A farm with crops
The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has revealed that 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.
The FAO finding was contained in a policy guide published on Tuesday in Rome , Italy and displayed on the UN organisation’s website.
According to the World Bank, up to 50 per cent 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 of governments in the developing world reduced public investment in the seed sector, the expectation being that the private sector would fill the gap, the guide noted.
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.
As a result, only about 30 per cent 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, it added.
According to FAO, 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 added.
"It doesn’t cost a lot comparatively to set up a seed enterprise, especially when it involves local farmers' organisations, 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.
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 favourable 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.
Support for privatisation and commercialisation 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 .