|African states sow seeds of cooperation
|After 10 years of discussion and research, members of the Southern African Development Community have agreed a system to improve the regulation and sale of seeds across borders, which should improve food security across Africa, says Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda
|29 April 2010
Acknowledgements: This article was published by The Guardian
Katine farmer holding seeds. Photograph: Dan Chung
Dismal figures dominate conversations on food security in Africa.
Seed security is an issue that farmers around the world consider vitally important to protecting their crops and boosting productivity. Yet amid global debates on achieving food security and better rural livelihoods, this issue is often given only peripheral attention.
Throughout Africa, seeds are expensive, of poor quality and difficult to access due to trade barriers. With a swelling global population and projected future yield losses due to climate change, we need to step one level down the production chain and pay adequate attention to this most primary of agricultural inputs: the seed.
Seed security means that farmers, especially smallholder farmers, enjoy uninterrupted access to quality seeds and new varietals at fair prices and at the right time.
For this reason, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has recently agreed to implement a new harmonised seed regulatory system, which should make it easier for for seeds to be sold across borders, with less bureaucracy and cheaper goods. The agreement comes after more than 10 years of research and policy negotiations among the 15 SADC member sates.
The new system is to be piloted in four countries - Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe - over the next four years, overseen by the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) and funded through a $4.1m grant from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
The four pilot countries will now begin the process of implementing the new system by aligning domestic and regional policies in regard to seed production and distribution. The pilot will give the SADC a chance to assess and address what it takes to implement the new policy. For example, staff in the seed inspection and certifying offices will require training on the new nomenclature under the regional protocol, laboratories will need to be refurbished and upgraded, a seed variety catalogue needs to be developed for the whole region and some new regulations will need amending.
Ultimately, the seed security programme aims to create a secure SADC-wide system that will provide farmers with a stable supply of seeds now and in the future. In particular, it addresses the needs of resource-poor small-scale farmers whose seed systems have been affected by a history of recurrent disasters and inappropriate policies.
Breaking down barriers
Trade barriers between SADC member states have prevented seeds from moving quickly across borders when a seed deficit occurs due to a disaster, such as flooding, drought or pest infestation. Fragmented seed legislation has meant that sourcing seeds between neighbouring countries is complicated and lengthy, leaving farmers without the bare essentials to grow crops.
Integrating seed policy and seed regulation, including phytosanitary (plant health) policies, also reduces the cost of seed testing. At the moment, this is typically carried out in both the country of origin and import. This unnecessary duplication is both costly and time-consuming. It also leaves farmers with less time to plant during harvest season or with lower-quality seeds, both of which affect the amount of food they are able to grow.
Economic growth from agriculture reduces poverty by twice as much as any other industry, according to the World Bank. However, over the years, agricultural productivity in the developing world has stagnated, with the average growth in cereal yields falling from 6% to 1.5% in recent decades. The most recent food crisis in 2008 pushed an additional 100 million people below the poverty line.
The seed security project aims to create a more harmonised regional market by integrating smaller seed markets into one large SADC market, allowing easier movement of quality seeds between countries and reducing the cost to farmers of accessing them when needed.
The seed project will not only work with member countries at a regional policy level, but it will also train farmers at the community level on proper use and storage. Furthermore, information on seed security will be shared and stored. It will also create a seed database and publish updates on the latest crop varieties and production techniques in order to build capacity among farmers, researchers and input suppliers. The database will include the amount of seed currently in stock and where it is located.
Making markets work for farmers is essential if the world is to meet its food security objectives and the aspirations of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The seed security project is seeking to connect fragmented marketplaces and smooth out unnecessary bureaucracies in the current regulatory system.
The flip-side of the coin in improving market access is to make sure that international markets are also receptive to cash crops grown in Africa. It is still incredibly difficult for smallholder farmers to build sufficient scale and access to meet the needs of international buyers. One innovative programme called African Marketplace is linking buyers for the supermarket chain Asda (part of the Wal-Mart group) with smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to increase the amount of products being exported to the UK market.
Earlier this year, the European Think-Tanks Group, a consortium of four European thinktanks from the UK, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, released a publication, New challenges, new beginnings that also reiterates the need to promote better policy coherence both within the European Union as well as globally. Due to the financial crisis, climate change and food insecurity, the report calls for more effective collective action among regions, with the acknowledgement that "EU-Africa relations still suffer from asymmetry." Creating conducive policy environments is an effective way to achieve the MDGs and to foster a shared responsibility for future progress and development.
In Africa, agriculture – and the seeds which make it possible – are key.