Monsanto and The Seed – Sowing an Uncertain Future in Uganda

mon1I didn’t march against Monsanto last weekend. It would’ve been me marching against the dust of the dry season here in southwestern Uganda. Small village farmers would’ve looked up from working in their gardens, weeding sorghum, hand-watering vegetables, and handing their child a sweet potato. They would’ve wondered. Who’s Monsanto?

I could’ve told them (without exaggeration): Monsanto is one of the biggest companies in the world. They are a chemical company. They used to sell paint and plastics (including Agent Orange and PCBs). Today they sell chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. And they also sell seeds. Special seeds that have been manipulated to require a farmer to buy their chemical products for optimal growth, and prevent a farmer from saving seed after the harvest. (Peter Wheeland, 2013).

The farmers visible from the roads in Uganda, swinging hand-hoes and carrying babies on their backs, represent the majority of the population: 90% are involved in agriculture. Around 40% are subsistence farmers, what Ugandans call peasant farmers (who produce enough food to survive). Approximately 35% are small-farmers (who produce enough food to feed their families and sell a small surplus for generating income) and only 15% would be considered commercial farmers (who produce food crops and cash-crops for regional and international markets – solely for monetary exchange).

The majority of farmers have never heard of Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and other multinational seed and agricultural-input corporations. That doesn’t mean these corporate seed giants haven’t yet arrived in Uganda. On the contrary, Monsanto’s Roundup (herbicide) is available on shelves and improved seeds from Kenyan-based corporations, including the East African Seed Company, AfriSeeds, and Safari Seeds, are commonly sold in colourful plastic packages from local agro-input stores.

mon2According to Tukundane Cuthbert, Sustainable Agriculture Program Coordinator at the Kabale-based NGO Caritas Kabale (whom I interviewed only a day before the March against Monsanto global protest on May 25th) seed management in Uganda remains largely “informal” with approximately 80% of farmers “saving seeds [at home] in their kitchens.”

Most Ugandan farmers forgo, or can’t afford to purchase what Cuthbert called “exotic seeds” (improved, hybrid and genetically-modified (GMO) seeds) and instead, practice saving and exchanging “indigenous seeds” with other farmers to grow maize, beans, pumpkin, cassava, potatoes, plantains, and greens.

But farmers who save indigenous seeds in Uganda are already feeling the heat of Monsanto and other multinational GMO-seed corporations.

Since 2008, Ugandan Members of Parliament have been drafting the Biotechnology and Bio-safety Bill (2012) which is commonly known as the GMO Law. The GMO Law is a regulatory framework for the promotion of the use of Biotechnology in the development of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) (including crops and animals) on a massive scale in Uganda. Critics fear that the GMO Law is“aligned to the interests of transnational/multinational companies and not to the interests of Ugandan farmers and the wider public” (UNETMAC, 2013).

mon3The GMO Law will soon be brought forth in Parliament for a final vote, and – if passed successfully – could break open the borders for the ease of multinational corporations, like Monsanto, to flood “exotic seeds” onto Ugandan shelves and into the hands of Ugandan farmers and their fertile soils.

Uganda, known as the ‘Bread Basket’ of Eastern Africa, has fertile soils, forested landscapes and 90% its population working in agriculture. It’s no wonder Monsanto, along with other seed companies (national and international) have taken interest.

But what will be the impact of Monsanto (and patented GMO-seeds) on the farmer in Uganda? Who will benefit? Small/Subsistence Farmers? Or commercial farmers (who represent 15% of the population)? How will the meaning of seed change for the Ugandan farmer?

To begin, a back-story on seeds in Uganda, and the actors involved.

Traditional seed saving storage

Traditional seed saving storage

Government & The Seed

In my interview with Cuthbert, I was hungry to understand more of the ‘seed history’ in Uganda – specifically: when, how and why agricultural perceptions, policies and practices related seed management have shifted over time.

In the 1970s and 80s, Ugandan farmers were organized into cooperatives for growing cash-crops, including coffee and cotton. The government, under rule of Idi Amin, built ‘seed banks’ and food storage units at the sub-county level where farmers were required to save seeds and surplus crops for local consumption and international export. Due to major political instability in the early 80s, farmers fled and abandoned their land (and seeds) from conflict and violence. Amin’s seed system collapsed.

In 1986, Museveni took power of the conflict-torn state and shifted agricultural gears, moving the focus from farming cooperatives to the local farmer. All sectors of Ugandan society, including agriculture, were in complete disarray. In order to receive an international loan, Museveni signed onto the World Bank/International Monetary Fund’s Structural Adjustment Program (SAPs). The loan came with a set of rigid expectations. In the agricultural sector, the SAPs forced Uganda to rapidly increase production of luxury-crop (coffee, tea) and food crop exports, and wrench open land and markets for global agricultural business and trade.

Government corruption.

Government corruption.

To meet the demands of the SAPs, Museveni needed to rapidly bolster production. Museveni believed he needed exotic seeds to accomplish the task: GMOs, hybrids and improved seeds. In the early 90s, the National Agriculture Advisory Services (NAADS) was created with the goal to increase production of luxury and food crops. Museveni saw that NAADS extension workers (who were responsible for supporting the Ugandan farmer) were trained solely in exotic seeds. They “didn’t know the local seeds” Cuthbert explained. Not surprisingly, NAADS failed to support the small or subsistence farmer (who was growing food crops from local, indigenous seeds).

Additionally, millions of dollars mandated for NAADS programming, including distributing resources for farmers, trainings and workshops, were pocketed by government officials and contractors.

The result of political turmoil, pressures from the SAPs, and corruption of public funds, has created a cracked system of support for Ugandan farmers. Today there is a major gap between the small/subsistence farmer and government services. And this gap is exactly what’s proving to be an ideal environment for seed and agriculture corporations, like Monsanto, to be transplanted into Ugandan soils.

Higher Education & The Seed – Indigenous vs. Exotic

Even though political systematization of agriculture in Uganda has, to a large extent, failed, what has flourished from government intervention is the divide that’s been created between the Makerere University graduate (turned extension worker) and the average Ugandan farmer. “Everyone who studies [and graduates] doesn’t think of indigenous seeds,” said Cuthbert, “When people go to school, it’s as if they stop believing in themselves…and what they knew [about farming].”

Traditional grain seeds.

Traditional grain seeds.

Cuthbert explained how exotic seeds, which, today – refer to improved, hybrid or GMO-seeds – are favored by government, even though the bulk of Uganda’s farmers are most familiar with (and have the greatest access to and control over) local, indigenous seeds.

“It’s like going to Church, where religious leaders tell you that medicinal plants are Satanic…while the [pharmaceutical] drugs are pure!” Cuthbert laughed.

Today, indigenous seeds are seen as “inferior” – and exotic seeds, like improved seeds, are marketed as superior. But as Cuthbert pointed out, “farmers can prove things” and when improved seeds fail (and they do fail) to either produce a quality yield, or regenerate the following season, the farmer won’t be fooled again.

But the cost of foolery can be steep for small/subsistence farmers in Uganda. Cuthbert explained that he had purchased spinach seed from a company called Simmaluu, and after planting, less than 10% of the so-called ‘improved seed’ germinated. When he returned to the store where he bought the product, he was denied any compensation and told that the product “must’ve been counterfeit.” Cuthbert’s example provokes the larger question: how can a seed company be held accountable to the small-farmer?


mon7Development NGOs & The Seed

It’s not only government and universities preaching the exotic. Today, many NGOs and large international development projects, including the United Nations’Millennium Development Villages (that is, coincidentally, sponsored by Monsanto) are also responsible for spreading “exotic seeds” by donating and making GMO, hybrid and improved seeds available to, collectively, millions of beneficiaries.

The intended development goal of purchasing exotic seeds to “increase the quantity and quality of yields” can also produce unintended results. Many exotic seeds are hybrid seeds (patented by multinational corporations) containing terminator genes, which means seeds cannot be saved and planted the following season. Instead of saving seeds, the farmer must purchase more seeds from the company. Some seeds have also been engineered by corporations to require specific herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers for optimal results, which can result in another unintended expense for the farmer.

Suddenly, a seed donated for poverty reduction can sow more problems (and generate more costs) than positive results for the small/subsistence farmer, can potentially secure him/her as a dependent of the seed company.

Cabbage is a cash crop in Kabale, Uganda.

Cabbage is a cash crop in Kabale, Uganda.

A Case-Study of Cabbage in Kabale, Uganda

In the Kabale District, located in southwestern Uganda, small/subsistence farmers traditionally planted the indigenous cabbage – a vegetable crop grown, prepared and enjoyed widely by the Bakiga people. The indigenous cabbage was propagated by cutting the bottom stalk into quarters and simply replanting into soil. Farmers would choose the most ideal cabbage, harvest for consumption, and plant the cut stalk.

After the signing of the SAPs in the 1990s, Uganda’s markets opened for agribusiness. From the Netherlands, a GMO cabbage seed arrived in Kabale. The exotic cabbage seed was sold in the local markets, and only after a few years, it popularized. So much, in fact, that today it’s practically impossible to find a farmer growing indigenous cabbage.

“People were debating,” Cuthbert recalled, “Why had farmers abandoned the indigenous cabbage for the new cabbage seed?”

Cuthbert explained that “by force” the Netherlands cabbage was adapted in Kabale. While the indigenous cabbage took six months to harvest, the exotic seed took only three months. Farmers were scrambling to produce more food, not for household consumption, but for sale and export. So they bought the new seed on the market, but could no longer propagate from their own cabbages. It kick-started a cycle of buying and selling, and ultimately, building the farmer’s dependency on agro-seed companies.

mon9On paper, the case-study of the exotic cabbage seed in Kabale seems positive; however, despite the fact that farmers are now producing more cabbages, it’s difficult to measure whether or not their livelihoods have actually improved. For example, the cabbage market has become extremely competitive. Small-farmers living far from the markets are often taken advantage of by middle-people (who own trucks for transport) who buy a head of cabbage at 200 Ugandan Shillings, which is then sold at a market-value of 1000 Ugandan Shillings.

Some farmers barely break even with cabbage today. But since the exotic seed cannot be propagated by replanting the stalk, small/subsistence farmers will always continue returning to the market – to buy more seed.

“It’s true that people were more food secure with indigenous cabbage,” Cuthbert commented, and yet now it’s difficult to find [in Kabale].”


Farmer harvesting sweet potatoes in Kabale, Uganda.

Farmer harvesting sweet potatoes in Kabale, Uganda.

“Why Doesn’t Monsanto Come to Meet the Farmer?”

Agriculture requires the farmer to situate problems. To choose solutions according to the localized context. To consider the local resources available to the farmer.

In Uganda, at the local village, there’s a lot to consider. Namely, human poverty and the desperation of farmers to survive, or generate more income for improved well-being. There’s also, as Cuthbert pointed out, a huge gap between resources and farmers. Over the years, millions of dollars for agricultural projects in Uganda have been “eaten” by government, business, community and NGO officials.

The situation in Uganda, for some subsistence/small farmers is life and death. Urgent action is needed to address and answer the questions: Who can fill the gap for farmers? Who can provide the desperately needed services?

“The farmer [in Uganda] is already finished,” Cuthbert said passionately, “If there’s a small farmer who’s barely alive, how can you claim to want to save him from a company? Why are people against the technology?”

Cuthbert worries the debate about Monsanto and other agro-seed companies in Uganda is too polarized, and often based on the manipulation of information to create fear. “I want to meet the scientists of Monsanto. Let them come [to the village] and we’ll talk…let’s negotiate. Let them come so we can at least check their pockets” Cuthbert said with a laugh.

Critics of Monsanto and Uganda’s proposed GMO Law would disagree. In an article published in the Daily Monitor (one of the national newspapers), the author asserts that:

“The massive introduction of GMOs will increase family farmers’ dependency on the Agro-Industry and small holder farmers will be obliged to buy costly patented seeds as well as expensive “TOXIC” pesticides and fertilizers” (Ellady Muyambi, 2013).


Seed dependency or freedom?

Seed dependency or freedom?

The Future of Seeds in Uganda – Seed Freedom or Dependency?

“The minute we lose access and control to seeds…we get scarcity,” says Dr. Vandana Shiva (a nationally-recognized bio-physicist and Founder of the Navdanya Institute). Shiva is a leader of the Seed Freedom movement – striving to educate populations, worldwide, on the social and environmental impacts of GMO-patented seeds, and challenging the world to demand of Agro-Companies: Who owns the seed?

“A seed is not an invention. That is why patents on seeds are illegitimate. Even in a genetically engineered crop, the original seed come from farmers. Patents on seed are therefore based on biopiracy” (Seed Freedom, 2013).

In Uganda, where nearly 90% of the population is a farmer and 50% the population is living below the poverty line, all agricultural alternatives must be taken into consideration. Just as it’s unacceptable for Parliament to pass a bill without public consultation, it’s unacceptable for someone to discredit a company based on fear and misinformation – especially when people are dying, as Cuthbert stated point-blank.

But the truth is that there’s a lot of information out there about Monsanto, and their malpractices worldwide (especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia). Unfortunately, it’s mostly available on the Internet through social media, blog-sites, youtube videos and so forth – and it doesn’t take a rocket-scientist to acknowledge that small/subsistence farmers are unlikely to have access these sources of information.

For Cuthbert, making a sound decision in agriculture in based on weighing the available information. Given the tough situation that Ugandan farmers are facing, and the lack of government and NGO capacity in addressing the problems, Cuthbert is interested in the private sector playing a role in distributing resources to farmers in Uganda. But before doing business, he wants decision-makers in the capital city to send Monsanto to the village – so farmers can negotiate directly with the company.

Food security? Food dependency?

Food security? Food dependency?

“Does the GMO product eliminate the farmer’s ability to save seeds? If so, then I’m against the company…We need to empower farmers to let them know they have the power to save [seeds]…and make choices. But we need to acknowledge the gap [lack of resources]…and help farmers to grow more than their lunch.”

Only time will tell whether or not the scientists and officials will make that trip to the Ugandan village…down barely passable dirt roads, past fields of indigenous sorghum, past the women working in the fields, babies on their backs…to the house constructed with a grass-thatched roof. Until then, the future is uncertain.

We Can Only Do Small Things with Great Love

Last weekend, I didn’t march against Monsanto. But my thoughts were certainly with those friends and strangers who did participate in the global protest against Monsanto’s GMO-patented seeds and growing control over food systems, worldwide.

Instead of taking to the dusty roads of Kabale, I took to the shade of my garden, mulching, watering, and layering the compost pile. I removed dried sunflower-heads, before the birds could steal the seeds, plucked out a single, black seed – still soft – and contemplated: how could such a large controversy could be provoked from such a small entity?

Small, but powerful political act - saving seeds.

Small, but powerful political act – saving seeds.

I’ve decided I’m going to start saving my seeds, all seeds, to dry, label and store the seeds for future planting, building knowledge of varieties, and most importantly – for sharing with many of the small-farmers whom I’ve met here in Uganda.

Was it Mother Teresa who said “We cannot do great things in life, we can only do small things with great love?” Whoever uttered these words, no matter…because I believe they are true.

So, for me, goodness can and should start with a seed.


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