Nelly Bassily | February 28, 2011
Seeds are essential in farming systems. They provide and symbolize continuity and security. Seeds are the first link in the food chain, and therefore in community and household food security. The quality, the accessibility and the variety of seed to be planted are vital elements which help determine the success of a farmer’s crop. These are the reasons 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 population. Seeds will continue to be a vital component in plans to ensure food security. Some commentators believe genetically modified organisms provide an answer. For others, conventionally-bred high-yielding seeds and planting materials are needed. But with factors such as climate change , many believe that research efforts, investment and value need to be devoted to locally-developed seed materials, local crop diversity and the knowledge that accompanies 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, up to 80% buy improved seed. Many farmers rely on their own seed, especially for non-staple crops. These figures also hint at the potential market for seed companies. Seed companies regularly patent crop varieties, and promote their seed in rural areas, aiming to increase the percentage of bought seed which is planted by farmers. 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 African 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
Improved or local seed?
For thousands of years, farmers have relied on their own harvests − selecting seeds, storing them, and planting them the following season. By choosing seeds and other planting materials that meet the needs of their particular farming conditions, they have, over time, developed local varieties and breeds which are suited to their context and preferences. This diversity of crops and varieties is a common good on which farmers still rely. Many farmers and development organizations believe that these traditional varieties are more consistently reliable than improved varieties.
But farmers move with the times and are always experimenting. Many farmers find hybrid seed, especially maize seed, gives good yields. They see improved varieties as one way to increase yields and food security. But there are risks associated with improved seeds. Farmers can become dependant on seed companies, relying on them to produce the seed they prefer. If for some reason those commercial varieties are not available, farmers are dependent on whatever varieties traders, seed companies or research institutions have available, and are promoting. Improved seed often requires higher levels of farm inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, as well as higher levels of moisture. This means increased costs for farmers, and also increased profits for companies. It is a complicated picture. Farmers can benefit by trying new varieties, but, if they choose improved varieties, they rely 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 purchased seed can lead to a gradual loss of traditional varieties. 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 must take many factors into account when choosing the right combination of crops and varieties to plant.
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 have often been passed down through generations. In some countries, it is common for a mother to give seeds to a new daughter-in-law to welcome her 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 seeds and seed ownership. Because it is such a broad topic, you may want 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 traditional seeds:
-What traditional seed varieties do you use on your farm?
-How did you obtain these seeds?
-How do these seeds help ensure your family’s food security?
-Is there a community seed bank in your region? Which crops and varieties are stored in the bank?
Improved seed varieties:
-What made farmers decide to try improved seed varieties? Were they struggling with a pest or disease? Did they hope to achieve higher yields?
-How do farmers in your area obtain improved seeds? Is it difficult to reach sellers? Are the improved 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 improved varieties in terms of yield, percentage of loss, return relative to cost of seed and other inputs, etc.?
-Did the farmers experience any unexpected problems with the improved seeds? What did they do to ensure family food security while trying the improved seeds?