Andrea Useem fears that the Ethiopian government’s promotion of hybrid seeds to pursue food self-sufficiency is ecologically unsound and not sustainable.
Third World Network, 1997 - Among the rolling yellow fields of Godino, some 50 kilometres south of Ethiopia’s capital, Tadessa Tesemma is separating the wheat from the chaff. Wearing a straw hat and a tattered sport coat, he kneels on a cow-skin mat to beat his grains with a wooden stick.
‘The crop is good and I did not use fertiliser,’ said Tesemma, sifting the seeds with his callused hands. The 400 birr (US$66) he saved on the chemicals will go towards buying new oxen, or paying the tuition for his eight children at the nearby school.
Tesemma’s decision to grow indigenous seeds without fertiliser is at the heart of a growing conflict over agricultural policy in Ethiopia.
Following his election in May 1995, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi pleged that within five years the country would be food self-sufficient. More than 85% of Ethiopians live as subsistence farmers. Major crops include wheat, teff, sorghum, barley, maize and pulses.
The government has adopted a Green Revolution-style strategy, in which extension workers give farmers packages of scientifically derived high-yield seeds and the fertilisers and pesticides they require. This policy has won the government some well-placed friends.
Most notably, the Sasakawa Global 2000, a joint venture of two international organisations headed by Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning father of Asia’s Green Revolution, and former US President Jimmy Carter, is carrying out an ambitious programme in Ethiopia. With funding from Japan’s Nippon Foundation, SG-2000 is training thousands of government extension workers and setting up demonstration plots to promote ‘modern’ farming.
The government has already declared the extension programme a great success, and is boasting a 10-fold increase in yield per hectare.
‘Seeing the drastic increase in food production in one year, it is likely we would reach the goal of self-sufficiency within three years,’ said Ghebre-Medhin Belay, Head of Planning at the Ministry of Agriculture.
Critics however charge that the government’s strategy is economically self-defeating, environmentally destructive and as authoritarian as the policies of the Derg, the ousted military regime that nationalised land, forced farmers onto collective farms and told them what to plant.
Their most obvious criticism is that, in a country where the average per capita income stood at $100 in 1995, the majority of farmers cannot afford to purchase the necessary chemicals, even at current government-subsidised prices. They refute the Ministry’s argument that if farmers use fertilisers and improved seeds they will realise higher yields and cash profits that in turn will allow them to buy more seeds and chemicals.
Impressive Yield, But...
‘It is not a question of whether the methods work. With optimal fertiliser, improved seeds can produce higher yields. The question is whether these yields can be sustained,’ said Hailu Getu, Field Manager for Seeds of Survival, a programme aimed at conserving and improving local crop varieties that do not depend on external inputs.
A representative from Ethiopian Pioneer Hybrid Seeds—a recently privatised company which sells hybrid seeds—admitted that while the seeds can give stunning results one year, they may show little the next: ‘If you plant improved seeds two years in a row, there will be a 25 to 30% yield reduction,’ said Melakou Admassu. And without using any fertiliser at all, farmers planting improved seeds will only see bare ground at harvest time.
‘Improved’ seeds are designed for uniform, stable environments. Unlike the unvarying plains of, say, the American midwest, the farming areas in Ethiopia are highly diverse, with soil, water and pest conditions ranging from field to field. According to Getu, this makes the ‘improved’ seed crops extremely vulnerable to failure, which can mean famine for Ethiopia’s millions of subsistence farmers.
Seeds of Survival is putting its money instead on ‘land-races’, the highly diverse crops that Ethiopian farmers have developed over the centuries. Within a single field of land-race wheat, for example, more than 15 varieties will grow side by side.
According to Tesfaye Tesemma, senior plant breeder at Seeds of Survival, the crop’s diversity means food security for the farmer: if one variety is felled by disease or pest, the others will survive.
Seeds of Survival’s strategy is to boost the productivity of land-races. They have started by giving out the diverse seeds as a loan, to be paid back after the harvest. The long-term solution is for local seed exchanges to evolve among farmers.
Risk to Biodiversity
Another fear is that promoting the new seeds will endanger the rich and unique biodiversity of Ethiopia, and possibly wipe out varieties of local seeds.
Melakou Worede, one of Africa’s first geneticists, warns: ‘You are simplifying life to a single variety, and that’s what Westerners are suffering from. We need a policy that ensures freedom of choice on what farmers plant, because they are the ones who know best.’
But farmers’ freedom of choice is compromised by the fact that they are tenants on government land, says Dessalegn Rahmato, a senior research fellow at Addis Ababa University. The 1994 Ethiopian constitution states that land is national property that cannot be bought or sold.
Dessalegn says that although many farmers view improved seeds and their attendant chemicals with reluctance, or even downright hostility, they are sometimes forced to accept the package.
‘Under the imperial regime, the government could evict people,’ said Dessalegn. ‘Every peasant knows that an official may stand up someday and take back the land.’