Quality seeds are available, but not for world’s poorest farmers

A woman in Hawassa, Ethiopia, sifts beans from hay, dust and dirt. (Ministério do Desenvolvimento Social e Agrário/Flickr)

Experts met at a conference this week to address the urgent need to make quality seeds more accessible and affordable for poor farmers across the developing world.

The conference, hosted by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Washington, D.C., was the first to bring together donors, USAID, major private sector seed companies, agriculture experts, NGOs, university and other actors to directly address the problem.

“The focus is really on legumes, specifically,” said Louise Sperling, senior technical adviser at CRS, in an interview with Humanosphere. “They play such a vital role in good nutrition, soil fertility and food security. … So improving access to these quality seeds really means better food security for families.”

Bean seed for sale in Madagascar (Heidi Yanulis for CRS)

The formal seed sector has invested billions in identifying and developing high quality varieties of seeds that enhance nutrition and can better withstand climate change.

According to a 2016 survey from CRS, however, the sector only supplies 2 percent of the seeds used by smallholder farmers in Africa. Instead, farmers buy the vast majority of their seeds from local markets, family and neighbors.

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Sperling said these informal distribution channels present a major opportunity to improve access to higher quality seeds. Since one of the biggest barriers is the cost, she said, experts at the conference proposed various methods of reducing it.

One effort is to adopt the Quality Declared Seed system, which the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has for years described as a strategy to increase the availability of quality seed in regions at high risk of food insecurity.

“It’s like the silver standard,” Sperling explained. “It’s almost just as rigorous as Certified Seed, which is like the Rolls-Royce of seed, except it’s much, much more affordable.”

Sperling said that due to lack of evidence comparing the two, few countries have tried to implement the Quality Declared Seed system. The conference was the first to analyze the two certifications in terms of yield, quality and cost, with the hope of expanding the system for more widespread use.

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To reduce seed costs, organizations such as the The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) have also proposed that agro-businesses simply market their products for lower-income buyers.

“We’re finding just by making much smaller units, many more farmers are buying,” Sperling said. “Just a change in marketing strategy and packet size – it sounds easy, but it’s been hard to implement, of course, because bigger companies like bigger quantities.”

Several companies have already begun specializing in smaller packs of seeds, which more farmers are able to afford. Sperling said the key to developing lasting innovations are those that empower farmers without cutting profits for the businesses that supply them.

The conference comes amid a growing need for food security in developing regions most affected by climate change, where droughts and floods are further destabilizing the livelihoods of some of the most vulnerable farmers. A growing body of research has emphasized the need for more resilient crops in these regions – namely South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa – where crop yields are expected to become increasingly unpredictable.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com