When Kiera Butler went to Ghana to research what the farm education program 4-H was doing there, she found that it was working with the American seed company DuPont Pioneer to teach small farmers how to use high-yielding hybrid seeds. That’s part of her book, Raise: What 4-H Teaches Seven Million Kids and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever, and she published a story about it in Mother Jones titled: How America’s Favorite Baby-Goat Club Is Helping Big Ag Take Over Farming in Africa.
When I did an interview with a pair of Ethiopian farmers to ask them what they needed to fight poverty in their home towns, they said they needed better agricultural technology. Butler found the same thing: The small Ghanaian farmers loved the hybrid seeds — but only when they get them for free. Several farmers told her that the price was so high they couldn’t make a profit if they bought the seeds.
I called Butler up to talk about the complexity of trying to ease poverty by giving farmers better technology.
Q. Is this article representative of the book as a whole?
A. The book followed five California 4-Hers as they raised their animals to take to the county fair, and it also intersperses the stories of the kids with the history of 4-H, and how it intertwined with American agriculture. In recent years, 4-H has really been pushing its program in Africa. These kids in Africa are growing maize, and that’s actually what kids in 4-H [in the U.S.] did at the turn of the century. They grew corn.
4-H was founded as a way for people at land-grant universities, who were experimenting with new agricultural techniques, to get these techniques to the farmers. The farmers were really wary because they had been doing things their way for generations, and the idea at that time of using a tractors was like, What? Why would I buy this expensive piece of machinery? This is scary and weird. So someone had the brilliant idea of making a club for kids. They would give the kids these special seeds and do these demonstration plots. And then the parents would see that the seeds worked really really well, and they’d say, hey, I want some of those seeds, too!
So there’s a pretty exact parallel with what’s going on in Africa right now.
Q. Walk me through what’s happening there. What did you find?
A. What I found is that they really loved the seeds. The difference in yield and hardiness and drought tolerance between the Pioneer seeds and the seeds that they had been using — a variety called obatanpa — they really preferred the Pioneer seeds.
Q. And these were seeds that Pioneer was giving for free to 4-H —
A. Yeah, these were freebie seeds that 4-H was supplying to its clubs. And I should say also that 4-H in Ghana looks a little different than here. There are youth clubs in Ghana, but also there are these adult “out of school clubs.”
Everyone was loving these seeds, the yields were better, they were doing better in dry weather; the problem was that they were like 10 times the price of the old seeds. Nobody could afford them. The idea was that once you get your yields up, you’ll make more money, and you’ll be able to buy the seeds. Now, the problem is that these are hybrid seeds. With obatanpa you can just collect seeds from the harvest — you don’t have to buy more. But these hybrid seeds, you can’t collect after harvest — they’ll just return to what’s called the parent generation without all the good characteristics.
Q. It won’t have all that hybrid vigor.
A. Exactly. That means farmers will end up having to buy seeds from Pioneer season after season. They won’t have any independence in that sense, I guess.
Q. What it sounded like from your story was that economic equation — total harvest profit minus price of seed — didn’t table out for farmers. The additional amount they’d make wouldn’t make up for the cost of seed every year. Is that right?
A. You know, it’s really hard to say. When I visited, it was in this test phase. 4-H was giving these seeds out and the idea was that there would be some buzz about how well they worked. But that pilot program ran only for two years, and that wasn’t long enough for anyone to know if they’d be able to increase their yields to such an extent that they could afford these seeds. There’s also the possibility that if everyone increased their yields, the price of corn might drop, and that has happened in other countries that have adopted these seeds.
Q. Like the United States. Were farmers saying that they would go back to planting their traditional seed?
A. I think they have no choice, now the pilot program is over. I haven’t followed up with them. That would be interesting actually, to call them up and say, you know, what are you doing now?
Q. The looming question is, is this bad? Is this Pioneer getting these farmers hooked on drugs?
A. That analogy certainly occurred to me. I think it’s an open question. These are people who certainly need to increase their yields, and I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad about using selective breeding, and technology to do that. You just have to figure out how to make it economically feasible.
Q. One danger that farmers have, and it just seems to ramp up as they get bigger, is that as you start paying more for better seed and technologies, you’re likely to make more money, but it also increases your risk. You’re managing debt, so if you have a total failure it’s harder to bounce back.
A. That’s right. The adult farmers with the bigger plots that I talked to, they were finding it really really hard to grow their crop at that scale without using synthetic fertilizer and chemical pesticides. When you are growing at that scale, it’s not just that you have to buy seeds and are increasing your risk — you also have to buy a lot more inputs, too.
Q. I was sort of searching for an analogy for this because agriculture is so politicized, and the whole frame I bring to it, not having grown up on a farm, is very different than the frame I bring to industries I deal with daily. So the analogy I hit on was this: Take one of the biggest corporations in the world — Apple. If there were business classes in Africa, and Apple was offering free computers, you could say that the same thing is true — that the small businessmen in Africa no longer have as much independence or control over their business because, they’re then reliant on proprietary technology, and maybe they should be choosing more open systems. I think we wouldn’t be as alarmed by that.
A. Yeah, no, I agree. I think the difference is that if you give them a computer, they don’t have to keep buying a computer every few months.
Q. Yeah, but they have to buy the software every time it get’s updated… Or say these computers broke down after a year. That’s the level the analogy works at. If they are just doing double-entry bookkeeping by hand and they don’t want to engage in the higher-tech stuff, they can just keep doing that for free.
A. Yeah I can see that. I didn’t mean to imply with this piece that this will never work and the whole concept of exporting American style agriculture to Africa is inherently wrong, or bad. I just think this particular set up is geared more toward Pioneer money.
Q. Well, that seems clear — Pioneer is in this for something. Another analogy could be the people handing out free samples at the grocery store.
A. Totally, I don’t begrudge DuPont Pioneer for wanting to make money. And even this model of wanting to give out freebies and seeing how people like them, that’s what companies do. The issue I took was 4-H’s involvement. 4-H has a very interesting public-private structure: It’s housed under the USDA, and then there’s a non-profit, but it’s a youth development organization, it doesn’t exist to help companies sell their wares.
It’s not surprising to me that Pioneer would do things this way. It’s surprising to me that 4-H, which is about helping youth and farmers, would do this.
Q. Is 4-H teaching any kind of agroecological techniques over there? Or are they strictly introducing seeds and that sort of thing?
A. They are doing great agroecological stuff, especially in the school garden and club-for-kids curriculum. They are teaching this very dense small-garden model where you plant your vegetables very close together so weeds don’t have a chance to get in. They promote natural inputs, so recipes for natural pesticides, encouraging kids to use compost for fertilizer, stuff like that. They are also teaching best practices for planting, spacing the seeds a certain distance, because a lot of farmers are just doing the scattering method. It’s really cool what they are doing there. The kids and the farmers I talked to were pleased with that. It’s just that there’s this kind of disconnect between practices they are promoting at the school gardens, and then when I talked to the adult 4-H clubs, they were not using any natural anything, or weeding by hand, or anything like that. They were using chemicals.
Q. Yeah, that’s the thing I’ve been trying to figure out. Is that because they don’t have access to those natural techniques, or they are benighted? Or is it because they are like, this just doesn’t work, if I want to make a decent living?
A. They are like, this just doesn’t work. It’s the same thing that’s happening in the United States. If you have 10 acres of land and you want to weed that by hand and rely on natural herbicides you could, and maybe we all should, but it’s much easier and cost-effective to do it with synthetic stuff.
The other weird thing is that 4-H is trying be the PR for farmers. In Ghana there has been this belief that if you are a farmer, it means you screwed up in school or you are lazy or something. So 4-H is promoting the idea that you can make a good living being a farmer. You can be a boss, you can have people who work for you and you can own, like, a fleet of tractors. But none of that actually squares with the techniques that kids learn for their gardens — these teeny little plots that are super natural and organic.
Q. It seems like you bump up against this economic problem: As wages around a country get higher, farmers either have to (a) be poor, (b) sell their food for higher prices — which is tough in a poor country — or (c) get bigger. So it’s hard. It sounds like what 4-H is trying to do is say, it’s possible to make a living and be respectable, and at the same time, you should be small, organic, and natural.
A. Yeah, it’s a strange disconnect that I don’t think anyone has really thought through.
Q. This is all really helpful. Is there anything I haven’t asked you that I should have?
A. I want to be very clear that the 4-H leaders over there with 4-H Ghana, like my friend Steve, they are not the bad guys. These are wonderful people whose hearts are in the right place. They are doing an amazing job of reaching all these remote schools and teaching these wonderful agroecological techniques with very few resources. When I say that 4-H is a problem I’m not talking about 4-H Ghana, I’m more talking about National 4-H Council, the headquarters [in the U.S.].