Smallholder farmers lack access to quality seeds, study shows

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

February 25, 2019

Less than 10 percent of the world’s smallholder farmers have access to the improved, quality seeds that can halt hunger and tolerate climate change impacts, a new report shows.

The Access to Seeds Index 2019 report reveals that only 47 million of the world’s 500 million smallholder farmers were able to acquire improved seeds from the world’s 13 biggest global seed companies in 2017.

The index, published by the Netherlands-based nonprofit Access to Seeds Foundation, evaluated the work of leading global seed companies with specific emphasis on how the industry can do more to raise smallholder farmer productivity, improve nutrition and mitigate the effects of climate change through the development and dissemination of quality seed.

Ido Verhagen, executive director of the Access to Seeds Index, called for fresh efforts to bridge the gap. “Although the industry is making advances in developing more nutritious and climate-resilient varieties, it’s clear that more needs to be done,” he said. “Material changes won’t be possible without reaching a greater percentage of smallholder farmers, who account for the lion’s share (80 percent) of global food production.”

The report called on the global seed industry to do more, noting that reaching additional smallholder farmers with improved seeds is critical to tackle rising malnourishment as the number of people suffering from hunger rose from 784 million in 2014 to nearly 821 million in 2017. “The role of the global seed industry remains crucial if Sustainable Development Goal 2 on zero hunger is to be achieved by 2030,” Verhagen said, referencing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that all United Nations member states adopted in 2015.

The index also reveals a sharper focus on climate change by seed firms, with 12 of the 13 companies evaluated reporting that they are prioritizing traits that increase yields and improve tolerance to climate and weather risks. However, the index also expressed concern that Western and Central Africa are still lagging behind other regions in terms of company presence and investments in local seed business activities, such as breeding, production and processing.

Reactions to report

Ghanaian farmer Evans Okomeng said that a lot of farmers in several developing countries are still struggling to get access to the improved seeds that are an important component of any farming enterprise.

“As a farmer, three major things contribute to your production,” he noted. “That is, quality of seed, input and good agric practices. So, it’s like garbage in garbage out. If you put in the wrong seeds, you will have poor yield. Seed is a major component when it comes to food security and quality of yield.”

Okomeng personally experienced planting bad seeds and losing money as result. “When I started farming, I went to buy seeds which were supposed to be drought-resistant, but later I realized that the seeds couldn’t resist the drought,” he recalled. “It made me lose about 80 percent of the expected yield on my 5-acre maize field. So there is the need for a conscious effort to make quality, improved seeds available to farmers.”

Amos Rutherford Azinu, chief executive officer of Legacy Crop Improvement Center, a hybrid seed company in Ghana, describes the report’s revelations about limited access to improved seeds as “a very worrying situation. We can do agriculture without land, we can produce without fertilizer, but you can’t do crop production without seed. So seed security equals to food security.”

The challenge has been that in a lot of developing countries, governments for a long time controlled the seed sector, a scenario that didn’t work, he explained. Then the transition to allow for private involvement wasn’t properly managed.

Farmers in Ghana, for example, for a long time relied on open pollinated seeds they can re-plant, Azinu said. They didn’t have to buy seeds from companies every year, thus discouraging a lot of the seed firms from investing in the sector. He said that situation has also entrenched a culture where farmers are unwilling to pay for quality seeds.

“A lot of farmers were using open pollinated varieties that can be recycled,” he explained. “The system was abused and because of that, over the years, they re-used seeds. So now when you tell them to go for hybrid seeds, and that they need to go for new seeds every year, they don’t understand.”

He is calling for increased collaboration between the public-private sector in the seed industry as a sure way to get seeds to farmers in developing African countries. “The multinationals can make the huge investments; the public sector has a lot of knowledge that can help in identifying the right breeding needs,” Azinu said.

Such collaborations have resulted in positive outcomes in some developing countries that others can learn from, he noted. “In Zimbabwe for example, they have the highest rate of seed adoption in Africa. Higher than even South Africa. Despite the economic crunch, if you take 10 farmers in Zimbabwe, eight of them will go back to the seed company. And that is because there is a vibrant private sector involved in seed production. So the private sector is in full control. This has allowed for competition and so farmers are benefiting,” Azinu explained.

Dr. Maxwell Asante Darko, a plant breeder at the Crop Research Institute in Ghana, agreed that there is the need for a conscious effort to encourage private sector participation in the seed sector. He wants increased investments in local seed producing companies so they can help fill the gap that has been created by the absence of global players in such markets.

“The thing about seeds is that your land is ready, and the season is on,” Asante said. “You cannot wait for seeds. The farmers will plant what they have. Farmers want good seeds. They will even buy good seeds at a higher cost if they think they are good quality seeds. The private sector is the way to go. There is the need for more investments in the seed industry.”

He added: “We need a seed distribution system so farmers would have the seeds at their door steps if they need it. They should be able to go to somewhere close by and pick seeds at good cost. And it’s about good quality seeds that they can be sure it will germinate so they can go back and buy the next season.”

Justin Rakotorasaona, secretary general of the Kenya-based African Seed Trade Association, an organization promoting trade in quality seed and technologies in Africa, wants a holistic approach to the seed access problem. Efforts at strengthening the seed sector should go hand-in-hand with steps to ensure that farmers have markets for their produce, he said.

“African farmers have the wherewithal of accessing excellent seed if the resultant excellent harvest is rewarding,” Rakotorasaona observed. “In the absence of that, why should they bother?”