Say you’re a farmer in Uganda. You don’t have a lot of land, you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t have a lot of hope. You go into town and stop to talk to your local agro-dealer. He says if you buy his high-yield seed and fertilizer you can triple your harvest for about $100.
Do you believe him? Should you believe him?
If Fake Seed turns out to be as prevalent as initial tests suggest, the problem is a development catastrophe for Uganda.
In a better world, this should be a no-brainer. Of course you should believe him! There are tons of cases of farmers doubling and tripling their yields just by switching to hybrid seed + fertilizer. This isn’t voodoo, it isn’t even GMO: it’s a long established, tried-and-tested technology at the heart of the 1960s and 70s’ Green Revolution. You’d have to be dumb to pass up on hybrid seed.
And yet, if you’re a Ugandan farmer, you may well not believe your ag dealer. And not because you’re dumb; because you’re smart.
You’ve heard the stories. Stories of farmers who gambled on seed that didn’t grow. Stories of unscrupulous dealers making off with their very hard-earned savings in return for junk. You know the seed you saved from last season won’t get you a great harvest, but one thing you’re sure of: it will grow.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If the seed you buy doesn’t grow, you’ll starve. Even the money you’d need to buy emergency food will be gone since, of course, you’ll have spent it on the seed.
The question, then, is how good a reason do Ugandan farmers have to worry about this? Sadly, there are plenty of anecdotes about fake seed in Uganda, but – at present – a shortage of hard data.
An important study is now underway by Svensson, Yanagizawa-Drott, and Bold should help pin down the scale of the problem. This same team previously studied the market for antimalarials in Uganda, 37% of which turned out to be fake. Their preliminary results on seed, not yet published, show perhaps 3 in 10 commercial seed bags sold in Uganda fail to germinate.
I asked James Joughin about this number, which strikes me as astronomic, and he said it’s not immediately evident how much of this bum seed is outright counterfeit – just normal grain painted to look like it’s been industrially treated as seed – and how much of it is “real” seed that fails to germinate for some other reason.
“Who can tell?” Joughin said, “maybe the ag dealer left a bag of real seed outside, and it got wet, and that’s how it was ruined.” Or maybe a mistake was made at the seed treatment plant, where quality standards vary enormously. The fact that the National Seed Certification Service is a bit of a cess-pool, with seed companies working to dismal quality standards able to bribe their way to certification, certainly doesn’t help.
Whether the culprit is lax quality control, limp regulation, improper handling in the supply chain or outright criminality, the result is the same: the final buyer can’t be certain this very expensive input is going to work.
One thing is for sure: if Fake Seed turns out to be as prevalent as initial tests suggest, the problem is a development catastrophe for Uganda. Adopting Improved Seed and Fertilizer remains the most promising, quickest road out of acute poverty for vulnerable rural populations, with stories of harvests tripling entirely common. (On demonstration plots run by trained agronomists, the yield bump can be up to 10-fold.) Anything that slows the spread of hybrid seed or heightens farmers’ perceptions of its risk is an outright disaster.
And so back we go to Uganda’s broken Seed Certification system. Development topics really don’t get more boring than that, but the Ugandan Seed situation is a perfect little parable for how indispensable a minimally competent state able to enforce its own laws really is for development. If the state can’t (or won’t) prosecute people who cheat farmers with bum seed, that’s just not a category of problem an NGO can address.
With a dysfunctional regulatory system unable to tell apart competent seed producers from fly-by-night hacks, official certification gives farmers little useful information about the quality of the seed that’s even in the “real” bags.
And with lax enforcement making seed counterfeiting all-profit-and-no-risk, unscrupulous hucksters out for a buck have all the incentives aligned in their favour.
And so, here we are. It’s 2014, and 87% of farmers in fertile, peaceful, stable Uganda use the same basic farming technology human beings invented at the end of the last Ice Age.
It’s a scandal.