Nelly Bassily | March 21, 2011
Seeds are essential in farming systems. They provide continuity and security. They are the first link in the food chain, and therefore in community and household food security. Quality, accessibility and variety of seed are vital elements which help determine the success of a farmer’s crop. These are some of the reasons that seeds are a contentious issue and often in the news these days.
With the global population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, there is concern about how to feed the world. Seeds will be a vital input. Some commentators believe genetically modified organisms are the answer. For others, conventionally-bred high-yielding seeds and planting materials are needed. But with factors such as climate change to consider, many believe that research efforts, investment and value need to be given to locally-developed seed materials, crop diversity and the knowledge that goes with it.
In some African countries it is estimated that only 5% of farmers purchase seed produced by formal institutions. But for crops such as maize, the percentage may be as high as 80%. These figures mean that many farmers still rely on their own seed, especially for non-staple crops. The numbers also hint at the potential market for seed companies. Seed companies regularly patent crop varieties, and want more control over farmer’s varieties. International seed companies are increasingly involved in the African seed industry. For example, a US company called Pioneer Hi-Bred recently bought a South African seed company in an effort to expand its reach into maize production: http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/62638/20100915/dupont-unit-pioneer-buying-s-africa-seed-company.htm
Here is some general background reading on seed systems in Africa:
Peasant seeds, the foundation of food sovereignty in Africa, booklet downloadable in French and English: http://pubs.iied.org/14565IIED.html
FAO recently published a seed policy guide, which states that small seed enterprises are the best way of ensuring the availability and quality of non-hybrid seeds for food and feed crops in developing countries. For more information: http://www.fao.org/news/story/tr/item/51581/icode/en/
To download the guide: http://typo3.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/agphome/documents/PGR/PubSeeds/seedpolicyguide6.pdf
Modern varieties or farmers’ varieties?
For thousands of years, farmers have relied on their own harvests − selecting grains, storing them, and using them as seed for the following season. By choosing seeds or planting materials that meet the needs of their particular farming conditions, they have, over time, developed local varieties and breeds which are most suited to their specific context, needs and preferences. This diversity of crops and varieties is a common good on which farmers rely. Many farmers and development organizations believe that traditional or farmers’ varieties are more consistently reliable than modern varieties (varieties produced by scientific breeding programs and formal institutions). In recent years, farmers have become involved in participatory plant breeding initiatives. Farmers and scientists work together to produce varieties that are adapted to local conditions and meet their varied needs.
Farmers move with the times and are always experimenting. Many farmers find that modern seed, especially maize, gives good yields. They believe that adopting modern varieties is one way to increase production levels and food security. But there are risks associated with using these seeds. Farmers can become dependant on seed companies, relying on them to produce the seed they prefer. If their preferred varieties are not available, farmers may have to choose from whatever varieties traders, seed companies or research institutions have available, or are promoting. Also, modern seeds often require high levels of farm inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, which pose potential health and environmental risks for farmers and their families. The need for inputs means increased costs for farmers, and increased profits for companies.
It is a complicated picture. Farmers have the opportunity to try new varieties, but are then reliant on the seed arriving at the local store in time. They need supply chains which deliver seed and inputs on time, an open seed market (rather than a monopoly), and breeding systems which take farmers’ requirements into consideration. Also, consistent use of commercial seed can lead to a gradual loss of biodiversity in the field. This reduces the potential for farmers and crops to respond to changing agro-climatic and social conditions, making them more vulnerable to unexpected changes and events. Each farmer’s situation is different; she or he has many factors to take into account when deciding on the right combination of crops and varieties to plant. For example, in Ethiopia, one of the most important motivators for re-introducing durum wheat varieties was the quality of forage obtained from the leaves and stalks. Farmers’ varieties were considered more attractive in part because they produced more biomass for forage and contained higher levels of nutrition for livestock.
Further stories on local efforts to preserve seed:
Preserving indigenous varieties in Uganda: http://allafrica.com/stories/201006070596.html
Seed banks in Uganda: http://allafrica.com/stories/201006070598.html
Is seed recuperation possible? Kenya: http://pambazuka.org/en/category/features/67531
Listen to a radio piece about seed diversity in Ethiopia: http://www.greenplanetmonitor.net/news/2010/03/ethiopian-seed-diversity/
Access to seed
Traditional seeds are passed down through generations. In some countries, it is common for a mother to give seeds to a new daughter-in-law as a welcome gift to the new household. Communities have devised their own informal seed exchange systems. Community seed banks are becoming more common, as are seed fairs.
For more information:
Many international NGOs, research institutions, and other organizations work on a variety of seed projects in Africa. Here are a few:
An article which discusses the new Harmonised Seed Security Project (HaSSP) in southern Africa, which aims to speed movement of hybrid seed between countries: http://africa.ipsterraviva.net/2010/09/01/growing-seed-security/
Pan-African Bean Research Alliance: http://www.pabra.org/
USC Canada’s Seeds of Survival program: http://usc-canada.org/what-we-do/seed-security-and-diversity/
A number of international organizations campaign around seed and food sovereignty issues:
Here are two African organizations working on seed issues:
The African Seed Trade Association http://www.afsta.org/objectives.asp
The new Malawi Seed Alliance aims at improving seed quality: http://casipblog.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/ip-issues-in-the-launch-of-masa-%E2%80%93-the-malawi-seed-alliance/
Farm Radio International has produced a number of scripts related to seeds:
Two women rice farmers discuss their best seed saving practices. Package 85, Script 5, September 2008. http://farmradio.org/english/radio-scripts/85-5script_en.asp
Starting a community seed bank. Package 56, Script 6, July 2000.
Collecting seeds for a community seed bank. Package 56, Script 7, July 2000.
Save your Own Seeds, Part One: Seed Selection. Package 42, Script 1, October 1996. http://farmradio.org/english/radio-scripts/42-1script_en.asp
Save your Own Seeds, Part Two: Seed Storage. Package 42, Script 2, October 1996. http://farmradio.org/english/radio-scripts/42-2script_en.asp
We hope you are inspired to produce your own programs on seed ownership. As it is such a broad topic, it may work well to choose one specific angle and invite people to discuss opposing sides in a debate. Here are some questions as a start:
Using and managing farmers’ or traditional seeds:
-What traditional seed varieties do you use on your farm?
-How did you obtain these traditional seeds?
-How do these seeds help you to ensure your family’s food security?
-Is there a community seed bank in your region? Which seed varieties are kept in the bank?
Modern seed varieties:
-What made farmers decide to try modern seed varieties? Were they struggling with a pest or disease, or hoping to achieve higher yields?
-How do farmers in your area obtain modern seeds? Is it difficult to reach sellers? Are the modern seeds more expensive than traditional seeds?
-How did they decide which seed variety was best for their farm? Did they carry out field tests, consult local extension officers, etc.?
-What was the result of using modern varieties, in terms of yield, percentage of loss, return relative to cost of seed, etc.?
-Did the farmers experience any unexpected problems with the modern seeds? What did they do to ensure family food security while trying the modern seeds?