The Ghana government has expressed confidence the passage of the Plant Variety Protection Bill (previously christened Plant Breeders’ Bill) into law will increase country’s agricultural productivity.

The bill which will allow for scientists and research institutions which develop improved seeds to earn royalties on their varieties was approved by parliament on 4th November 2020.

Chairman of Parliament’s Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee Ben Abdallah told his colleagues the bill seeks to fill the existing gap in Ghana’s intellectual property laws, protect the legitimate rights of plant breeders and incentivise them to deliver quality seeds to boost ongoing agricultural initiatives. There is hope it will also help attract foreign investment in the sector.

“This is expected to lead to the development of disease resistant, drought resistant and high yielding varieties to support the country’s agriculture. This system would also deliver value to our hardworking farmers and propel the socio-economic development of the country,” Abdallah explained.

Attorney General and Minister of Justice Gloria Akufo in a memorandum to parliament explained the law seeks to promote the breeding of new varieties of plants aimed at improving the quality and quantity food and raw materials for industry at a time when the food situation on the globe is not only precarious but uncertain.

Madam Akufo said the protection for new plant varieties will boost investment in plant breeding since plant breeding requires long term investment which entrepreneurs are most often unprepared to sponsor in the absence of protection. The law will also promote the development of new varieties adapted to the local environment and specific needs of the country. It will also increase agricultural productivity in the face of scarcity of arable land and other resources, she added.

In view of the potential for productivity in Ghana, the provision of better seeds to farmers will result in increased yields on the same piece of land which will thereby enhance the economic development of the country, Madam Akufo said. Food security can be improved by breeding and making available to farmers seeds of high yielding varieties that are not only adaptable to our environment but have good taste and nutritional qualities, the memorandum to parliament explained.

Minister for Food and Agriculture Dr. Akoto Owusu Afriyie told the media the bill “will have a great impact on Ghana’s agriculture.” “The bill is meant to protect the rights of breeders in Ghana. Our breeders in the universities and research institutions, they have done so well. They produce so many types of new varieties; high yielding, disease resistant, drought resistant, but they are not recognized.

“If I write a book today, I can rely on my rights to my book and even when I die, whoever succeeds me could continue to benefit. But the breeders create this new variety, and they don’t get anything from it. Elsewhere, their rights are protected. So, the bill is meant to protect the right of the breeder. And it will encourage scientists to put in their maximum and they will get paid for the work that they do,” the minister told the media outside parliament house.

Long history

The chairman of parliament’s constitutional and legal affairs committee explained said the passage of the bill is to ensure Ghana complies with the 1961 International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants which Ghana is a signatory to. He said the approval is in conformity with the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Trade and Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

The Plant Variety Protection Bill was first introduced in parliament about 6 years ago, branded as Plant Breeders Bill. It was shelved following opposition by some civil society groups. In 2015, more than 200 scientists from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) and various universities in the country petitioned parliament to speedily pass the bill.

Their petition noted: “This bill is an important measure to combat poverty in our country. Our farmers desperately need access to improved varieties of our staple crops. This is essential if we are to continue to modernize agriculture. Prof. Eric Yirenkyi Danquah, director of WACCI, observed: “passage of the Ghana Plant Breeders’ Bill will encourage investments for the development of superior varieties of staple crops urgently needed in farmers’ fields to spark a green revolution in the country.”

Absence of bill cost Ghana heavily

Kwasi Etu-Bondie, a member of Parliament’s Food, Agriculture and Cocoa Committee and MP for Kintampo North cited maize and palm oil as two main crops that Ghana is losing a lot from because of the absence of a plant breeders’ protection bill. “Obantapa is the only maize variety with the highest protein in the world. And this maize is being grown in the whole of West Africa. Ghana invested in the scientists at Crop Research Institute to produce it. But everyone is taking it free without paying a dividend to Ghana. That is what we are saying that we have to protect,” he explained in an interview with Alliance for Science.

“Everyone knows oil palm was bred in West Africa. And now we know oil palm is making good money for Malaysia, which took the seed from Ghana. If we have this bill, Malaysia will be paying something to Ghana,” he added.

Reviving old wars

After many years on the table, looks like the political will to increase investment in agriculture is what has motivated the current government to pass the bill into law. Civil Society Group Food Sovereignty Platform at a media briefing in Accra earlier this month said the bill undermines Ghana’s sovereignty and biodiversity. The group said the bill will weaken the country’s agricultural sector as it “violates the Ghanaian value seed system” that sees a lot of seed sharing among farmers.

“The bill is designed to strengthen the largest global seed companies and will put the Ghanaian seed farmer at a disadvantage,” Edwin Kweku Andoh Baffour of the Food Sovereignty Platform explained.

But the scientific community and government disagree. “Because the demand for seeds is going up so drastically, we are encouraging entrepreneurs, breeders to come together to produce seeds for us. And these are being done by local scientists. It has nothing to do with multinationals… that is the kind of propaganda that goes out to scare people,” the Minister for Food and Agriculture Dr. Akoto Owusu Afriyie told the media outside parliament house.

The Attorney General in her memo to parliament also dismissed claims the bill will prohibit farmers from sharing seeds. “The plant breeders right system permits the farmer to save and replant seed and provides them with the right to use protected varieties as a source of further research and breeding activities,” she explained.

Happy science community

Researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Dr. Richard Ampadu Ameyaw told Joy News after the passage of the bill that now, “scientists can be happy that now when they work, their sweat will not be in vain.” He says the law will encourage scientists to work harder. “The little returns you will get in terms of royalties will come back to support seed development and give a plus to the nation,” he added.

Plant breeder at the Crop Research Institute (CSIR) Dr. Maxwell Asante Darko agrees that the new law will enhance the work of plant breeders. “It all bored down to funding. Once there is money coming in, you are able to solve the issues with yield, climate change, pests, drought and all the things associated with production. And be able to meet the quality needs of consumers. Without funding, it is impossible to meet the needs of farmers and consumers,” he explained.

Dr. Asante Darko however notes simply passing the law will not make a difference until it is vigorously implemented. “It is a very very important thing that has happened today but I am cautiously optimistic because in Ghana, it’s not always about the law but whether the law will be applied well. So though I am happy about law that recognizes our work and possibly get some funding to plough back into our breeding programme, I am cautiously optimistic because it is the implementation of it that matters,” he added.