Counterfeit seeds in Uganda are destroying farms and lives

While debates are held all the time on if foreign aid and donations to poor countries help of hurt, on counterfeit seeds there is no debate. By counterfeit, I am talking about seeds that look like seeds but do not work like one. I am not talking about farmers using genetics strains of seeds that are not official.

In Uganda, and in many other poor countries in Africa, farmers are trying to get the very power hybrid and GMO seeds which produce a higher yielding crop. They often cannot afford the price of these seeds, so they try to buy counterfeit ones. They look for seeds that are the same as the real one, but not from a official source. For example, seeds from a parent hybrid crop, which violates the contracts and patents most seed companies have.

However farmers are finding that most of the counterfeit seeds they acquire are not the ones they are looking for. Criminal gangs and other sellers will make a seed that looks like the real thing, but will never germinate. Thus destroying a whole farming season and keeping people in poverty.

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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 won’t grow. The result is a crisis of confidence in commercially available high-yield seed.

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 didn’t 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.

The green revolution largely by-passed Africa, however, 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% 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.

Even if you buy from a legit source you trust, they may not even know the seeds were fake.

Diluting and counterfeiting can happen at many levels in the supply chain. “The seed companies typically sell seed in larger bags, relatively nice bags that are printed, but the material is often split up at the retail level because that’s what farmers want. That creates an opportunity to adulterate the product, by dying for example,” Yanagizawa-Drott says. “And once a [genuine] bag has been used there’s a second-hand market for it, apparently.

Farmers in countries like Uganda experience two different attacks. Counterfeit seeds can destroy your whole growing season. When this happens on a national scale, famines and hunger happen. Farmers adjust their farms and restart the growing season, but while that happens, people are going hungry.

That is when foreign aid comes in. The problem is that aid usually takes months to come, and will leave enough food for month after month. So when a farmer is ready to harvest the crops, they find there is no market as prices have crashed since everyone already has food from the aid and food donations. This creates a cycle of poverty year after year. But if aid is not sent, people will starve to death. It is a very bad situation, and there is really no way to fix it until seed prices come down hard.

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