Of the many factors that keep small-scale Ugandan farmers poor, seed counterfeiting may be the least understood. Passing under the radar of the international development sector, a whole illegal industry has developed in Uganda, cheating farmers by selling them seeds that promise high yields, but fail to germinate at all — with results that can be disastrous.
Counterfeiting gangs have learned to dye regular maize with the characteristic pinkish orange color of industrially processed maize seed, duping farmers into paying good money for seed that just will not grow. The result is a crisis of confidence in commercially available high-yield seed.
According to a paper published by World Bank researcher James Joughin, just 13 percent of farmers buy improved seed from formal markets in Uganda. The rest rely on seeds saved from the previous season or traded informally between neighbors, but such seeds generally produce far lower yields than genuine high-yield hybrids.
“The seed market is very small compared to what you would expect from the returns to these hybrid seeds,” says David Yanagizawa-Drott, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School and part of a team now researching the problem in Uganda for the first time.
A pilot study conducted 18 months ago “found significant amounts of hybrid seeds that were falsified.”
A larger study is expected to be published this autumn.
The lack of trust in local seed markets is a problem even for large commercial farmers, some of whom have invested heavily to plant hundreds of acres with high yield hybrids that simply did not germinate.
For small-scale farmers, fear of counterfeits leaves commercial seed out of the question: when a failed harvest means outright hunger, any risk is too big to take.
Not to be confused with GM-seeds, high yield hybrids were developed in the US in the 1930s, and were at the center of the Green Revolution that transformed Asian and Latin American agriculture in the 1950s and 1960s.
BRONZE AGE METHOD
Among practitioners in agricultural development, there is a consensus about the idea that increasing the use of improved seed varieties is a must for improving the living standards of Africa’s poorest farmers. Helping spread the use of such seed has long been a target for development partners from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
However, that revolution largely by-passed Africa leaving most farmers relying on grain harvested from their own fields the previous year as seeds, a bronze age farming method that leads to yields that are up to 90 percent lower.
The breakdown of trust in rural seed markets contributes to long-standing poverty traps. Fake seed makes it impossible for Uganda’s small farmers to adopt the modern agricultural techniques that lifted millions of Asian and Latin American farmers out of extreme poverty a generation ago.
“[The] perception is that the problem is getting worse,” Joughin says.
The body charged with certifying the quality of seed on sale, the National Seed Certification Service of the Ugandan Ministry of Agriculture, has just eight people on staff and lacks the administrative resources even to carry out its core duties, let alone investigate the counterfeiting rings. Enforcement is largely non-existent.
Nor are seeds the only agricultural inputs undermined by illegal players in the supply chain. According to Joughin, stories of adulterated agro-chemicals abound, with farmers reporting that herbicides are watered down, making it impossible for farmers to know how much to use for effective weed control.