Biowatch South Africa Profile

Wednesday, 20 June, 2012 - 09:45

As a country and as a world, we face multiple food, energy and climate change crises. Within this context, Biowatch South Africa (Biowatch) challenges industrial agriculture and demonstrates ecologically sustainable alternatives to ensure biodiversity, food sovereignty and social justice.

Established in 1999, Biowatch works with small-scale farmers, civil society organisations and government to ensure that people have control over their food, agricultural processes and resources, and other natural resources, within a bio-diverse, agro-ecological and sustainable system.

Working to ensure biodiversity, food sovereignty and social justice

  • Supports small-scale farmers to make informed choices; have control over their agricultural resources (including land, water, seed and infrastructure); and secure their farmers’ rights;
  • Builds platforms for civil society to develop joint understanding of and action towards biodiversity, food sovereignty, biosafety and social justice;
  • Challenges and supports government to implement policy and practices that promote, facilitate, and actively support agro-ecology, and that safeguard people and land;
  • Resists corporate appropriation of natural resources.

Activities fall into three main focus areas:

  • Advocacy, monitoring and research including monitoring genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and applications for commercial release under the GMO Act; engaging with government and the Competition Commission of South Africa; developing and distributing information and education materials; presentations; and research focused on securing farmers’ rights and seed security, national biosafety legislation for GMOs, and a marketing strategy for small-scale food gardens;
  • Promoting agro-ecology including training small-scale farmers and community facilitators on agro-ecology practices and GMO awareness; validating traditional agricultural knowledge; promoting household seed banks; farmer exchanges, seed rituals and seed festivals; and facilitating markets for communities’ surplus production;
  • International experience sharing including facilitating international farmer exchanges; and participation in events such as Congress of the Parties (COP17), World Social Forum and international economic justice workshops.

Immediate challenges and concerns

•    Securing farmers’ rights and food security

For millions of South Africans, traditional farming systems (including seed selection, saving and exchange) form the foundation of livelihoods and the conservation of agricultural biodiversity. But this foundation is under threat from corporate and government-supported industrial agriculture that promotes monocultures, genetically modified seeds, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. To ensure seed sovereignty, biological diversity and social justice, Biowatch works with small-scale farmers to develop and maintain their rich knowledge of and practices in traditional agriculture and agro-ecology.

•    Corporate control of South Africa’s food-crop-seed supply chain

Biowatch believes it is critical to maintain an independent crop seed industry, which is at the apex of the food production chain, in order to preserve national food security and sovereignty. As such, Biowatch has raised serious concerns with the Competition Commission of South Africa about monopolies in the South African seed industry. Despite intervention from concerned non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and a decision by both the Competition Commission and the Competition Tribunal of South Africa, the Competition Appeal Court recently approved the merger between United States of America-controlled multinational Pioneer Hi-Bred Inc. and South Africa’s largest seed company, Pannar Seed (Pty) Ltd. This decision effectively places a corporate “duopoly” in control of the South African food-crop-seed supply chain, and sanctions an excessive level of market control in the South African seed industry. This is further complicated by the fact that there are undisclosed licence agreements for Pioneer to use Monsanto’s patented technology in its genetically modified seeds. Already more than half of Pioneer’s maize seed varieties use Monsanto’s technology under licence. Such foreign control runs counter to broader national interests of food security and the conservation of crop diversity. Biowatch is concerned by the apparent weakness of the Competition Act, which has enabled a merger such as this to be permitted, and is working to build and support platforms for joint civil society action to resist corporate appropriation and control of South Africa’s food-crop-seed supply chain.

Organisation details

Biowatch South Africa is a nonprofit, public benefit organisation. Its head office is in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. It has a rural office in Mtubatuba that works with small-scale farmers on sustainable agriculture, food and seed security, and farmers’ rights.

Biowatch gained wide public prominence in 2009 with its Constitutional Court victory. What’s become known as ‘the landmark Biowatch Case’, one of the most quoted cases in recent South African legal history, clarifies that in future, public interest litigants acting in good faith will not have to fear that costs will be awarded against them. Biowatch launched the case in 2000 to obtain from the state more details of the extent to which GMOs were being planted in South Africa. Monsanto joined the case on the side of the state. In 2005, the Pretoria High Court granted Biowatch access to most of the information, but ordered Biowatch to pay Monsanto’s costs. Biowatch fought this order in the High and Supreme Courts of Appeal, but lost. It was only when the case was admitted to the Constitutional Court that justice prevailed. The full bench reversed the costs order, and further ordered that the state pay Biowatch’s legal costs. In delivering the judgement in June 2009, Justice Albie Sachs declared that the case was “a matter of great interest to the legal profession, the general public, and bodies concerned with public interest litigation.”

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