Lack of seeds limits African yields

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Improving smallholder farmers’ access to modern seed varieties is essential to tackle food security concerns

An assessment of smallholder farmers’ access to seeds says greater engagement from global seed companies would help boost yields and food security.

The Access to Seeds Index said the large multinational companies’ quality and range of seeds, if available and affordable, could help boost yields.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, smallholders are responsible for the majority of the region’s food production.

However, only 2.5% of seeds used by the farmers come from global seed firms.

The index, published at the end of February, assessed the main field crop and vegetable seed companies’ efforts to make their products available to smallholder farmers in the most food insecure regions of the world: South and South-East Asia, Latin America, Eastern Africa and Western Africa.

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Modern varieties of food crops, such as maize, can help improve productivity

“It is often thought that smallholding farmers save their seeds from season to season but that is not true,” said Access to Seeds Index executive director Ido Verhagen.

“Research shows that they use a mixed bowl of seeds, including seeds they have saved themselves, seeds that they buy from the market and certified seeds from companies.

However, he explained, access to certified seeds from global companies was limited for a number of reasons.

“It is not only availability, but also affordability and sometimes capability – seeds are not always suitable for their system or their practices,” he told BBC News.

World of partnerships

The findings show that the “seed industry as a whole is active in all countries in the scope of the index. This was with the exception of Western Africa, where there is a clear gap”.

Mr Verhagen observed: “We cannot blame the companies for not going to Western Africa because companies need a business environment and market opportunities.”

The index showed that companies did not have a presence in six of the 14 countries in the region: Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Niger and Sierra Leone.

While the findings suggested that global companies were doing more to reach smallholders than had been assumed, Mr Verhagen hoped the big commercial players would step up their efforts.

“Also, this is a world of partnership,” he added. “Seed companies cannot do it alone.

“NGOs and other institutions are looking for partners in the private sector and – based on our research – we have found that some are excelling in breeding while others are excelling in distribution.

“So if someone wanted to find a seed company partner with certain strengths then they can look at our research. We hope [the index] will help speed up the process of improving access.”

Earlier this week, researchers produced a timescale of how projected climate change was set to alter the face of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Climate change is widely projected to have a significant adverse impact on food security if no adaptation measures are taken, they observed in the journal Nature Climate Change.

One of the adaptations the team highlighted was improved access to improved seed varieties, with “climate smart” characteristics, such as heat tolerance and drought resistance.

Also published this week, a study in The Lancet warned that climate change could be responsible for more than half-a-million deaths across the globe by the middle of the century by damaging food production and health.

The Access to Seeds Index says one billion people currently go to bed hungry and two billion people suffer from malnutrition.

To compound matters, the global population is projected to increase by a further two billion people in the coming decades, primarily in the regions identified as the most food insecure.

In these regions, smallholder farmers dominate the agricultural landscape. In order to meet the growing demand for food in an uncertain future, improving access to seed is a vital component in efforts to improve global food security.

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