Wednesday, 01 September 2010

Growing Seed Security

By Mantoe Phakathi
Across Southern Africa, timely access to improved seeds is crucial to smallholder farmers.

Credit: Louise Redvers/IPS

INDHOEK, Sep 1, 2010 (IPS) - Farmer Obed Dlamini, like many of his colleagues from Swaziland, finds it difficult to find quality maize seeds each planting season. Not only are the seeds expensive but they are often not available.

"Farmers in Swaziland operate on guesswork because suppliers often bring in new seeds, some of which do not necessarily work for us," said Dlamini. Dlamini is optimistic that this situation will improve soon because Swaziland is among four countries in the SADC region where the Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Network (FANRPAN) is piloting the Harmonised Seed Security Project (HaSSP).

Together with Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, Swaziland has agreed to work to remove regluatory barriers that restrict the movement of seeds between the four countries. "In Swaziland we don’t even breed our own seeds. We buy them from elsewhere, yet the coming in of seeds is restricted which makes them inaccessible to farmers because when a new hybrid comes in it has to be tested for four years before it’s accepted," said Dlamini.

Dlamini is a HaSSP elder - one of a group of hugely experienced older farmers who serve as advisors for the project. He is responsible for coordinating the project in Swaziland, and is attending the Annual High Level Regional Food Security Policy Dialogue in Windhoek from Aug. 30 to Sep. 3.

According to Dr Bellah Mpofu, a consultant for HaSSP at FANRPAN, restrictions on the movement of seeds in the SADC region contribute to food insecurity. "HaSSP aims to domesticate and implement the SADC Harmonised Seed Regulatory System whose goal is to contribute to improved food security of smallholders in the SADC region through increased availability of and access to improved seed varieties," said Mpofu.

Through HaSSP, the four countries will test different hybrid seeds on their soil and if they work, they are going to share the seeds. When the pilot ends, in 2013, these four countries will share their findings with the rest of SADC. The actual testing and sharing of seeds has not started yet. "The idea is that if the seeds grow well for two countries, then they can be shared by all countries," said Mpofu.

If a hybrid grows well in South Africa, for instance, there is no need for Swaziland to spend years carrying out the same tests, delaying access to an improved seed variety. Mpofu said the SADC protocol does not cover genetically-modified seeds, which are only acceptable in South Africa. "Countries will still do their individual tests to be sure of what they are receiving," she said. "Seeds won’t be imposed on countries when all the SADC countries have started to implement the protocol."

"The four countries agreed that they are going to implement the Technical Agreements on Harmonisation of Seed Regulations in the SADC Region but it’s also important that they sign the memorandum of understanding because that sort of validates their commitment," said Mpofu - so far only Swaziland has completed this step.

HaSSP elder Thabile Gooday, a successful Swazi farmer plans to work with the Ministry of Agriculture's Research Centre to educate farmers, especially women, on the importance of the project. "We need to get farmers to be interested and understand clearly what HaSSP is about and how the harmonisation of seed policies within the region is going to benefit them," said Gooday.

Noting that despite its small size, Swaziland comprises several different ecological zones, she said opening up for more seeds to enter the market could benefit farmers. The preservation of seeds is also among Gooday’s priorities because, she said, while most farmers are now using hybrid seeds, it is also important that they preserve indigenous seeds.

"Women back home complain about expensive farm inputs – seeds being one of them. If they had knowledge about cross-pollinated varieties they could cut down on costs and be able to produce enough, at least for their families," said Gooday.

She said some people have continued to use the indigenous seeds either because they prefer the taste of these varieties, or because they cannot afford the ever-escalating costs of hybrid varieties. "A farmer cannot plant the offspring of hybrid seeds because it doesn’t produce any yield," said Gooday.

Mpofu concurred with Gooday, adding that HaSSP is going to support the use indigenous seeds through community seed projects where farmers are will be encouraged to continue using indigenous seeds where these are successful. "We appreciate the use of indigenous seeds which some farmers still prefer because of dietary and taste preferences," said Mpofu. "We’re not throwing away anything."

For now, seed preservation is not exactly a priority among the countries in the HaSSP pilot, which is why the SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre (SPGRC) in Zambia is collecting seeds from various member countries to store them.

Thandi Lupupa from SPGRC said, because some countries are not preserving their seeds and might find that they have run out in the future, they could turn to SPGRC to get them. "Indigenous seeds are very important because you also need them to breed hybrids," said Lupupa.



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