Is British government aiding multi-nationals’ carve up Africa?

The UK government has recently allocated £600 million of aid money to support The New Alliance for food security and nutrition, a scheme prompted by the G8 in 2012. The basis of the “Alliance” is the Obama’s administration vision of biotechnology as the only response capable to fight hunger in Africa. After the G8 failed to keep the promise made back in 2009 of donating $7.3 billion a year to end hunger in Africa, the new plan leaves agri-business corporations in charge to accomplish the task. This is in fact what the “New Alliance” is about. It is technically the promotion of a series of public-private partnerships between African governments and private investors. Ten African governments have joined the “Alliance” so far. Western governments, private donors, (as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also active in sponsoring agribusiness’ interests), and institutional partners like the World Bank, provide the institutional framework (and to some extent the legitimacy) to the negotiations.  The Alliance works through a “Leadership Council”, where African leaders sit at the same table with top business executives from Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Cargyll, to name a few. It is not possible to know the terms of the negotiations, since there will be no public scrutiny over investment plans. The UK government has also rejected the freedom of information request on the basis of commercial confidentiality. Not surprisingly, small farmers and representatives of local communities have also been shut out of the talks. The United Nations, through the rapporteur on the right of food, Olivier De Schutter, has underlined the lack of transparency in governments’ dealings with investors, with both parts uninterested and unwilling to involve small farmers, who account for the major part of Africa’s food production.

African leaders and agribusiness multinationals have locked themselves in a chamber to set the terms of African agriculture’s future, making sure that the negotiations remain out of reach. Although the plan is allegedly aimed at fighting poverty and hunger, the “New Alliance” looks more like a plan to commercialise agriculture if no evidence is given on how the investments flow is supposed to bring benefits. As far as we know, biotech companies could invest to produce goods for export in developed countries, especially non-food crops such as cotton, biofuel and rubber. Since business deals are kept secret and terms are unknown, it is possible that multinationals’ business plans have actually nothing to do with fighting hunger. After all, foreign countries have already been cutting large portions of African land for their own purposes. To mention but a few examples, Chinese firms acquired 7 million hectares of land in Congo , the US 1 million acres in Sudan, German firms have over 32.000 acres in Ethiopia, Swedish businesses 250,000 acres in Mozambique and UK 110,000 in Tanzania: all land destined to biofuels production (source: International Food Policy research institution).

So far, the ten African countries that have joined the “Alliance” have committed to about 200 policy changes that in fact would open the doors to agribusiness, allowing biotech corporations access to African resources and facilitating their control over food production system. At present, only four countries (Burkina Faso, Egypt, South Africa and Sudan) have fully allowed GM commercialisation.  All agri-business firms need in order to milk profits is a softer regulation over GM crops and seeds, land for commercial use and an easier access for farmers to private debt. Policy changes that African leaders are promising go exactly in this direction: long-term land leases, enforcement of commercial farming contract, destination of a certain amount of land for commercial use, promotion of private investment in seeds (for instance, Malawi has ring-fenced over 200,000 hectares of land for private investment only, 10,000 hectares in Ghana). Putting aside for a moment concerns over environmental, health and ethical issues related to GMO crops (if it is actually possible to put all this matters aside in the first place), let’s just think of the disastrous effects of the commercialisation of GM seeds, sold by multinationals under the so called “technology agreement”. Cutting the story short, farmers cannot save GM seeds from the harvesting season in order to use them for the sowing season, but must instead pay royalties to the supplier, or buy new bags of seeds every year. If a farmer buys the GM seed, he also buys the pesticide which the crop is genetically made resistant to, so he needs loans to buy both products, reason why multinationals want governments to grant easier access to credit for farmers. In South Africa, where more than 80% of land is cultivated with GM crops, the price of GM seeds is about 40% higher than the traditional seeds. In India, the commercialisation of GM seeds has already led to large number of suicides among farmers overwhelmed by debt. In Africa, the impact of agri-business on a small-scale, localised and family driven agricultural system is likely to be devastating.

Critics of the British government aiding the “New Alliance” argue that the plan is part of new wave of colonialism. Strong words help identify the problem and raise awareness on it, but relying on old words also prevents understanding the new forms those problems are taking.

Agri-business is eyeing Africa to expand its market share, after Europe (with the remarkable exception of UK) shut the doors to the introduction of new GM crops. Russia and China have adopted the same stance, arguably not for health and environmental concerns but rather for commercial and economic reasons. Agri-business and its GMO religion are also being pushed back in places where they had been blindly embraced. Africa is an easier fish to fry. There is abundance of land and its small farmer based food production system is labeled as inefficient and anachronistic, reason why the necessity of new technologies and new economic structures is pushed through. African governments desperately seek capitals in the (wrong) conviction that the economic gap with the rest of the world can be filled integrating Africa into the global flows of capitals. Whatever good intentions projects such as “The New Alliance” claim to have, it cannot be achieved if agri-business is the means to pursue it. Biotechnology’s and GMO’s capability of being a sustainable way to feed the world has to be questioned and doubted. Africa needs an efficient and adequate food production system, as it is the only way for those countries to fight poverty. The direction and the scope of this development should not be decided in Monsanto’s or Syngenta board of directors, nor should it be negotiated without the involvement of small farmers, who are the only persons entitled to feed their countries.

Is it then acceptable that the UK government supports a murky set of partnerships which might deprive African communities of the control over food production and give the access to land, a vital resource, to biotech giants? The fact that commercial confidentiality is opposed to legitimate requests of public scrutiny is even more unacceptable, especially if it comes from a government which has openly backed biotech multinationals’ interests in the past.

One response to “Is British government aiding multi-nationals’ carve up Africa?”

  1. Stefan says:

    Very interesting article, its one of those stories which doesn’t get as much coverage as it should as its fairly complicated and is part of an ongoing process. Colonialism probably is the wrong word but you can see why its used when foreign countries are buying up the huge amounts of land you mention to use in their own narrow self-interest.