Standardising seeds narrows diversity

by Caritas, GRAIN, AFSA | 5 Sep 2019

Seed and Plant Variety Protection harmonization process in East Africa: why we should be concerned.

Until recently, movement of seed across a country was, harmless. In fact, even moving seed across borders was never problematic; until industry saw the need to legislate around the seed sector, arguing for guidelines that govern the movement and sale of seeds, hence harmonization of seed laws and registration across Africa.

By harmonization of seed laws, we refer to a process that is aimed at facilitating the cross-border movement of seeds as well as provide a broader market for seed companies. These laws take into account things like standards, phytosanitary measures, seed certification, and quality.

Proponents of harmonization argue that the process, once finalized, allows “countries with seed deficits to more easily find seed in neighboring countries, and therefore contributes to seed security.”1 It is this thinking that informs the proposed East African Community Seed and Plant Varieties Bill 2018. If passed into law, the proposed legislation will be binding to all EAC member states2.

The East African Community Seed and Plant Varieties Bill 2018 draws from the International Union of Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV 1991). UPOV3 is an international instrument that is highly criticized for its international regime of protection of new plant varieties. It emanates from industrialized countries in response to the advent of large-scale commercial farming and commercial plant breeding. It grants exclusive Intellectual Property Rights to commercial breeders and undermines farmers’ rights

The East African Bill draws its restrictive and inflexible character from UPOV 1991. It proposes that only certified seed shall be traded within the EAC and that only registered persons are legible to trade or deal in seed. Sections 8, 9 and 10 of the bill set out stringent, expensive and onerous variety release, registration and certification processes and requirements while it’s narrow exemptions blatantly undermine the practice of reuse, saving, sell and free exchange of seed in the region. In essence, it stands to marginalize farmers’ seed and seed systems

The Bill came into force in 2018, it has been debated among the different EAC structures and yet nothing much is known about this process among the EAC citizens, especially the small-scale farmers whose rights are most threatened by this bill. Also, the fact that although member states like Uganda, which is implementing UPOV 78, is required to implement a UPOV 91 inspired law is in direct contention and undermines national sovereignty on decisions around seeds and their management.

Furthermore, the process of coming up with the bill was dominated by industry with prominent representation from the African Seed Trade Association (AFSTA), East African Grain Council (EAGC) and Tanzania Seed Trade Association (TASTA) with limited or no participation from small scale farmers or CSOs within the EAC.

The peculiarity of this EAC bill is also in its attempt to address two critical but separate issues in one legal framework – seed trade and Plant Variety Protection! Inspite of the fact that most of the EAC states, such as Uganda and Kenya, have segregated the regulation of the two issues in respect of the diverse and context specific seed and seed market issues.

Reading through the content of the bill one will realize that it is ridden in direct contention of national sovereignty and undermines decisions around farmer’s exceptions to plant varieties. The emphasis on New, Distinct, and Uniform (NDUS) not only sets countries along the path to Genetic Engineering but also sets standards that prohibit farmer seeds and encourages uniform, commercial seeds.

It is our view that these standards narrow genetic diversity and are generally problematic because: 1) farmer seeds are the basis of most food production and food cultures in the region, 2) farmer seeds are adapted to local conditions, 3) diverse seed systems are needed to deal with the climate crisis and 4) the EAC is copy-pasting a legislative framework developed by the big seed companies of the North.

A wide section of the public; including CSOs like Caritas Uganda, GRAIN and AFSA among others are concerned about this bill and all subsequent harmonization processes across the continent which we feel are aimed at controlling the African seed sector and food systems.

This article was put together by Caritas Uganda, GRAIN and AFSA, and published by Uganda's Daily monitor on 5 September 2019

1 SADC seed centre. About Seed Harmonisation available at

2 Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Southern Sudan

Author: Caritas, GRAIN, AFSA
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