World Bank agricultural reform programme facilitates exploitation of Zambian farmers 

3 July 2024

A woman harvesting rice, Barotse floodplain, Zambia. Photo: Georgina Smith

Zambian civil society has voiced strong opposition to a new World Bank-backed seed law, which the government is determined to push through by the end of June. Groups argue the law benefits large profit-driven agribusinesses, while undermining food security by disadvantaging the smallholder farmers producing most of Zambia’s food.

Parliamentary approval of the Plant Variety and Seeds Act is a disbursement-linked indicator in the World Bank’s $300 million Zambia Growth Opportunities Program (ZAMGRO), with the stipulation that the draft law “will be shared with the World Bank for review before…approval by the MoA [Ministry of Agriculture] Cabinet.”

Zambia’s seed sector is already aligned with the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants’ (UPOV) 1978 revision, but the proposed law will align it with the 1991 revision. UPOV is a non-UN treaty body that works to privatise seeds by granting intellectual property rights to developers of plant varieties, and according to the Zambia Alliance for Agroecology and Biodiversity (ZAAB), “significantly strengthens the rights of breeders and further erodes and, in a sense, criminalises, farmer-managed seed systems.”

The new law’s alignment with UPOV 1991 would infringe on smallholder farmers’ rights to share and reuse seeds, practices at the heart of traditional systems of seed use. This is a direct violation of the 2018 UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants that Zambia ratified, which states peasants have “[t]he right to save, use, exchange and sell their farm-saved seed or propagating material.”

Eugene Ng’andu of non-governmental organisation Caritas Zambia said that, “Even though this new law may not be properly enforced when enacted, it is concerning that aligning the act to UPOV 91 will place more restrictions on what farmers are allowed to propagate as compared to the current act [and this] will undermine traditional farming practices.” He added that while it is not a crime for plant breeders to appropriate characteristics of farmers’ indigenous seeds – in other words, farmers don’t have rights over their own seeds – breeders’ rights to the seeds they develop from farmers’ seeds are protected by law, and even accidental cross fertilisation in farmers’ fields could be regarded as theft.

World Bank agriculture policy systematically disadvantages poor farmers

Smallholder farmers produce around 96 per cent of Zambia’s maize, a staple crop, while commercial agriculture focuses on more profitable exports even as Zambia is facing a record-breaking drought likely linked to climate change. “These reforms promote commercial agriculture, but not the country’s food security,” Ng’andu explained.

The government’s agricultural improvement programme, the Comprehensive Agricultural Transformation Support Programme (CATSP) and the World Bank’s ZAMGRO promote a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems of Zambia’s agricultural sector, pushing expensive fertilisers and hybrid seeds that tie farmers into relationships of debt and financial dependence.

Ng’andu said Caritas has seen the benefits of these programmes go to agribusiness, which supplies fertilisers and seeds, while the needs of individual farmers were ignored. There is also a narrative, he noted, that commercial hybrid seeds are needed to address low productivity levels in smallholder farms, but many factors influence productivity, for instance the overuse and depletion of farmland, which can be addressed through agroecological approaches.

Research by UK-based civil society organisation (CSO) CAFOD found the World Bank’s agricultural policy interventions globally have focused largely on promoting agribusiness, pushing smallholder farmers to buy hybrid seeds and fertilisers much like the new Zambian law, while undermining farmer-led seed systems and ignoring their role in tackling poverty and enhancing food security (see Observer Spring 2020). As CSOs have pointed out, the World Bank’s promotion of international agribusiness and the financialisation of agricultural sectors in the Global South is being achieved at the expense of food security and food sovereignty (see Dispatch Springs 2024; Observer Summer 2023).