ESSENTIAL ISSUES OF biodiversity have been widely publicised in the scientific literature. In Africa, regarded as the last frontier when considering global food security, environment and climate change, the potential in genetic resources remains yet to be unlocked. This potential holds the key to climate change mitigation and food security of not only Africans but also the entire world. Unlocking this potential at national, regional and continental levels would require deliberate strategies, policies and interventions in a coordinated and sustainable manner. An understanding of the fact that a bulk of Africa’s economy is essentially agrarian would warrant a priority attention to genetic resources, particularly as commodity trade of plant and animal origin accounts for a greater proportion of Africa’s international trade as major revenue and foreign exchange earner.
Africa has hardly benefited from the boom in manufactured exports.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in a 2003 publication on Economic Development in Africa, focused on Trade Performance and Commodity Dependence. The problems of commodity dependence in Africa remain largely unsolved as more and more countries’ greater exports are from commodities. While the global industrialisation took place in fast quip and manufactured products increased in international trade in the past half a century – followed recently by an upsurge in the area of trades in services – Africa’s share in world exports fell from about six per cent in 1980 to two per cent in 2002, and its share of world imports fell from about 4.6 per cent in 1980 to 2.1 per cent in 2002. Nearly two decades after, the “commodity problem” remains at the heart of the continent’s trade performance. Africa faces this problem from two fronts, both of which tends to put the continent at a disadvantage. The commodities upon which Africa depends so much have to be extracted either on the soil, as in agriculture, or from the sub-soil in the forms of minerals.
Biodiversity preservation is inevitable will be inextricably linked to Africa’s future such that a secure Africa will be one that adequately protects its resources despite the pressure to increase wealth. But this will not happen in a vacuum. Many environmentally destructive activities in Africa are motivated by instincts for survival and quests for livelihoods, encouraged by bad governance, widespread poverty, weak institutions and ineffectual regulatory frameworks. Worrisome trends in Africa’s commodity trade are exacerbated by the underlying causes such as bad governance, which is a progenitor and sustainer of poverty, low technological and industrial development and the growing threats to the environment. In DR Congo, for instance, the growing spectre of trade in woods and timber products via export to China remains a big threat to Africa.
Exports of commodities in the raw, unprocessed, forms rob the continent of enormous fortune as value chains remain undeveloped in many commodities and the continent continues to receive low revenue returns for primary production while those operators at the downstream sectors of the various commodity value chains make the most fortune. An example is the cocoa export. That is a cash crop. Particularly worrisome is the area of food crops upon which Africa’s future depends. This is an aspect where Africa remains vulnerable as changes from external sources tend to put the continent in a very weak competitive position. The case of ‘teff’ in Ethiopia is of considerable relevance. Teff, also known as dwarf millet, is Ethiopia’s staple crop with historical, contemporary and cultural relevance and is the country’s most important foodstuff used for preparing “injera” — a soft, spongy, pancake-like bread, regarded as a national dish. Until very recently, a Dutch company held a patent on processed teff flour which ensured that no flour from the gluten-free and nutrient-rich super grain may be sold without paying royalties to the Netherlands. That changed, however, in 2019 after a legal tussle over who owns teff, Ethiopia’s staple grain, was quietly settled as a three-judge court in the Netherlands ruled that a European patent for the products made of teff lacked “inventiveness.”
That was after years of tussle over the controversial patent, which was originally filed in 2003, that listed Dutchman Jans Roosjen as the inventor of the teff flour that is used to make injera flatbread and other traditional Ethiopian food. The Ethiopian embassy in the Netherlands confirmed the ruling, which was first filed in June 2014. What happened in the case of teff might have happened, or may be happening, in some other crops elsewhere in Africa as the Dutch company linked to the teff patent started by conducting research on teff together with the Ethiopian state and agreed to share the genetic information obtained for commercial use. But in 2004, it filed a patent alone and got the approval of the European Patent Office for a monopoly on a wide range of products made from teff in Europe.
This is what activists call biopiracy – the act of marketing plants or other biological material from the global south without sharing the profits with the countries of origin. The Dutch teff flour patent is not an isolated case. The patent system, in the course of its evolution, has given disproportionate powers to those companies that emphasise natural species and their uses at the expense of the developing countries concerned.
The war against biopiracy is one that Africa must be ready to fight with all ammunition in its arsenal if the continent is to retain any modicum of relevance in the future. This battle for the soul of Africa may get fiercer as more investors speculate, research into, or identify prospects for opportunities in genetic resources which may put the continent’s biodiversity at great risks. The adventure of Monsanto into India seemed to have paid off initially until India pushed back. The Supreme Court order of January 8, 2019, which upheld Article 3j of India’s Patent Law, excluding seeds from patentability, broke Monsanto’s hold on cotton farmers in India. Monsanto, using the tools of genetic engineering to produce genetically modified crops, claimed patents on life and on seeds of such crops. What makes this problematic is the fact that a patent is an exclusive right granted to an inventor to prevent others from making, using, producing, selling and distributing the patented invention. In the case of seeds, a patent prevents farmers from saving and exchanging the seed, implying that the patent holder – Monsanto in this case – is an inventor of life and the inventor of seed. This type of monopoly is considered very counterproductive for local producers in the agricultural sector even though it benefits the patent holders.
Monsanto’s earlier application for a patent on Bt Cotton was reportedly rejected on the grounds of India’s article 3j. The Indian Patent office, through two examinations, had rejected most claims made by Monsanto in the patent titled ‘Methods for Transforming Plants to Express Bacillus thuringiensis deltaendotoxins.’ The company’s only claims on DNA sequences seemed to have survived nonetheless. A major accusation – according to Dr. Vandana Shiva author of the book titled “Who really feeds the world?” – was that without a patent on Bt Cotton seed in India, Monsanto has been collecting royalties from farmers, increasing the price of cotton seeds by 80,000 per cent. This was described as the primary reason for farmer’s debt and suicide in the cotton area. Farmer’s crises was reportedly aggravated by the fact that Bt cotton failed to control pests and has led to an epidemic of the pink bollworm pushing farmers to use more pesticides with many losing their lives to pesticide poisoning. Yet, Monsanto filed a case against Indian seed companies on “infringement,” claiming that it had a patent on Bt cotton, a case which was dismissed by the High Court of Delhi in its Final Judgment of April 11, 2018.
Considering the provisions of, and a large volume of case laws for construction of patents, the obligations under the World Trade Organisation (WTO), General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement, it is important for Africa to urgently take a firm position on this subject. The nascent African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) would benefit greatly from the experiences of the WTO by adapting its measures to the African context instead of reinventing the wheel. As part of intelligence gathering for ensuring Africa’s social, political and economic development, it seems fitting to identify and deal with subtle and overt efforts on limiting Africa’s competitive edge in commodity trade. National policies ought to be responsive, proactive and prioritise this central issue and form every necessary alliance to ensure proper implementation.
Very recently, farmers in India had a face-off with the government over a disputed law that was recently introduced. The nationwide protests got the attention of the central government even if all the farmers’ demands are ultimately not met. Fighting against laws or technologies that are not farmer-friendly may not be as easy in Africa as it would require a coalition of various countries’ farmers’ groups. The African Union (AU) could be a rallying point for representative views on behalf of the continent. As the world struggles with the demands for food and other non-food forest products, attention will increasingly be focused on Africa. Policies and strategies for addressing the challenges and conflicts that may arise therefore have to be in place to boost the coping abilities of countries of Africa, big or small. The challenges are here and so the responses must be in place without any further delay.