Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Seeds of change

  In Matungulu, a sub-county of Machakos County in eastern Kenya, Samuel Wathome, belongs to a farmers’ group affiliated with the Institute for Culture and Ecology, a non-governmental organisation that is helping farmers tackle increasingly extreme weather by diversifying their crops and saving part of their harvest to replant in subsequent seasons. Annual precipitation in Matungulu is often below the national average, and because rainfall is so unreliable farmers plant their crops as soon as the first downpour arrives.
But harvests commonly fail here. The majority of farmers have only small pieces of land, and they rely heavily on planting maize, a crop that is proving vulnerable to drought. To deal with the threat, many farmers have begun changing what they grow, particularly by adding crops beyond maize.
“We are seeking alternatives to monoculture due to dwindling harvests,” said Samuel Wathome. Like others in the area, he also wants to stop buying expensive seed each year produced by big agricultural companies, fearing the combination of debt and more frequent crop failures could land him in trouble. These days, paying for expensive seed is a risk, he said.
 “Even as you grow the crops you are not sure if you will harvest enough to offset the costs,” he said. Now, as in the past, “farmers should own the seed selection process”, he said.
Right now, “food systems are controlled by a few companies and governments instead of farmers and consumers,” said Willy Douma, a Hivos programme officer.
 Hivos is a Dutch development organisation working with the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre, which promotes research and training to help farmers select and save seed, and diversify their crops while avoiding patent-protected seeds. It helps farmers lobby government for policies that will give them alternatives to using seed supplied by big agricultural companies.
Alessio Colussi, of the plant production and protection unit at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, said seed bought from international companies often produces bigger harvests in good years, but doesn’t always deliver reliable harvests in bad years. “In most cases the seeds are hybrids and potentially more productive but require a much more suitable set of environmental conditions in order to express their higher productive potential,” he said. Local seeds, on the other hand, may be less productive in good years but often are “capable of thriving well” in variable local conditions, he said.
Paul Ngwiri, a farmer from Matungulu, is one of a growing number of farmers in Matungulu who has switched away from using patented seed. Ngwiri said he is saving about 6,000 Kenya shillings ($60) a season as a result.  “I no longer buy seeds and fertilisers and spend less on insecticides,” he said, and his harvests have remained steady or increased.

 Most farmers in Malawi obtain seeds through one of two systems. The formal system includes Malawian and multinational seed companies, most of which have their own breeding, production and distribution programmes. The informal system, on the other hand, in which farmers save and exchange seed from their own fields, provides seed for the majority of small-scale farmers in Malawi. Some of Malawi's farmers are adamant about the advantages of being able to select their own seeds rather being limited to buying commercial hybrids.

The government is revising its more than 20-year-old policy and laws on seeds, and is developing a bill to protect the commercial rights of plant breeders. But critics charge that the effort to ensure the quality and supply of seeds the country needs was drafted largely with the interests of commercial companies – both national and international - in mind, rather than the country's food security. It would continue to require that any seed sold be certified first through the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development's agriculture technology approval committee.So far, farmer-run seed cooperatives are not  part of that system, said Mangani Katundu, a senior lecturer in nutrition and food security at the University of Malawi.

Many farmers say that traditional crop seeds – rather than the newer varieties sold by big companies – are more accessible and cheaper, suit local conditions better, and can yield better harvests in the face of climate change.  Some farmers and activists say the revised policy does not do enough to protect farmers' rights to plant the seed of their choice. Billy Mayaya, a human rights activist spearheading a right-to-food campaign in Malawi, stressed the importance of recognising farmers' rights when the Plant Breeders' Bill comes before Parliament.

Herbert Mwalukomo, programme director at the Malawi-based Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy, one of the NGOs that met with the government, said focusing on improved varieties and the formal seed system alone will not address Malawi's food security needs - not least because over 70 percent of the rural farming population relies on the informal seed system. "Under the informal system, farmers save, sell and exchange farm-saved seed among themselves. It is for this reason that we believe the right approach should be an integrated system in which both the formal and informal systems complement each other," Mwalukomo said.

Mybeius Mkandawire, a farmer who lives in Rumphi district, said that hybrids planted in the past season had failed to impress farmers when compared to the local varieties. Local Tchayilosi groundnuts, for instance, outperformed a key commercial variety, which had failed to cope with scarce rainfall, he said.
Edwin Kasambanyati, from Lobi in Dedza district, described how he and fellow farmers select seeds for the next planting season while the crop is standing in the field, choosing healthy maize cobs with straight lines and large kernels.
"We preserve selected seed using indigenous knowledge," Kasambanyati said. "We hang the maize cobs above the fireplace, exposing them to smoke, and this prevents any pest attack. We also use ash or crushed tobacco leaves to increase the shelf life and prevent damage by pests."
Yohane Kadzuwa, a chief of Kamenya village, also in Dedza, pointed to his crop of dark-coloured maize locally known as Chisowa, and said it had flourished thanks to organic fertiliser made from crop residue. Kadzuwa said his variety was covered in hard leaves that pests could not penetrate.
"This is not the case with hybrids that open up when the cob has matured, thus making them prone to decay due to moisture," he said.

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