Vaccination efforts across the globe encourage hope of an imminent end to the COVID-19 health crisis. But the food security crisis that the pandemic has deepened cannot be alleviated quickly and will require lasting solutions.
Well-adapted and nutrient-dense crops like millet, sorghum, groundnut, chickpea, pigeon pea, cowpea and common bean, collectively called dryland cereals and legumes, are like a vaccine of sorts for hunger and under-nutrition. This is because, over time, improved varieties of crops will be able to render farming resilient to climate stresses, help improve nutritional outcomes and improve soil health. In the short run, they boost yields, ensure food sufficiency in farm households and increase earnings.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, seed systems, which determine seed access in a country or a region, were beset with challenges. In a recently published paper, we identify what the bottlenecks are and what can be done about them.
The biggest issues we identified include, firstly, the limited access to varieties of groundnut, chickpea, pigeon pea, sorghum and finger millet that are bred to perform where they are needed. They need to be suited to changes in temperature and rainfall in the area and the stress of pests and diseases. They must also be nutrient-dense and there must be a market for them. The problem of access to these varieties is partly due to limited interest in the private seed sector to include grain legumes and dryland cereal crops in their portfolio.
The second issue is the limited capacity of the institutions involved in the production and delivery of early generation and certified seed production.
Thirdly, there are large gaps in the flow of information, which means that farmers have limited awareness of crops best suited for their environment and the merits of new varieties.
The pandemic further hit these systems, warranting emergency responses from governments and relief agencies. To ensure quality seed flow in the long run, several interventions have been identified.
One useful intervention would be to organise farming communities – or seed producer groups – into business entities. This would offer several benefits. Primarily, it would help boost local access by people who currently can’t get or afford certified seed.
High-quality seed access will mean better quality grain production and meeting the standards set by grain buyers. This, in turn, would enhance grain demand and encourage farmers and other seed enterprises to produce and use quality seed.
Another problem that needs to be addressed is quality control. Farmers in Africa often procure seed from informal markets, which doesn’t allow for robust quality checks. In a sample of 2,592 smallholder farmers in six countries, 92% of sorghum seed, 84% of millet seed, 93% of groundnut seed, 93% of common bean seed and 88% of cowpea seed were reported to be from informal sources.
These seeds are likely to be suboptimal. They are more likely to be of subpar genetic purity, unknown variety and hence performance and they may have a huge seed-borne disease burden.
Another challenge is how information is shared, and what language is used. For example, a study in Uganda found that farmers were interested in and willing to pay for high-quality seed. But the term “certified seed” didn’t strike a chord with them. The research concluded that simpler language, such as “super seed”, would be better.
A major hurdle is getting seed companies to participate in developing the new varieties. This could be through using structures like the Seed Revolving Funds. These involve an initial start-up fund to get groups of seed producing farmers to produce foundation seed from breeder seeds sourced from research institutes that are later multiplied into certified seed for sale to the larger farming community.
The sale of proceeds of foundation seed supports the scheme by covering infrastructure costs and packaging.
The fund has had success in Malawi and is being piloted in Tanzania.
Through the work of International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics and partners in Africa, there’s evidence that local seed production can benefit immensely from communities setting up and managing seed banks with support and technical backup from agriculture research organisations. Seed banks are local stocks of seeds managed by a community of farmers who have been trained in seed production, harvest and post-harvest management. They may also involve a private sector collaboration.
An example of how crop researchers can help is by calculating for farmers how much seed they’d need per unit of land for maximum yields and growth efficiency. This planting data is essential for smallholder farmers in particular.
These measures have already been tried in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. This has led to a 30% increase in the adoption of improved varieties.
We believe the fallout from COVID-19 has presented an opportunity that should be exploited. This is because some people have taken refuge in agriculture after losing their jobs to the pandemic.
Newcomers from formal employment sectors are more likely to be willing to take professional planting advice, adopt improved varieties and use high-quality seeds. This is an opportunity to intervene on behalf of nutrition.
Increasing the likelihood of good harvests and good returns in the near future will ensure African farms can sustain and help reverse rural-urban migration. More hands will mean increased food supply to meet the demands of a growing population and an opportunity to make diets nutritious.
For governments, policymakers, research institutions and others wanting to intervene in African food systems to help fulfill this long but connected chain of objectives, the time is now.