Can ‘indigenous’ and GM seeds co-exist in Africa?

by Joseph Opoku Gakpo

May 17, 2021

It’s high time farmers in the developing world are given access to the improved seeds and agricultural innovations that have helped their counterparts in developed nations benefit from productive, high yielding farms, said Nigerian farmer Patience Koku.

“The focus should be on how farmers all over the world can get access to the types of seeds that allow farmers in some countries to produce 14 tons per hectare, while others are still grappling with 1 ton per hectare,” said Koku during an AfS Live session on the theme “Seeds: Who should decide what farmers grow?” held to mark International Seed Day/World Intellectual Property Day.

Koku, who farms 500 hectares of leased lands in Kaduna State in Nigeria, said that farmers should be the ultimate decision makers — in collaboration with seed producing companies, whether small or multinational — when it comes to deciding which seeds should be grown.

“Seed is the foundation of everything we do as farmers,” Koku said. “And it’s the beginning of what the end-product of food is… Farmers are no longer re-using seeds we have saved. We purchase seeds from seed companies. Farmers should have a choice to decide what seeds they grow based on the different options before them which the seed companies are providing.”

Leonida Odongo, a social justice activist from Kenya who runs Haki Nawiri Afrika, sees it differently. She said it is time Africans returned to the use of “indigenous” seeds, instead of yielding to the promotion of improved varieties and genetically modified (GM) seeds.

The United Nations celebrates April 26 as World Intellectual Property Day. The organic food movement and some food sovereignty championing groups have rebranded it as International Seed Day to promote seed sovereignty and advocate against commercialization of seeds.

“In Africa, seed is cultural,” Odongo observed. “These seeds have meaning. Seed is looked at as the future. Seed is equated to life. So, when we talk about seeds in Africa, we are talking about something important.”

Odongo claims indigenous seeds are currently under attack from multinational seed corporations promoting improved seeds. She said improved seeds are destroying African biodiversity and making farmers worse off economically.

Clet Wandui Masiga, a conservation biologist and geneticist in Uganda, said the claim that indigenous seeds on the African continent are under attack from plant breeders and seed companies cannot be accurate.

“The thing farmers in Uganda, for example, call local varieties of maize is not local. [For example,] protein maize. It was originally bred in Mexico by a CIMMYT scientist from India and entered Africa through Ghana. Then it spread. Now, farmers call that a local maize variety. And I ask them what is local?

“Maize itself is not indigenous to Africa,” he added. “It was indigenous to Mexico. It was just moved by explorers. But every generation that comes to find something thinks it is indigenous.”

Masiga also dismissed claims that improving upon seeds is leading to the erosion of biodiversity. “We are losing biodiversity because of several other reasons, not because of improved seeds. The first gene bank was established in the 1800s. Why was it established? [It was] after recognizing we are losing biodiversity. At the time, no one was even thinking of improved varieties.

“Improving the seed is not destroying biodiversity,” he continued. “By having improved seed, it means the farmer can produce more on very small acreage. He doesn’t have to go to destroy more forests.”

Odongo noted that “in the past, we used seeds we had inherited from our grandmothers and grandfathers… I will always be in support of indigenous varieties. One, because of the cost aspect. When the farmer uses indigenous varieties, you don’t have to buy seeds. They only need to have the seeds. Farmers should be allowed to produce their own seeds.”

As chief executive officer of Replenish Farms, Koku said she has personally benefitted from the expanded access to improved seeds that accompanied Nigeria’s commercialization of GM cotton. She wants to see other farmers benefit as well.

“I recently grew the GM cotton that was released in Nigeria… There is a bollworm that has destroyed our entire cotton industry in the past… If a farmer is spraying the farm 10, 15 and even 20 times in a year, how much money is that…? As opposed to the Bt cotton that I grew on my farm and we sprayed probably about twice… and it yielded multiple bolls,” she recounted.

“So, farmers ultimately choose what they want to grow based on the current situation around them.,” Koku explained. “And because the seed is produced by a process, farmers should be in constant touch with seed producers [to let them] know exactly what the farmer needs are. So that when farmers ultimately have access, they would have earned the right to choose what they want

Odongo urged scientists to re-focus their attention on dealing with food waste instead of pushing for the use of improved seed varieties.

“What is bringing the food security challenges aspect is that there are very many losses at harvest time,” she said. “Post-harvest loses are many. What scientists have to do, instead of concentrating on seeds, is they should be providing farmers with alternatives on how to preserve their crops.”

But Koku and Masiga disagreed that approach should be the priority. They said that other research along the value chain, including improving the quality of seeds, is important to achieve food security.

Image: A woman sorts soybeans in Uganda market.  Shutterstock/The Road Provides