The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) learned today that US multi-national seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred has been granted permission by the Competition Appeal Court, to acquire the nation’s last major independent seed company, Pannar seed.

The ACB was an intervening party, opposing the merger in the public interest. In granting the merger, the court has not only ensured the further consolidation of private ownership over our seed systems, but crucially, it has sanctioned the concentration of germplasm in the hands of a small number of multinational corporations. This will exacerbate the existing situation whereby farmers are becoming irreversibly disconnected from breeding processes and converted into mere consumers of what they originally collectively produced.

A key issue in the merger is Pioneer’s fervent desire to take control of locally adapted germplasm that Pannar holds – germplasm that existed and was used in Africa long before Pioneer or Pannar existed. One of the conditions of the merger is a R20 million fund to “increase the productivity, knowledge and welfare of small-scale and developing farmers”. But this is no more than public relations.

“As long as smallholders themselves are only passive recipients of largesse from the corporations, and the companies determine the content of this ‘knowledge’ and how best to secure ‘productivity’ (which kfor them will be assisting smallholder farmers to use GM seed more effectively) these systems will be designed to benefit the ongoing insertion of private profit making into food systems in Africa,” said Mariam Mayet, Director of ACB.

The same goes for a research hub entirely under the control of the merged entity. That is what their business is, so there is nothing new they are offering here, even if they choose to package it as a compromise. On the contrary, it offers them an opportunity to further capture the remnants of South Africa’s public sector agriculture R&D infrastructure for their own ends, by “providing advisory services” to these institutions, i.e. orienting these institutions to support their agendas. This process is already far advanced in the Agricultural Research Council, where a dribble of government funds must be supplemented with private sector funds to ensure the institutions stay alive.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. It is no surprise that this is happening at the same time as seed laws in South Africa are being tightened up in favour of private owners of germplasm and to the detriment of food producers and ultimately consumers, that is- all of us. This path leads towards greater control and concentration in the hands of a few so the few can profit at the expense of resource-poor farmers and consumers everywhere.

For these reasons, “ACB reiterates its opposition to the merger, and will continue to look for ways both to expose the unsustainability of the path being followed by these corporations as well as to look for practical solutions based on farmer-controlled seed breeding, sharing of germplasm and agro-ecological production methods that do not rely on synthetic, fuel-based fertilisers and seeds manufactured in laboratories,” said Mayet.

We are also extremely concerned about the implications of the merger for the rest of Africa. Pannar is arguably the leading international seed company on the African continent, owning companies in 8 countries, and selling seed in at least 10 others. It also has partnerships with some of the continent’s most prominent research organizations. With this merger, Pioneer now finds itself at the apex of Pannar’s African seed network. We have to ask: “What will be the character of the seeds on offer, who will control it, what opportunities in the future are there for farmers to decide to use different seed.”

These are the bigger problems with the merger that relate not only to this merger but to the whole commercial and patented seed system in South Africa, globally and increasingly in Africa.