Growth of Uganda’s seed sector exposes major anti-GMO claims

By Isaac Ongu

February 5, 2019

Fears about losing “indigenous” varieties, multinational corporate takeovers of the local seed sector and farmers becoming reliant on purchased seed are some of the top propaganda claims that anti-GMO activists raise when trying to block the adoption of genetically modified crops in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa.

But an analysis of Uganda’s conventional maize market, using existing statistics collaborated with experiences from the nation’s seed sector, shows these factors began coming into play some 60 years ago, long before biotechnology was developed. That’s when scientists in Uganda and other African nations began to introduce improved hybrid varieties of many commonly grown crops. Along the way, foreign companies began participating in the seed industry and farmers — impressed with the improved yields and other beneficial traits— are increasingly buying new seeds each year.

In short, anti-GMO activists are sounding the alarm about practices that are already playing out in Uganda’s agricultural sector, and the result has been higher yields and more choices for smallholder farmers in what they want to grow.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture’s National Crop Variety List, Uganda’s research body introduced its first variety as early as 1960 and by 2017 had released 89 new maize varieties to its farmers. Most of the so-called local varieties currently in cultivation are actually products from scientific research that began prior to Uganda attaining its independence in 1962.

The earlier research programs focused on yield improvements that saw the average maize yield increase from 2.5 tons per hectare in the 1960s to over eight tons per hectare in 2012 and beyond. In the last decade, scientists have focused on yield protection, leading to releases of varieties that are resistant or tolerant to emerging challenges, such as maize streak virus, northern leaf blight, drought, water use inefficiency, adaptability to highland areas, aflatoxin accumulation and maize lethal necrosis.

Currently, Ugandan scientists are applying biotechnology as an additional technique to transfer useful traits like insect-resistance and drought-tolerance to existing varieties. But the progressive role of science to continuously respond to challenges affecting existing varieties is now being curtailed by the false claim that there exists an “everlasting indigenous variety” that somehow does not require any improvement, especially through the application of modern biotechnology.

Foreign companies already in seed market

Uganda’s formal seed sector started in 1986 as a seed multiplication scheme under the Ministry of Agriculture. It later became the Uganda Seed Project and then Uganda Seed Ltd. in 1999. Uganda eventually embraced a liberalization policy of its economy that emphasized private sector-led growth. This policy saw the number of seed companies rise from one government-owned Uganda Seed Ltd. to the current 24 privately-owned seed companies that include multinational giants like Syngenta, Monsanto (Bayer), Pioneer (Corteva) and Pannar. Of the 89 varieties that Uganda released between 1960 and 2017, 38 (42.7 percent) were from foreign companies. The other varieties were developed through Uganda’s public research system. Only two private Ugandan seed companies have their own varieties, contributing a meagre 0.08 percent to the total. Other local seed companies merely multiply and market seeds that are owned by the public sector or by foreign players.

The multinational seed companies aren’t unlike the foreign firms that participate in the other sectors, such as finance, hospitality, telecommunications, energy and transport, that came to Uganda following the country’s economic recovery program (EPR) that began as early as 1987. This recovery program resulted in the Public Enterprise Reform and Divestiture (PERD) policy of 1991, which outlined the country’s privatization strategy. The objectives of PERD have been to reduce the role of the public sector and to promote the development of an efficient market-led private sector. It is this policy that created an enabling environment for direct foreign investments that have seen multinational seed companies begin to trade in Uganda.

GMO opponents who claim Uganda’s new biosafety bill would open the country to multinationals like Monsanto are possibly ignorant of the fact that Ugandan farmers have been buying seeds from these companies for over a decade. In the Ugandan Seed Market, Monsanto released DK 8051 and DK 8071 in 2003 and DK 8031 in 2004; Pannar released 11 different varieties in 2002, 2010, 2011 and 2016; Pioneer released two varieties in 2007; and Syngenta released two varieties in 2017.

Farmers abandoning home saved seeds

Statistics from the Uganda Seed Traders Association (USTA), an umbrella body of seed companies licensed to operate in the country, show a very rapid increase in the sales of maize seed between 2014 and 2017. The sale of hybrid rose from 309 metric tons in 2014 to 10,721 metric tons in 2017 — a 97 percent increase. Sales of open-pollinated varieties grew 81 percent, from 835 metric tons in 2014 to 4,339 in 2017.

USTA figures also show that farmers are increasingly opting for hybrid maize seeds over the open-pollinated varieties that are usually saved and replanted. Though seed companies sold 526 metric tons more open pollinated than hybrid in 2014, that trend had dramatically reversed by 2017, when hybrids outsold open pollinated by 6,382 metric tons. In other words, more farmers are abandoning the so-called “farmer-saved” seeds and choosing to buy hybrid seeds every season.

Nelson Masereka, executive secretary to the Uganda Seed Traders Association, thinks the nation’s seed sector will continue to grow exponentially. “This increase in the sale of seeds is just a drop in the ocean because the national estimate is 140,000MT,” he remarked.

Henry Kunguvu, a maize farmer from the Mityana-Mubende District Farmers Association in central Uganda, is one of those who prefer hybrids to open pollinated varieties.

“I used to grow the Longe 5 variety that we could replant but when I started growing hybrids in 2007, the yield was so high that I have never returned to home-saved seeds,” he said. “Currently, I have five acres of Longe 10H. It takes longer to grow, but the yield is a lot higher.”

Recently, however, an infestation of fall armyworm set him back as he incurred the additional costs of buying insecticides. “That reduced on our profits,” he said.

Herbert Okello, managing director of Farmers Services (U) Ltd., a distributor that once sold Monsanto maize hybrid seeds in Uganda, confirmed his sales have risen over the years.

“The demand for quality seeds continues to increase every year,” he said. “I started 10 years ago as a small distributor but now I have grown to a point where I have registered a fully-fledged seed company, licensed by the Ministry of Agriculture. We are in business.”

As seed suppliers in Uganda continue to make profits from their increasing seed sales, ordinary farmers who had started to embrace improved maize hybrids, like Kunguvu, are incurring losses due to such emerging challenges as prolonged drought and new insect pests. Yet biotechnology, widely seen as a strategic tool to address these new agricultural threats, continues to be stymied in Uganda in part due to the twisted claims of activists. If Kunguvu had been able to plant genetically modified Bt maize seeds — proven resistant to fall armyworm in field trials conducted in Uganda and Mozambique — he could have avoided the economic, health and environmental costs of applying pesticides.

In Africa, continental and national seed policies recognize the role of biotechnology. In 2007, the African Union adopted the African Seed and Biotechnology Program (ASBP) as a comprehensive strategy to develop the seed sector and related biotechnology in Africa, taking into account the different needs of various countries and regions. Uganda also recognizes the special role of biotechnology in its national seed strategy (2014/2015-2019/2020), which aims at “ensuring availability of, and access to safe and high-quality seed and planting materials under a pluralistic seed system.”

Despite these high-sounding policy statements, and the existence of “pluralistic seed systems” that should be responding to new problems like fall armyworm, ordinary farmers will continue to suffer harm if policy makers keep passing highly restrictive laws based on false claims and misplaced fears.