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.