Seed security for smallholders
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Minofu Sibale, Elizabeth Mary. 2001. Seed security for smallholders. Spore 95. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/46344
Internet URL: http://spore.cta.int/images/stories/pdf/old/spore95.pdf
Seed is the most important input in agriculture and, compared to fertilisers, pesticides and labour, still the cheapest. Two keys to better yields are good cultural practices and the improvement of local, open-pollinated varieties.A major problem in...
Seed is the most important input in agriculture and, compared to fertilisers, pesticides and labour, still the cheapest. Two keys to better yields are good cultural practices and the improvement of local, open-pollinated varieties. A major problem in agriculture remains the availability of the right seeds against the right price. The most discouraging thing is that the cost of improved seeds is growing by the day, which is not only disadvantageous to smallholders. It is also a stumbling block to any country seeking to achieve food security for all its citizens. In the case of Malawi, for example, before hybrid seeds were introduced in the early 1950s, farmers did not bother to buy seeds. They used their own or exchanged them with neighbours. The introduction of hybrids was accompanied by subsidies on seeds and other inputs. It was, then, not so much a burden for a poor smallholder to start buying these seeds. The situation is different nowadays. In 1987, the government started implementing the IMF/World Bank recommendation of structural adjustment and slowly removed its subsidies. This made farm input prices, including hybrid seeds, unaffordable for smallholders. Maize production declined as some farmers who had adopted hybrids fell back to local maize production. Need for intermediate product In Malawi, 90% of the land area used for maize is on smallholdings; of this 80% is sown with low-yielding, unimproved varieties. It was therefore logical to initiate a maize breeding programme that would offer an intermediate product, a variety that farmers could afford, that was higher yielding, yet similar to local varieties in terms of storage and processing, and from which farmers could save their own next year s seed. This is where the OPVs came in. Although open-pollinated maize varieties cannot compete with hybrid maize in performance in high fertility environments, they do perform better than hybrids in low fertility environments. That is why I would recommend OPVs to poor smallholders in ACP countries whose land is mostly less fertile due to intensity of growing crops without following crop rotation concepts. Beyond affordability The sad thing is that though researchers have come up with a number of OPVs, many commercial companies do not want to promote and sell these varieties. But why? They fear losing their trade since most OPVs can be recycled for three years without losing their productivity. This recycling might be a disadvantage to the commercial companies, but there are cost advantages to a smallholder. Food production for the household will not fall as would be the case if primitive local varieties were used as an alternative. In this sense, therefore, I will commend to governments of ACP countries and other decision-makers to encourage the use of OPVs among poor smallholders. This is how they can achieve food security. Remember, in poor countries like Malawi, smallholders form the bulk of the population. What is the purpose of promoting hybrid varieties, favourable for rich farmers, and leaving aside OPVs which are ideal for the smallholder majority? On that note, it is important to think about the type of farming systems and the target community when thinking about agricultural development. Promote what is ideal for smallholders to smallholders. The ambition to achieve food security for all should be the mantle of agricultural programmes, not promoting the commercial activities of seed companies. Save seeds Another point to note on farming systems is that of input management. In our research in Malawi it turned out that under low input management system, hybrids had no significant advantage over OPVs in yield performance. Smallholders who are mainly poor do not grow their seeds under high input management. There is no sense, therefore, in encouraging them to grow the elite or hybrid seeds for if they do so, they will lose yields significantly. One other point I want to emphasise is training. This goes with the common song of empowerment. Smallholders need to be trained in seed production as well as in processing and marketing skills. This should be provided to the farmers in their cooperatives. It will ensure that the farmers themselves come up with their favourable varieties of seeds in terms of traditional and scientific demands. Traditionally, in Malawi maize is pounded in a mortar to remove the bran before it is taken to be milled into flour. Subsistence farmers always favour varieties of maize as hard as local varieties for these purposes. If farmers are empowered to produce OPVs which favour these traditional methods, then their food security could be assured. Such programmes will also ensure a constant flow of pure stock into the seed production system, as farmers will never worry about going to buy seeds even after the three year time span for OPVs. In Malawi the government and donors like the European Union have been facilitating such training programmes. The result is that the seed of crops that five years ago could not be found on the market can now be purchased: improved OPV maize, groundnuts, beans, soybeans, pigeon peas and many more. All in all, I would define the major challenges in food security as strengthening the seed system and intensifying farmer training on good crop production practices for maximum benefits. [caption to illustration] Elizabeth Mary Minofu Sibale is an agricultural scientist specialised in maize. She has worked for the research department in Malawi s ministry of agriculture. She is now a programme manager for the food security programme of the EU Delegation to Malawi. In 2000, she won the annual award of the World Bank Group and IMF Africa Club for her work on breeding Open Pollinated Varieties (OPVs). The opinions expressed in Viewpoint are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of CTA.