Opening up the markets for seed trade in Africa

25Jan 2017
The Guardian
Commentary
Opening up the markets for seed trade in Africa

DESPITE its vast agriculture potential, Africa is increasingly dependent on food imports from the rest of the world to satisfy its consumption needs.

Food output has not kept pace with population growth, and more than 80 per cent of production gains since 1980 have come from the expansion of cropped areas rather than from greater productivity of areas already cultivated.

Africa currently spends around US$ 30 billion to US$ 50 billion on food imports annually and without an increase in per capita continental food supply, experts predict this amount will rise to US$ 150 billion by 2030.

There are many reasons for Africa’s failure to feed itself – ranging from problems with insecure land tenure to armed conflict, weak institutions, scant knowledge of improved farm practices, and limited access to markets for agriculture commodities and crop inputs including new varieties of seed, fertiliser, irrigation and farm machinery.

Whereas cereal yields in other developing country regions grew at an average of 1.2 to 2.3 per cent from 1980 to 2000, cereal yields in Africa increased by just 0.7 per cent. This is far slower than population growth and today Africa has the dubious distinction of being the only continent that does not produce enough grain to feed itself.

Increasing Africa’s food supply therefore requires action on many fronts including development of improved regional trade systems. Often the nearest source of inputs or demand for food staples is across a border, yet as recent World Bank studies show, problems with fragmented regional markets and lack of predictable trade policies deter much needed private investments.

Given that different seasons and rainfall patterns are not conveniently confined within national borders, and that variability in production is expected to increase with climate change, facilitating cross-border trade of agriculture inputs and outputs is more important than ever to provide farmers and traders the opportunities and incentives they need to meet Africa’s rapidly growing demand for staple commodities.

As new seeds are introduced around the world at a faster rate, Africa falls further and further behind in the use of modern varieties making it ever more difficult to compete with food imports from the global market.

Achieving sustained agriculture growth in line with Africa’s own targets set by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) therefore demands new systems that provide farmers reliable and affordable access to the most up to date seed types year after year.

Thus far one of the main ways African governments have sought to address this challenge is by preparing harmonized trade rules intended to make seed trade easier, faster, and cheaper. After many years of discussion, it at last seems that agreement on most of the rules and procedures needed for harmonised trade is falling into place.

None of the regional seed systems, however, are operational and before this can happen, much more remains to be done to revise national laws and build institutional capacities. Questions also remain over the risks of harmonised trade for small scale seed producers.

For instance, would poor farmers who cannot afford improved inputs even benefit from harmonised trade, and what types of technical support and safeguards may be required for harmonised trade rules to deliver the intended benefits?

All governments in sub-Saharan Africa except South Africa currently control the introduction of new varieties of seed for major and minor field crops through official tests to evaluate each variety’s performance and to describe its characteristics.

Variety release requirements apply to all different kinds of seed intended for commercial sale. Test procedures vary from country to country but normally involve a series of “value for cultivation and use” (VCU) and “distinctiveness, uniformity, and stability” (DUS) tests carried out by the national seed authority in which data needed to measure different traits are collected in various locations around the country.

Developing a variety can easily take plant breeders seven to ten years or more and, with few exceptions, registration trials take a minimum of two years but often require much longer.

In Ghana, for instance, all types of seed must be tested by research stations for at least one year before being put to two more years of farmer-field trials while on-station tests continue (Republic of Ghana, 2010). In Kenya and Malawi, some registration tests have lasted for six and seven years, respectively.

The way a plant multiplies varies from species to species, with some species reproducing through vegetative means (e.g. cassava, banana, and sugar) while others reproduce from seed as a result of open or closed pollination.

Maize, for example, is a naturally open pollinated crop – the seed (i.e. grain) is only produced when pollen from the male tassel is transferred to the female silk, whereas other plant species are naturally closed- or even self- pollinating.

In the case of soybeans, for instance, flowers open and remain receptive to insect crosspollination during the day, but if this is not accomplished, will self-pollinate at night when the flowers close.

Similarly, wheat and rice can be cross-pollinated by wind, but this has a very limited success rate and self-pollination is much more common. True automatic self-pollination (cleistogamy) is most common in legumes such as groundnuts, peas, and beans.

Hybridisation is a controlled method of pollination in which the germplasm of plants selected for specific characteristics is crossed by human intervention. After successive generations of controlled self-pollination by plant breeders, desirable genetic traits such as disease resistance, nitrogen use efficiency, and drought tolerance can be fixed into inbred lines.

These plants have little vigour or yield potential on their own, but when crossed with one or more genetically different inbred lines, vigour is greatly restored and exceeded through a process called heterosis. These seeds are known as first generation (F1) hybrids and are noted for having uniform characteristics and high-yield potential.

Production of hybrid seed began with maize in the 1920s, later extending to vegetables and flowers, then to rice in the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently to sorghum, millet, and wheat. While F1 hybrids have many benefits, they also have certain drawbacks and may not always be the best choice for poor farmers. Most notably, saving seed from the hybrid crop to plant the next season is not recommended.

Despite a popular perception that hybrid seed cannot be replanted, replanting is possible except that the two different versions of genes in a hybrid are highly unstable and so segregate in the offspring, thereby producing a variable progeny with 30-40 per cent yield reduction depending on the type of cross.

As a result, new seed must be bought from the seed company each year to achieve optimal F1 performance. Moreover, hybrid seeds are usually more expensive than other types of seed.
Farmers in a low potential environment, and/or who cannot afford or count on local shops to stock inputs such as fertiliser needed for a high yield, might not recover the extra cost of investing in a hybrid.

The term open “pollinated variety”, or OPV, typically refers to commercially bred varieties of maize, sorghum, millet or vegetable seed that are pollinated by natural means.

Certified OPV seed thus consists of many related plants selected by plant breeders for their strong characteristics. Unlike a hybrid where vigour is achieved from heterosis, vigour in an OPV by is achieved through cross-pollination of naturally strong and genetically diverse parents.

Certified OPV seed may thus be thought of as a kind of extended family of seed in which all members have similar related characteristics but with differences and extremes within the family. The crop of an OPV seed will not be uniform like a hybrid and the plants will vary in height, grain colour, cob size, disease resistance and time to maturity.

Moreover, yield potential with most OPVs is around 25-30 per cent lower than a hybrid under equivalent climatic conditions. On the other hand, because an OPV consists of plants with different genetic make-up, these seeds are often more robust to environmental and managerial stresses and may therefore be a better choice than hybrids for farmers in environments with low potential and/or when supplemental nutrients are unavailable or unaffordable.

Probably the most notable advantage of OPV seeds is that they remain much truer to type from year to year and do not suffer the same yield loss as a hybrid when replanted. OPVs are therefore well suited to farmer recycling, particularly when good agronomic practices are observed.

Because of being open pollinated, however, OPVs are still prone to loss of genetic purity and gradual yield reduction so should be replaced with new certified seed every three to five years. This is especially important under smallholder conditions since out-crossing with varieties from neighbouring fields can easily occur.

A third category of seed common in Africa (and elsewhere) is so-called traditional seed that has a history of being passed down within a family or community for generations. Plants including maize that reproduce through natural means tend to adapt to local conditions over time and thereby evolve as reliable performers in their localities.

These landraces are usually open pollinated but are different from certified OPVs that are selectively bred to conform to a particular type. Local landraces are therefore highly diverse and likely to contain small amounts of genetic material from many kinds of OPV and even hybrid seeds because of ongoing uncontrolled cross-pollination.

Farmers who use saved seed, including saved OPVs and landraces, do not need to purchase new seed from a seed company but do still incur a seed cost in the form of foregone consumption value.

In cases when farmers do purchase a saved variety, it is usually sold (or bartered) for the same price as grain. Because local landraces are rarely registered as a formal seed type, these seeds are normally traded outside the legal system.
• A World Bank analysis.