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Rebuild small seed enterprises

Farmers' seed ventures key to food security in developing countries

Photo: ©FAO/Walter Astrada
A Japan-funded FAO project in Uganda has supplied farmers with improved rice varieties.
1 March 2011, Rome – 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, said FAO in a policy guide published today.

According to the World Bank, up to 50 percent of crop yield increases have come from improved seeds, while farmers' access to quality seeds is a key factor for better food and nutrition in poor countries.   

In recent years, however, a large number governments in the developing world reduced public investment in the seed sector, the expectation being that the private sector would fill the gap.

In many places, especially Africa, this has not happened as medium and large seed companies tend to concentrate on producing hybrid seed for high value crops grown by larger farmers and market them in more fertile, wealthier areas.

Sharing not enough

As a result, only about 30 percent of smallholder farmers in developing countries use seed of improved varieties of variable quality — in Africa the percentage is smaller still.

Hybrid seeds provide better yields and disease resistance but cannot be saved by farmers for the next planting, as the hybrid plant seeds do not reliably produce true copies. 

The majority of poor smallholder farmers growing food security crops such as sorghum, millet and cassava rely on self or open-pollinated seeds or crops that are propagated through dividing bulbs, or taking cuttings stored from previous harvests and grafting them.

However, they do not always have access to new varieties that can help them increase production using the same amount of inputs.

"It doesn’t cost a lot comparatively to set up a seed enterprise, especially when it involves local farmers' organizations, but as case studies in the policy guide from three continents have shown, such enterprises can be highly effective in improving food output," said Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division.

Brazil, India, Cote D’Ivoire

The policy guide, entitled “Promoting the Growth and Development of Smallholder Seed Enterprises for Food Security Crops”, is based on case studies from Brazil, India and Côte d'Ivoire, the results of which have been published separately by FAO.

In all three cases, a favorable policy environment was found to be a key requirement to the successful development of smallholder seed enterprises. 

Examples include an efficient quality control and certification system, private sector support, flexible legislation and the legal recognition of the rights of farmers to save, exchange and sell seeds of commercial varieties. 

Private sector support

Support for privatization and commercialization of agricultural services and the support of plant breeder rights are also imperative. Other factors that can help farmers set up small-scale seed enterprises include reduced tariffs for the import of seed-cleaning and other equipment, key to establishing a seed industry, as adopted by the government of Côte d'Ivoire.

Credit must also be available to seed producers; lack of credit was seen as a major hindrance to seed enterprise development and seed producers should be given assistance to run marketing and communications campaigns including the use of rural radio networks to advertise improved varieties to farmers.

Marketing help

"Sometimes the seed is there but farmers’ organizations need assistance and guidance in marketing it to other farmers," said Pandey. Many small-scale seed enterprises have been developed with the support of donors or NGOs but this can lead to aid dependency if both technical and entrepreneurial capacities are not developed for self-reliance, the FAO document warns.

It is hoped that legislation governing seeds for the whole of Africa will eventually be harmonized to make it easier for new varieties to cross borders. This is of particular importance because of climate change which is increasing the need for more resilient varieties.
 
Therefore, new hybrid seed must be purchased for each planting. The seed of self-pollinated crops (wheat and beans, for example) can be saved by farmers for next planting.

Generally speaking, seed purchased from qualified and reliable seed producers is better in purity, germination and overall quality regardless of whether is hybrid or non-hybrid seed.