to sell (non-transgenic) herbicide resistant sorghums that can be sprayed with ACC and/or ALStype herbicides "over the top", in a similar manner as glyphosate resistant genetically engineered crops. It says these will be commercialized in 2012.
Edenspace, a Kansas-based biotech-nology company whose ambition with agrofuel sorghum is similar to that of Ceres and Chromatin, has cut a patent cross-licensing deal with biotech giant Syngenta for agrofuel crops including sorghum.

For its part, Ceres through contractual agreements, leverages a high degree of control and far-reaching rights over the sorghum research program of Texas A&M University, including access to A&M's large collection of copies of farmers' varieties of sorghum held "in-trust" under the ITPGRFA by ICIRSAT.

Consolidation of the US and international sorghum seed industry has little immediate impact on Africa, but does have long-term implications.
While the present focus of consolidation is on US-based seed production enterprises, their outlook is decidedly global: Ceres, with US and European capital, has targeted Brazil for sorghum sales. An Indian conglomerate (United Phosphorus) now owns, one-third. of the US sorghum seed market and aims to expand sorghum seed sales in Argentina, Australia, and elsewhere. Australian and Japanese capitalists are also investing in Texas companies, and similarly view their markets as global. DuPont already has global reach and another giant, Syngenta, is partnering with Edenspace to collaborate on sorghum agrofuel biotechnology.

Conspicuously absent from this gold rush are African interests. Yet CGIAR, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Rockefeller Foundation, and others are promoting the use of commercial hybrid sorghums in Africa, including genetically engineered types. If African farmers adopt these initiatives, traditional sorghum seed saving and sharing will be replaced by dependency on commercial seed. Over time, this may become a path into the grip of a consolidated international sorghum seed industry, particularly in African countries where agriculture is more mechanized and particularly if Africa begins to grow sorghum for agrofuels.

If African farmers are drawn into commercial/ agrofuel sorghum projects, traditional sorghum seed saving and sharing will be replaced by dependency on commercial seed. Over time, this may become a path into the grip of a consolidated international sorghum seed industry, particularly in African countries where agriculture is more mechanized and particularly if Africa begins to grow sorghum for agrofuels.

Ceres' Draconian Grower Agreement

With the expansion of intellectual property over seeds in many countries in the past 20 years, the practice of imposing stringent "grower agreements" on farmers has become increasingly common, especially in the North. These grower agreements typically seek to reinforce the already considerable power of the seed company over its product. Farmers are contractually disadvantaged and the company can easily sue them for breach of the agreement, for example, saving seed for planting the following year.

For the 2010 growing season, Ceres has put forward a particularly harsh grower agreement that it insists farmers sign before selling them seed. The Ceres agreement asserts rights to the seed that go above and beyond the strong control offered by patents and plant variety protection. First asserting that its seed is protected by various forms of intellectual property, the Ceres grower agreement then reads (in part):

"Under this Limited License Agreement, GROWER MAY NOT:

  • Use Ceres Seed, or any parental line seed which may be found therein, or any resultant plants, seed, mutants, sports or plant tissue from any of the foregoing, for any breeding, tissue culture, sexual or asexual propagation, seed production, reverse engineering, genetic fingerprinting, molecular or genetic analysis or engineering, or research (except research on biomass (excluding any seed) grown from Ceres Seed not resulting in the reproduction of such biomass), other than the production of a single commercial crop or multi-year stand for perennials.
  • Sell, transfer, export, sublicense, give or supply Ceres Seed to any other person or entity for any purpose.
  • Save, clean, condition or sell progeny of Ceres Seed for the purpose of planting a subsequent crop."
Ceres' demands that farmers not save seed for planting are typical in the US. More
unusual is its insistence that people who buy its seed cannot seek to understand what it is, through "reverse engineering", genetic tests, analysis, or research of almost any sort. The restrictions are akin to a car salesman insisting that the buyer is prohibited from looking under the bonnet. Or selling processed food and refusing to reveal its ingredients.

Ceres has not explained why it is so anxious that nobody look closely at its seeds, except to say that everything about them is a trade secret. There is significant evidence, however, that Ceres' sorghum varieties came from Texas A&M and have recent African parentage, quite possibly including seeds declared to the held in-trust for the world's farmers by ICRISAT. Whatever the reason, the harsh restrictions Ceres is trying to place on farmers and its paranoia about the public finding out where its seeds come from suggest that the company has truths to hide.

In Trust Status: Does it mean anything with sorghum?

Sorghum is one of the crops listed in Annex 1 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) and is thus part of that Treaty's multilateral system of access and benefit sharing. Under Article 15 of the ITPGRFA, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has declared over 36,000 of its sorghum seed collections to be held intrust for the world's farmers. Most of these accessions originate in Africa or have been bred from African germplasm.

Sorghum seeds declared in-trust by ICRISAT include many that are the bedrock of varieties used in industrial agriculture globally. These are and will continue to be heavily used by Texas A&M and others in breeding programs. While private companies like Edenspace (which sells "Linebacker" sorghum) and Ceres (which sells "Skyscraper" varieties) are not saying where their alleged proprietary sorghums come from, there is evidence that at least some of them are scarcely removed from ICRISAT in-trust accessions. In at least one case - the US and Brazilian government patent claims on the sorghum aluminum tolerance gene - it is certain that the gene under patent claim comes from an ICRISAT in-trust farmers variety originally collected in Tanzania.

Despite the ITPGRFA, most of the institutions discussed in this paper utilize in-trust sorghum germplasm and/or its progeny in proprietary breeding programs without regard for the Treaty and its multilateral system. They can do this for two reasons:

First, much of the research is taking place in the United States, which is not an ITPGRFA Party. Second, the United States holds copies of a large proportion of the ICRISAT sorghum collection, much of which was acquired decades ago. In some cases, the US collection of African sorghums surpasses that of ICRISAT itself. For example, the US national collection includes over 3,900 sorghum accessions from Sudan alone, 1,500 more than ICRISAT itself holds. ICRISAT, which has taken a very friendly stance towards the sorghum agrofuel industry, appears uninterested in sorting out the complexities of patent claims on its in-trust germplasm when it is copied elsewhere.

Contacted by the African Centre for Biosafety and Berne Declaration in regard to the patent on the aluminum tolerance gene of an intrust variety from Tanzania, ICRISAT Director General William Dar replied by shirking responsibility for Treaty issues:

"In these circumstances, it is unclear as to who provided the material to the research in question," Dar wrote, adding, "I wish to reiterate that ICRISAT has fulfilled its role to maintain materials in the public domain and to ensure their access."

But, of course, the aluminum tolerance gene does not remain in the public domain, as it is patented in the United States and patent claims are pending elsewhere! ICRISAT's response implies a de facto policy to ignore intellectual property claims on intrust germplasm unless somebody else (such as an NGO) proves that the in-trust seed was directly supplied to the patent claimant by ICRISAT itself. Any person that wishes to patent in-trust ICRISAT sorghum and ignore the ITPGRFA multilateral system merely needs to request ICRISAT in-trust seed from a US gene bank, and in that case, ICRISAT or its parent the Consultative Group in International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) will take no action to protect the in-trust status.



The combination of a rise in patent claims and international consolidation of the sorghum seed industry spells trouble for African farmers. The proprietary claims are unjust to African and other farmers who developed sorghum and its diversity. The fact that these claims are being made outside of the ITPGRFA's multilateral system of access and benefit sharing allows improper claims over unaltered germplasm and denies resources from that system to promote the conservation and development of sorghum in and for Africa.

With the sorghum seed industry consolidating on other continents, donors such as the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations as well as multinational seed companies, are encouraging Africa to abandon traditional sorghum seed saving and sharing. In its place, they say a system dominated by commercially produced hybrid seed will be more productive. If Africa moves in that direction, however, it may find its sorghum production systems ripe for exploitation by the same agrochemical and seed interests that are presently consolidating elsewhere. This will result in the loss of African control over sorghum germplasm, even in Africa itself.

Climate change and agrofuels will continue to drive increased commercial interest in sorghum while those issues remain high on the global agenda and sorghum's unique usefulness is not eclipsed by other crops. Sorghum is currently on course to go the way of maize, soya, and other highly proprietary crops, particularly in agrofuel applications. If Africa is passive and does not assert its sovereignty, it may see very little benefit from the growing interest in this African heritage crop.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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