Nelly Bassily | August 18, 2008
At 70 years old, Ephrance Nakamya knows how to grow maize. For years, she has worked through the cycle of planting seeds, tending plants, harvesting yields, then saving seeds to start again next season. During the first rainy season of 2007, Ms. Nakamya thought she found a way to increase her profits. But the experiment backfired.
In 2007, Ms. Nakamya’s daughter gave her some hybrid seeds purchased in a nearby city. The seeds grew well and at the end of the season, she harvested 800 kilograms of maize from her three acres, becoming the envy of her village in Kayunga District, central Uganda. Unfortunately, that was Ms. Nakamya’s last good harvest. She saved seeds from her hybrid maize harvest and planted them the next season. But the seeds would not germinate. She tried again the following season, only to be disappointed again.
Hybrid seeds, often called “improved” seeds, are engineered to include preferred plant characteristics. They typically resist disease and produce high yields. But since hybrids are created from more than one species of plant, seeds saved from hybrids may not grow. Farmers who use hybrid seeds usually have to purchase new seeds each growing season.
Hybrid crops were the topic of discussion when scientists met for the Open Forum for Agriculture Biotechnology in Africa, held in Kampala, Uganda. John Tabuti is a Professor of Botany at Uganda’s Makerere University. He says the widespread use of hybrids could result in the loss of traditional crops.
Mr. Tabuti urged farmers to constantly look for and acquire different varieties of crops for their farms. This diversity could be crucial to maintaining livelihoods in the face of unanticipated economic or environmental changes.
The Monitor newspaper in Kampala spoke with several farmers concerned about the disappearance of traditional crops in their area. Joseph Magezi represents the Mityana Farmers Association of central Uganda. He uses his farm to preserve traditional crop varieties such as wild passion fruit, climbing peas, and sweet pepper.
Mr. Magezi was invited by the National Agriculture Research Organization to establish a demonstration farm at the Entebbe Botanical Gardens. He also travels to farmers’ shows in Kenya and Uganda to promote traditional crops.
He believes that traditional crops are important to farmer independence and food security. He notes that small-scale farmers such as Ms. Nakamya may not know that the hybrid seeds that produce one season cannot be saved for the next. Mr. Magezi has researched the causes of increased famine in the traditional kingdom of Buganda since 2004, and believes that hybrids are the culprit.