Indigenous or improved seeds? Ugandan farmers on crossroads over suitable varieties amidst extreme climate

Northern Uganda—In a bid to respond to food insecurity in different parts of Uganda, scientists at National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) have come with a research and innovation to produce new seed and plant varieties to replace indigenous ones, ostensibly to boost farmers’ productivity amidst climate stress.

This development is being done through NARO’s Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institutes.

Dr. Laban Turyagyenda, the Director Zonal Research and Development Institute, Ngetta ZARDI in Lira, stated in an interview with this outlet recently that indigenous varieties are not performing well and is making it hard for small-scale farmers to get enough food, income and better nutrition.

According Dr Turyagyenda, there are so many several challenges associated with using indigenous varieties as “susceptibility to pest and diseases leading to yield loss, poor yielders which make it expensive to small-scale farmers in term of high fertilizers application, less tolerant to drought and cannot thrive without irrigation supplements and low yield resulting to food insecurity and poverty,” he said.

However, the new development has met negative criticism from some Experts and activists in Agroecology where they are blaming NARO over failure to find real time solutions to the problems the farmers face with claims that Government agricultural laboratories are doing ‘no innovations’ for Climate adaptation and resilience but rather permitting infiltration by foreign agricultural giant companies using patented gene.

“Most of the research laboratories on crops and plant protection are funded by the same foundations [international Agri-companies] which want to exercise the control. The banana gene Kawanda which is being tried on Uganda bananas is owned by Monsanto, there is no innovation there. Somebody is giving you a patented gene to infiltrate your banana industry, the BT cotton…, they come with agrochemicals which are produced by the same persons,” says Edward Mukiibi, President Slow Food International.

This has raised an existential question among many small-scale farmers in parts of northern Uganda on which direction to take, with a good number of them turning to advocate to their fellows to save, multiply and share indigenous variety among themselves over fear that hybrid seeds and plant varieties from the laboratories have undergone genetic manipulation.

This has since made some farmers in the Northern region to go ‘traditional’. Vicky Akello Lukwiya, one of the smallholder farmers in Gulu district who doubles as an Agroecologist and seeds activist, says she fears that researchers manipulate the genes of the local seeds to produce improved seeds which are no longer nutritious and highly dependable on agrochemicals.

“Our local seeds can be replanted in subsequent years but right now when you plant improved seeds, you only plant it once. You cannot replant it in the next year, you must go back to the market and buy. Does a poor small-scale farmer have money to buy improved seed, chemical? No. Our seeds are life, seeds are heritage, and seeds are food. So long as you have seeds, you have lives,” Akello explained to our reporter in an interview recently.

Akello Vicky Lukwiya displaying assortment of indigenous seeds at her home bank

Akello says for example, NAROCAS cassava matures fast but starts rotting immediately and Citrus also last for 3-4 years bearing fruits and then the stems start to whither unlike the local species which take many years bearing fruits.

The decision of some of these women to choose indigenous over improved has since seen more uptake of indigenous seeds compared to varieties, the impact of NARO thin across northern Uganda. In Acholi subregion, Dr Turyagyenda says the NARO institute is working with 28 Local Seed Business groups including Latyeng Farmers’ Cooperative, in Bar Dege Layibi Divison in Gulu City to reach out farmers with seeds. In Lango subregion they are working 10 local seed business groups in Lango subregion, according to the official.

And the latest innovation right now according to Dr Turyagyenda is the 2 new rice varieties; one of which is black rice variety, new cassava, potato and new bean varieties which are rich in minerals and vitamins that scientists at Ngetta have released.

However, Mukiibi has refuted the claims, saying improved seeds being produced in plants are not relevant and unsustainable in the context of climate change.

The biggest crisis compromising the agricultural sector in Uganda is infiltration by powerful foreign international Agri-companies. Mukiibi , argues that the foreign companies’ influence of flooding the Uganda seeds market and agricultural laboratories with varieties whose integrity has been compromised jeopardizes the farmers’ liberty to make choices on seeds.

Experts maintain that the knowledge gap remains the biggest challenge affecting small-scale farmers across Uganda and Sub-Saharan Africa at large due to limited support of extension workers. In Uganda, the ratio of extension workers to farming households is still at 1:1800, way too below the United Nations-Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)’s global recommendation of 1:750 extension worker to farming households.

Small scale farmers like Akello forms the 85 percent who raises upto 85-89 percent seeds informally for circulation. They depend on farming using local seeds and yet the practices are linked to the worsening situation of hunger and starvation in parts of the country including the greater northern region.

Contrary to Akello’s views, Fred Rackara a smallholder farmer in Alero Subcounty, Nwoya district is unbothered with the choices of which type of seeds or plant varieties to use. Rackara’s major problem is the unpredictable weather occurrence which he says is the biggest setback to be addressed through holistic approach to ensure sustainable chain of food production.

At a time like this most farmers should be opening their gardens in preparation for first season planting, but majority of smallholders farmers in Nwoya district like Rackara are still anxious on what to do after counting complete losses in growing groundnuts to prolonged dry spell which extended up to the month of May of 2022.

What do Uganda laws say on Seeds and Plant Protection?

Uganda’s Agricultural Seed and Plant Act, Chapter 28 provides for the promotion, regulation and control of plant breeding and variety release, multiplication, conditioning, marketing, importing and quality assurance of seeds and other planting materials and for related matters.

In 2012 Parliament of Uganda attempted to repeal the Act to legalize use of Biotechnology and Biosafety to allow importation, production and circulation of genetically modified organism (GMO) in the Uganda market but President Museveni declined to endorse the bill over safety issue and the need to protect the patent rights of indigenous farmers.

President Museveni was quoted in the letter to the then Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga saying “to be on the safer side, GMO seeds should never be randomly mixed with our indigenous seeds just in case they turn out to have a problem.”

In an additional interview with Dr Turyagenda, the Director Ngetta ZARDI, he maintains that NARO is not involved in genetic modification of plant variety.

“It is not Genetic engineering or genetic modification. Secondly, NARO does not produce or release GMOs. There is genetic engineering research going on in cassava, potato and banana but under restricted confined trials,” Dr Laban responded.

Climate Change a big burden to small-scale farmers

Despite the global call to fight food insecurity and poverty across nations using Climate Smart Agriculture, which Uganda itself is still lagging behind in term of preparation and implementation, small-scale farmers are on crossroad to determine what work best for them amidst unreliable weather distribution characterized by excess but short-term rainfall, drought, storms and floods, pest and disease.

KOPIA Rice project handing over 2320kg of Narorice-1 to 100 farmers of Doho Irrigation Scheme Farmer’s Cooperative in Butaleja district recently

This is coupled by bad agricultural practices and mindset problems which are making farmers in rural communities to rely on low yielding seeds and plant varieties according to experts. Feed the Future’s report-2021 titled “Uganda Seed Sector Profile” says smallholder farmers running informal seed systems raise up to 85 to 89 percent of their seeds for planting.

“Even if we [Uganda researchers] do research, let’s preserve the original plant varieties. I think preservation is very important,” says Betty Aol Ocan Woman MP Gulu City and a member of the Committee of Parliament on Science, Technology and Innovations on Monday 19th January 2023. She was speaking to groups of smallholder farmers dealing in shea nuts during training on registering Nolitica Shea as an Intellectual Property with Geographical Indicator with Uganda Registration Services Bureau in Gulu City.

The policy-maker claims that improved bananas sold on Gulu-Kampala Highways in Luweero bus stop points along the Highways, are an improved variety which has lost its natural taste to innovations.

Chegem looks at his drying maize garden in Moroto (PHOTO/Olandason Wanyama)

Expert speaks out

Francis Okot, a Plant Breeders and Seeds Expert, (Pursuing PhD in Plant Breeding in University of Kwazulu Natal in South Africa) says Uganda informal seeds system is not yet threatened at all.

“It’s not threatened at all. I think the policy protects the farmers to the level where farmers can organize themselves, learn, produce and sell seeds informally. Only a few farmers buy seeds from commercial seeds companies. Seeds like maize and exotic vegetables like onions and cabbage,” he said.

He described Uganda seed system into three major seed systems such as the informal, formal and the integrated seed system. Integrated system that brings together the informal and formal system through researches and innovations.

The Expert equally attributes the trend of hunger and poverty in the farming communities to the use of bad agricultural practices, bad climate coupled with negative mindsets of the farmers themselves toward adaptation mechanisms. Something he says may be hard to address without regular sensitization.

Commenting on whether reliance of Indigenous seeds is the solution to food insecurity, poverty amidst challenge from Climate Variability, Okot says, “farming the God’s way” as being pushed by global movement of agroecologists need to incorporate new knowledge to meet the food demand by growing population.

“An agriculture practice that protects the environment is the direction now, but the bottom line is; we need more food because the population is increasing,” he said.

He suggests that smallholder farmers should learn and incorporate knowledge and practices to be able to adapt to the Climate occurrences so that they can achieve sustainable use of the land and water resources in line with the Sustainable Development Goal 1and 2.

The worst practices in the Agric-sector, he says, is the unregulated sale and use of farm inputs such as seeds, inorganic chemicals and fertilizers to illiterate smallholder farmers, which has become a threat to human health and environment.

Demystifying the myth that hybrid seeds do not regenerate in the subsequent planting, he says “people confuse hybrid and indigenous seeds. The hybrid normally is the F1 which has the vigas. It is the crossing between contrasting parents. The F1 normally yields heavily and the next generation of F2, F3 start aggregating and that is why their yield normally gets lower in the next generations,” Okot explained.

Okot’s statement on the death of improved seeds variety has been equally concurred with by Sunday Bod George, a Senior Agricultural Officer in charge of Food Security under Ministry Agriculture, Animal Industries and Fisheries and National Focal Person for Ecological Organic Agriculture.

“You cannot recycle the seed, the more you recycle the more the yield declines, if you recycle three times even the seed will not germinate, is that sustainable? No. Government is also promoting environmentally friendly innovation (Climate Smart Agriculture) but the problem is the funding,” he said. He was speaking from Hotel Africana earlier this week during a graduation of journalists and communicators after completing a 12 weeks training on agroecology under ESAFF.

Way Forward

The Government of Uganda, through the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), is already conducting research on crop plants that are produced through modern biotechnology. The research aims at finding solutions to the overwhelming chronic problems such as insect and disease epidemics, drought stress, and malnutrition.

Researchers at Ngetta ZARDI whose work is centered in Northern Uganda (Acholi and Lango subregion) have plenty of improved high yielding varieties which they say are disease and pest resistant and drought tolerant and the farmers are free to access them directly and through their network of distributors.

These varieties do not require farmers to worry about buying pesticide and sprays and are capable of producing maximum yield with less demand for land to ensure food security and household income. All these he says is in a bid to enable farmers to have enough food, sell surplus and get healthy by eating nutritious food.

However, Hakim Baliraine, the National Board Chairperson of Eastern and Southern Africa Small-Scale Framers’ Forum-ESAFF, argues that researches and innovations should be inclusive and participatory through legal framework so that farmers are certain on the food they eat for the benefit of their health.

On the other hands, in a bid to equally provide solutions, David Oming, the Program Assistant in charge of Membership and Partnerships, ESAFF says they are implementing a project called Sowing Diversity equals Harvesting Security (SD=HS) to benefit 11,239  farmers in  9 districts of Northern Uganda, that is Acholi, Lango and West Nile equally distributed.

 “We are implementing a project Sowing Diversity equals Harvesting Security (SD=HS) to empower small-scale farmers to recognize their rights and access, create, exchange, and sustainably use of plant genetic resources to improve food and nutrition security in the context of climate change,” he said.

Under the project he noted that so far three seed banks were established in the three sub regions of Lango (in Apac district), Acholi (in Omoro) and West Nile (Adjumani district).

In Omoro, the seed banks located in Te Tugu in Ongako sub county where Akello is leading hundreds of small holder farmers, a total of 80 different local plant varieties are being multiplied for distribution and sales among both small-scale and large-scale farmers with the aim of ensuring continuity.

Assorted indigenous seeds at Tetugu Seed Bank in Omoro district

Among the plant varieties include beans (nabale, kanyebwa, black beans), Okra (Otigo Lwaka), Cassava cuttings, pigeon peas (lapena), soya beans, millets, Sim sim, sorghum, green bean, hibiscus cannabinus (Malakwang) among others.

However, Mukiibi argues that policy formulation on patent rights for local seeds and freedom to participate in the informal seeds system. He believes that having the policy in place will protect indigenous plant varieties from threat from foreign multinational Agri-companies attempting to monopolize the system and create dependency on their products.

To upscale agroecological practice in Uganda, Sunday Bob George says they are developing a national agroecology strategy just to help provide a legal framework enabling both farmers and stakeholders to move forwards.

The independent Seed Expert emphasizes the need to provide knowledge and skills in order to get abundant yield using Climate Smart approaches to reduce losses.


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