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Africa must embrace new seeds to lift output
Food For Thought
17 October 2011
Wynand van der Walt


AFRICA has become synonymous with poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition. though this picture misses the good progress being made in several countries thanks to improved quality seeds and improved farming systems.

The problem of Africa is to lift poor people out of the poverty trap in an environment where 70 percent of citizens are in agriculture. It is not possible to get out of this trap by maintaining medieval farming practices. Africa's conundrum is to move forward within the constraints of entrenched cultural systems, inadequate access to land and financing, and improved seeds with potential to sustainably raise output per hectare.

Mariam Mayet of the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) calls for "a return to old-style seeds" ("Hybrid and GM seed are out of reach for small farmers - ACB", September 30). Let us judge this against facts. In 1960, there were 4.3ha of arable land per person to feed 3 billion people, in 1980 3.3ha, 2.2ha in 2000, and 1.8ha projected for 2020. Clearly we. need to dramatically increase food production efficiency to feed 9 .billion people by 2050.

A report by CropLife showed that global yields per hectare from 1961 to 2008 had increased by 225 percent in maize, 230 percent in soya, 300 percent in wheat and 226 percent in paddy rice. South Africa has done even better with maize yields increasing three-fold from 1960 to 2000 to reach 4.5 tons per hectare.

Iii contrast, sub-Saharan Africa has had a persistent decline in per capita food production since 1970. All other continents have increased food production efficiency. Slash and burn and old-style seed and farming systems have not turned this trend around in Africa and a call for moving back to old seeds is a call for perpetuation of rural poverty. Famine Early Warning Systems Network data for Malawi indicate that old village maize seeds yielded 0.6 tons per hectare against . improved open-pollinated varieties with 1.1 tons and hybrids with-1.8 tons. It is no surprise that Malawi's president has been promoting use of hybrid seed: Even more so in Zambia, which now exports maize.

Food security exists at three levels: household peasants, emergent commercial smallholders and larger-scale commercial farmers, and all three need to get support. There can be no food security without seed security. The Southern African Development Community's agriculture ministers have approved harmonisation of seed laws • to facilitate access by farmers to improved quality and performance seed, to establish. a regional variety list of adapted varieties, to limit phytosanitary requirements to specific quarantine seed-borne pathogens, and, finally, there is a protocol on regional plant breeders' rights protection on proprietary varieties.

Ms Mayet's effort to latch the old-style seed to her ongoing criticism of a proposed merger between two seed companies is misplaced as she offers no substantiating evidence that smallholder farmers will suffer as result. Presently, the official maize variety list comprises 253 conventional hybrids, 144 genetically modified hybrids, and 33 open-pollinated varieties. This gives farmers a wide choice, apart from old traditional varieties not on the list. The cornerstone of democracy is to give people a choice, not only in choosing politicians, but also in choice of seeds.

As yet, we have not seen any plausible alternatives for food security, to improved seeds, better farming systems and offering the farmer meaningful ch6ices.

* About Author
Wynand van der Walt (PhD genetics, MBL) is a consultant on seed issues, intellectual property rights, and crop biotechnology.

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