Adventures Outside the Aid Comfort Zone

I’ll own up, I’m obsessed with Counterfeit Seed. I don’t think about much else these days: Seed Counterfeiting is just this perfect little case study of the way Aid can keep winning development battles from now until the end of time and still lose the war.

First things first: Big Aid is very well clued in to seed issues.

In a way, Seed (and fertilizer, and herbicide) is where it all started: the Green Revolution of the 50s and 60s in Asia and Latin America was, among other things, a massive, these-days unthinkably successful Big Aid project. It was the crucible where the model that so many later initiatives would try to emulate was forged.

Low agricultural productivity in Asia and Latin America was an enormous Third World problem solved conclusively in First World labs back in the day when people still talked about the Third and the First World. And it was solved in no small part is a sprawling effort to bring out the fruits of that research and put them into the hands of the world’s poorest people, with impacts on food security that were dramatic and lasting and real.

Even today, there’s a whole little subworld of the aid world that’s all about seed. Legacy organizations from the Green Revolution like CIMMYT and ICRISAT working alongside newcomers like AGRA are out there working to spread knowledge of modern plant breeding techniques, developing new strains, monitoring pest and plant disease patterns to come up with new resistant varieties.

And it works! They do amazing things! 20th century biotech is alive and well in the 21st century thanks to a wealth of initiatives by crop scientists who do more for the world’s poor before breakfast than an army of voluntourists would do in a lifetime. Hurray for them!

So far, so comfort-zoney. Aid for new crop varieties is development as we’d like to imagine it: the poor are poor because they lack certain knowledge- and technology-intensive tools, and if there’s one thing we’re not short of is technical expertise to provide them. And so the Gates Foundation grants keep getting granted and the FAO studies keep getting studied and the whole machine keeps puttering forward relentlessly and everybody’s happy…except the Africa’s smallholder farmers.

Because here we are well into the second decade of the 21st century and fewer than 1 in 10 Ugandan farmers even tries to buy High Yield Variety seeds from the market! When they do, they’re cheated 30 or 40% of the time, sold counterfeit seed and hung out to dry.

And suddenly we’re well out of the collective comfort zone of the guys in the white lab coats. Suddenly, you start to realize the problem isn’t technical at all. The reason the Green Revolution somehow skipped Africa isn’t biological.

Ugandan farmers are not primarily constrained by a technological gap, what they’re facing is criminal gangs running a sprawling criminal conspiracy that preys on the world’s weakest people. Forget the lab coats, what you need a badge and a gun. You need informants and snitches, you need somebody to grass. You need a courtroom and a prison and a parole board and all kinds of things the Gates Foundation ain’t ever going to give you a grant for.

Notice what happened just there? When you become genuinely aware of the prevalence of seed counterfeiting, you’re summarily evicted from the Aid Enterprise’s collective comfort zone. You’re expelled from that Sachsian schematized reality where you have poor people in villages who lack access to technology and you have sophisticated experts able to develop that technology and the only thing keeping you from putting the two together is lack of a big enough aid budget.

Fake seed fascinates me because it shines the spotlight back on the whole tangle of social and political relationships that mediate between the two. In the final analysis, farmers buy seed not from the top of Mount Olympus but from a local agro-dealer who’s the last stage in a perfectly mundane, entirely corruptible supply chain where transactions are regulated and policed by an equally humdrum set of bureaucracies arising from an eminently corruptible state.

The seed scientists – the real heroes in all of this – find themselves in an impossible position. They can continue developing improved seed varieties from now until the end of time, but there is no magic wand you can wave to make the intervening institutions suddenly stop hindering the interface between what they produce and what farmers sow the following year.

To ask why Ugandans go hungry is to ask why those who grow the foods don’t have a reliable way to access the things they need to grow the food. That interface is broken, not because the seeds don’t exist, not because the farmers don’t want to buy them, but because markets – even the simplest of markets – are complex institutions that need a minimally competent state guarantor to operate properly.

But the stories of the specific features of that break-down is one that’s seldom told: or, rather, one that’s usually told at such a high level of abstraction and generality as to be fairly useless. I’m not interested in Why Nations Fail as a general pr0position. I’m interested in why this farmer can’t find good seed and fertilizer in that village. That’s the story I want to explore.


7 thoughts on “Adventures Outside the Aid Comfort Zone”

  1. Do the farmers want the seed though? Are the seeds produced by big business as counterfeit as the ones they can buy? We are losing genetic variability to just a few big businesses and that could make us more vulnerable in the longer term. Do we perhaps need more farmer led research and less big ag led or “developed” world led. What would happen if that money was put in the hands of the farmers and encouraged them to develop their own seed?

    This article makes interesting reading. Although this is a magazine type article, I have read other pieces in more academic circles too

    1. None of the Seed multinationals are active in Uganda. This is part of the problem: local seed firms don’t seem to be particularly proactive at taking steps to protect their own brands.

      One major problem is that most seed producers sell only big bags – 10 kg. or even 20 kg. minimum. Smallholders need a fraction of that. So the big bags get opened and split into smaller, unlabeled batches at some point along the supply chain. Once that happens, it’s extremely hard to keep fakes out – one baggie looks just the same as another. (It’s also hard to make sure the right adapted varieties get to the right farmer – unmarked bags don’t tell you which adapted seed they supposedly contained, or whether which altitude it was developed for, or whether it’s early or late maturing, etc. etc. etc.)

      All of these are problems that the Seed Companies would seem to have an overwhelming incentive to fix. But they don’t. Why don’t they?! This is a mystery to me – with any luck I’ll get to ask them directly this summer.

  2. Hm. Another way to ask the question is, why has fake seed been a problem in Africa when presumably it wasn’t elsewhere (or the problem was overcome)?

  3. When some jerk started slipping poison into Bufferin bottles some years ago, it took ten seconds for the company to come up with a tamper -proof bottle.

    Why can’t seed companies hermetically seal their seed packs to prevent adulteration?

  4. This is a fantastic article. Right to the heart of it. Food. Excuse me while I make that point. FOOD; you know, FOOD, that thing people eat to stay alive and healthy; starting with breakfast. Children need to eat it before they go to school; adults need to eat it before they go to work. And some gangs are making sure people can’t grow it. 20 years should be the minimum sentence. Here you get 20 years for stealing a cow. Should be the same for seed counterfeiters. A child with no food in the morning because of a counterfeiter; 20 years.

    Mother earth. Give them GMO or at worst hybrids . Told a person here that if she planted GMO instead of the normal seed then she would get double the yield just doing the same amount of work. Very interested. Might try some smuggling.

    Go and see M7 if you live there and create a stink. Most African leaders were small holder farmers or are one generation removed from small holder farming, i.e., they will be sympathetic. Put the development world in the dock( via the Guardian?) about food and seed.

    The men from Peru and Bahrain
    decided to wait for the train
    The man from Peru got the train
    and they said to the man from Bahrain
    let us go and shell all of your grain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s