#FreeTheSeed and the Romanticization of Uganda’s Hunger

One trope you run into again and again when you deal with food security issues is the idea that what African farmers need the most is just to be left alone to do their thing. In this view, African farmers know exactly what they’re doing, have been doing it well for centuries, and stand only to lose from encroachment from rapacious outsiders pushing new, profit-driven technologies that will alienate them from their land, their role as environmental stewards, and their traditions.

This Noble Savage retread came up most recently in Global Justice Now’s #FreeTheSeeds campaign. The punchline, nicely encapsulated in a quote by Ugandan seed activist Beatrice Katsigazi, goes something like:

“Women farmers have few resources and do not want seed that we can plant for one season only or seed that is owned by companies. We believe in our own seeds that we can access from our own collections or from our farmer networks, free of charge.”

Let’s kick the tires on this claim; look under the hood to see how well it really runs.

First off, there’s no question that saved seed and informal seed trading have been the norm in Uganda, basically, forever. Even today, more than 80% of the seed sown in Uganda is saved or informally traded in this way (by some estimates, the number is closer to 90%).

That was true in 1960, when Uganda had to feed 6.8 million people from the food it produced on 7.8 million acres of farmland under cultivation, and it remains true today, when Uganda has to feed 37.6 million people on 16.7 million acres under cultivation. (You see where this is going, right?)

A couple of generations ago, Uganda had 1.15 acres of farm land per person. Now, it needs to feed each person on what it produces on less than half an acre. Just to keep people at the same level of consumption as back in 1960 – and let me assure you Uganda was no eater’s paradise back in 1960 – Ugandan farmers need to be more than two and a half times as productive as they used to be.

The Uganda we have today looks nothing like the Uganda of even our grandparents’ time.

Are they? Not by a long shot.

As has been very widely documented, agricultural productivity has flat-lined in much of sub-saharan Africa in recent decades, and Uganda is no exception. The political chaos of the 1970s and early 80s makes it impossible to get data from that era, but we do know Agricultural Value Added stood at $213 per worker in 1982 and at $210 in 2013, the latest date for which we have figures available.

Cereal yields have risen – from 1.6 tons per hectare in 1983 to 2.1 in 2013 – but not nearly fast enough to keep up with a population that’s nearly tripled in that period.

You start to see the problem with the argument that Africans just need to be left alone to do what they’ve always done shielded from the evil designs of outside capitalists: the Uganda we have today looks nothing like the Uganda of even our grandparents’ time. Massive improvements in health and sanitation have set off a population explosion that’s put enormous new pressures on resources.

In Uganda, where the tradition is for farms to be divided as they’re passed down from one generation to the next, one outcome has been the increasing fragmentation of farms into small, often tiny farm plots that simply can’t produce enough to sustain the people who live on them without modern agricultural technologies.

The prevalence of undernourishment has actually risen in Uganda, from 27.1% of the population in 1991 to 30.1% in 2013.

In Uganda as a whole, 58% of farms are now smaller than one hectare (2.4 acres) with a great many farmers living on much smaller plots than that. Some families really end up “farming” on plots the size of a suburban North American backyard.

It’s not surprising, then, that farming has expanded into more and more marginal land. Traditional shifting cultivation (a.k.a. slash-and-burn) methods of soil fertility management have become impossible to sustain: you can’t just slash and burn the next field over once yours becomes unproductive, because somebody is farming that field now.

This process is ongoing. Just in the period between 2005 and 2011, the average area farmed per household in Uganda declined by 7%. And with population growth showing no signs of abating, the trend is only set to deepen in years to come.

Not coincidentally, the prevalence of undernourishment has actually risen in Uganda, from 27.1% of the population in 1991 to 30.1% in 2013.

That a Western Advocacy organization should be actively agitating against hybrid seed is…on the far outer fringes of reason.

Nobody who has actually sat down to look at the realities of farming and food security in Uganda in detail can miss the fact that without much better farming technology able to substantially increase yields, these trends are going to continue. Techniques like shifting cultivation that made some sense two generations ago are not viable in the vastly changed social circumstances of 2015.

Improved Seed – no need for scare-quotes here guys, they really are better – when used alongside better agronomic techniques and reasonable amounts of fertilizers, have been shown to multiply smallholder yields up to sevenfold within a single season.

Hybrid maize, for instance, is a 100-year-old technology, proven safe, that can radically transform the life of a poor farming family within a single season, taking them from the edge of subsistence to the kinds of marketable surpluses that allow them to think about things like paying school fees and setting up a solar panel for indoor lighting and phone charging. That a Western Advocacy organization should be actively agitating against this is…on the far outer fringes of reason.

Global Justice Now’s #FreeTheSeed campaign doesn’t even make sense in its own terms: if it’s environmental stewardship you’re concerned with, your priority should be to limit the amount of land under cultivation.

But if you begin by ruling out the key technology farmers need to produce more food on less land, you’re in effect arguing for Ugandan farmers should bring more and more land under cultivation.

At this point the only land left they could conceivably expand into is the very most environmentally sensitive land. Maybe GlobalJusticeNow wants Ugandan farmers to go grow maize on Mountain Gorilla habitats – that’s pretty much all that’s left.

I’m assuming that’s not quite what they had in mind.

But if that’s the case, what they’re arguing for is that Ugandan smallholders should simply starve. Not, of course, that they’re consciously arguing for that, but that that’s the logical outcome of an advocacy campaign that places off limits all the choices they could make to prevent from starving.

Look, Uganda needs realistic, ideology-free thinking on how it can produce enough to feed itself in an increasingly tough agro-ecology, with climate change team-tagging with explosive population growth to put exceptional demands on the land.

Initiatives like #FreeTheSeed, which perversely mobilize public opinion against some of the best methods we know to achieve this, are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

17 thoughts on “#FreeTheSeed and the Romanticization of Uganda’s Hunger”

  1. Isn’t the campaign more concerned with who owns the seed and that farmers risk, as in the US, having to buy patented seed from powerful corporations (Monsanto and co) as non-improved seed becomes less available and/or mixed up with improved seed (which they would also have to pay to use). I think it’s a question of not turning every natural resource into a commodity which is subject to the global market in which small-scale Ugandan farmers have no power and yet become forced to participate.
    I may have misunderstood.

    1. A couple of points: I doubt that Monsanto would find it profitable to go after Ugandan smallholders who used local seeds that had gotten “mixed up” with hybrids… Seed banks can help preserve local varieties, to make sure they don’t go extinct.

      If it’s the global corporation you worry about, there are good hybrids that are produced by companies based and founded in East Africa…

      And I don’t think any Ugandan maize farmer would consider themselves “forced” to participate if in return she gets 7 times the amount of food she was previously able to grow…

    2. I think you capture their thinking, but it just shows how radically divorced from African reality their thinking is!

      Look, neither Monsanto nor any of the other major global seed companies is active in Uganda nor in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa at all. I’ve hung out at Seed Company facilities in the region and the notion that they could “control” *anything* – including their own supply chains – would give any of them a hearty chuckle: these are, for the most part, mom-and-pop operations, with maybe 50-100 employees total struggling against enormous odds to serve clients with seeds able to revolutionize their livelihoods.

      Demonizing the seed sector as it actually exists (as opposed to the fevered swamp dreams of gringo activists’ imaginations) is just perverse.

      Really this is about projecting the hangups a tiny, politically marginal sliver of pampered first world leftists into the lives of millions of vulnerable, food insecure Africans who need better seed, damnit, not some sophomoric anti-corporate rant.

      (You may have intuited this makes me *angry*!)

  2. I’d like to see the nationally/regionally representative survey on which Beatrice Katsigazi bases her statement. Clearly, she must have conducted one to feel entitled to speak on behalf of all women farmers..?

  3. They have auto-generated tweets on their campaign website. Things like “corporate seeds mean more pesticide and higher costs ” We should culture jam them…

  4. Yep, a lot of these front organisations are not in it for good of the peasant just anti-capital. Put 10kg of hybrid and 10kg of some trad opv seed and see what is picked. Worth a survey.
    A major disadvantage of these action groups is that they have to use the most backward parts of Africa. I mean, Uganda. Try SADC. Hybrids galore and valued.
    I notice the same law of inheritance seems to apply in Uganda to parts of Western Kenya. Poverty is the result.
    I thought there was a confusion in some of the comments between hybrid and gmo. The latter is patented but the former is not.

    1. Re: GMO and hybrid seed – a lot of the rhetoric by the save the seed people is about “commercial” seed much more broadly than GMO.

    2. “A major disadvantage of these action groups is that they have to use the most backward parts of Africa. I mean, Uganda.” Marxists and Christian fundamentalist homophobes think alike? Now there are some interesting bedfellows!

  5. http://www.yieldgap.org/web/guest/home
    Page on Uganda in here; might interest; might not.
    Why don’t you write something about coffee. The wiki page on Ugandan Coffee includes growing robusta with funding from USAID but then discovering nobody wanted to buy it because it was inferior to Arabica.
    Are finger millet houses less hungry than corn houses. What about sorghum houses.

  6. I have been just across the border, in western Kenya, as long ago as 1997 – when the Kenyan small farmers were routinely buying hybrid maize seed from the Kenya government agency, and illegally importing the more maize streak resistant South African seed via various sources, because it was more reliable in the face of pathogen pressure.

    Seriously, now: do not automatically assume that someone who uses hand tools and farms just 1 hectare is either stupid or uneducated. I met an elderly man near Kisumu who asked all sorts of educated questions when we were looking at his maize for signs of disease, and it turned out he was a retired school principal. He also told us they had gone hungry the previous year because of maize streak disease, and asked what we would do about it. Happens we were working on a joint project to breed better hybrid maize, which worked, so maybe we did – a couple of years later.

    The thing is, Africans can and do things for themselves. If aid is needed, it had better be the educated sort of aid, which does not default to the position that Africans are dumb and needy. Poor, yes, but not dumb. Or ignorant – so be careful how you do things. Working with people is always best – and if you don’t involve locals, you’re an idiot. And in Uganda, even more so than in west Kenya, people are smart and well educated.

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