On food and its sovereignty

The concept of “food sovereignty” has recently surfaced in public debates, replacing the more widely known term, “food security.” Both terms are about the importance of tackling issues of food systems and policies, but there are core differences.

Food security emphasizes access to food for all, and the term might also be stretched out to underscore that this food needs to be healthy and adequate. The concept of food sovereignty, meanwhile, does not only emphasize access to food, but also puts the individuals who directly produce food — particularly small farmers, fishermen, and herders — at the center of decisions on food production systems and agricultural policies.

Food sovereignty advocates seek to empower small producers to challenge the monopolies of big corporations, especially those producing seeds and fertilizers, which dominate the global food market.

Food sovereignty promotes environmentally friendly methods of agricultural production and respect for biodiversity through the preservation of local seed varieties. Local seeds are threatened with extinction due to the prevalent hybrid and genetically modified seeds that are flooding the markets, and are controlled by global seed corporations. These corporations gain huge profits from promoting their corporate seeds, but also more dangerously control the global food system through monopolizing the production and marketing of seeds.

The preservation of local plant varieties is considered one of the cornerstones of food sovereignty advocacy. This is paramount given how international agreements and local legislations are primarily geared towards the interests of global corporations, marginalizing food producers.

Who is being protected?

The advancement in biotechnology has led to a revolution in agricultural production and huge investments have been made in developing new plant varieties that have among their advantages great yield and resistance to pests and dry weather. This has enabled multinational corporations to establish complete control of the industry. Consequently, major states sponsor and protect these new plant varieties.

What is being protected here, however, is not the species that are facing extinction, but the new plant varieties developed by big corporations.

The protection rationale is centered on safeguarding the interests of big corporations, and is not concerned with protecting either the plants or the famers who use those seeds.  The protection of new plant varieties is thus not in the interest of developing countries, and it poses a threat to the concept of food sovereignty.*

This is evident in the stipulation of Article 14 of the Union Protection of New Varieties of Plant (UPOV) Convention, which deals with the rights of the breeder (the developer of the new plant variety). It states that the breeder should authorize the production, reproduction (multiplication), conditioning for the purpose of propagation, offering for sale, selling, marketing, storage, exportation, and the importation of the plant variety.  The breeder (usually a big corporation) has the right to sue the user (most probably a small farmer) if there is any breach of this convention, and is entitled to huge compensation.

Let us then look more specifically at the situation in Egypt.

Seeds in Egypt: Protection vs. Monopoly

There are two kinds of seed varieties in Egypt. The first is imported varieties, which constitute 90 percent of the seeds planted in Egypt. They seeds are imported by up to 100 companies who were granted licenses to import seeds through connections with the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) during the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak. These companies were thus able to monopolize the industry.

The most important imported varieties in Egypt are vegetable and fruit seeds, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons and cantaloupes. And the major countries we import from are Cyprus, Greece, the Netherlands, among other European nations. It is worth noting that Israeli seeds enter Egypt under the umbrella of other countries. And of course, the seeds are accompanied by other products — associated fertilizers to guarantee the “best” yield and profit.

The second type of seed varieties is locally produced through the agricultural research centers and agricultural companies. There are only a few private sector companies that work in this industry, in part because it requires a meticulous and long process to derive pure varieties. Therefore, the agriculture ministry remains the main supplier of local seeds, but has probably less than 10 percent of the market share. This is due to the fact that Egypt’s public agricultural sector is rampant with corruption and poor management and as such is only capable of supplying a tiny portion of the market demand.

The Egyptian Law

Article 189 of the law on the Protection of Intellectual Property Rights regulates the protection of plant varieties. The law stipulates that “protection is granted to plant varieties, derived inside or outside Egypt, whether developed through biological or non-biological means, when registered in the special register of protected plant varieties.”

To be eligible for protection, a variety “shall be new, distinct, uniform, stable and shall be subject of a denomination” (Article 192). This protection lasts for a duration of “25 years for trees and vines and 20 years for other crops” (Article 193).

Article 194 lists the breeder’s exclusive rights over the variety. It stipulates that the breeder has “an exclusive right to the commercial exploitation of the protected variety in any form whatsoever.” And “the production, propagation, circulation, sale, marketing, importing, exporting of propagation material shall not be allowed without the written consent of the variety breeder.” The breeder is entitled to compensation in case of a breach of this right.

The agricultural ministry’s Office of Plant Variety Protection, responsible for regulating the protection, in fact protects the breeder and not the variety. It claims that its protection of foreign varieties in Egypt is a reflection of its adherence to  international agreements, such as the TRIPS and other European-Egyptian partnerships. It makes the claim that providing this protection will lure foreign seed companies to invest in Egypt, thus creating employment opportunities.

The truth of the matter is, however, that this type of protection negatively affects Egypt’s food sovereignty. This “protection” empowers corporation monopolies and creates a food production system that compromises the rights of direct food producers, particularly small farmers, herders and fishermen to have agency in producing and marketing food.   

Food sovereignty is particularly vested in the preservation of local varieties in order to foster biodiversity. The global matrix of protection of new plant varieties handicaps farmers and destroys biodiversity. It forces farmers and local food producers to succumb to the global monopolies that control the seed market. 

The solution for Egypt is thus to insist on  ‘seed freedom’ and encourage small farmers to preserve local varieties that best suit this country’s soil and climate. The solution is to cultivate local varieties to kill dependence on chemical fertilizers that wilt the soil and waste our limited resources.

Hala N. Barakat 

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