1 – 2, March 2017. Washington DC. The New Models Conference brought together seed companies, agriculture experts, university and public sector researchers, farmer cooperatives, donors, government agencies and leading seed specialists in Legume Seed and development from 4 continents to identify ways to get legume seeds to small holder farmers.
The conference, hosted by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), was the first to bring together donors, USAID, major private sector seed companies, agriculture experts, NGOs, university and other actors to directly address the problem. Substantial investments have been made to develop high performing varieties of legumes in recent decades. Yet less than 1% of legume seed comes from the formal sector and farmer adoption of, and access to, new varieties have lagged. Without repeating the usual excuses—that farmers save and recycle seed—new business models are needed (that is, non-maize focused models). Also, key bottlenecks need to be examined more closely (e.g., seed quality issues which skyrocket production costs).
“The focus is really on legumes, specifically. They play such a vital role in good nutrition, soil fertility and food security. … So improving access to these quality seeds really means better food security for families. The lack of access to new varieties is especially alarming as public sector breeding has had many advances –and a good number of new releases in most countries in Africa. So one might ask, why continue the science of plant breeding when there is no science of delivery?” Louise Sperling, senior technical adviser at CRS.
Sperling said these informal distribution channels present a major opportunity to improve access to higher quality seeds. Since one of the biggest barriers is the cost, she said, experts at the conference proposed various methods of reducing it.
One effort is to adopt the Quality Declared Seed system, which the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has for years described as a strategy to increase the availability of quality seed in regions at high risk of food insecurity.
“It’s like the silver standard. It’s almost just as rigorous as Certified Seed, which is like the Rolls-Royce of seed, except it’s much, much more affordable. Due to lack of evidence comparing the two, few countries have tried to implement the Quality Declared Seed system.
This conference stimulated thinking on business models that deliver legume seed. The conference was the first to analyze the two certifications in terms of yield, quality and cost, with the hope of expanding the system for more widespread use.
The research: Seed Systems Smallholder Farmers Use (2016, 11 pages) conducted by Shawn McGuire and Louise Sperling examined some 10,000 seed transactions across five African countries and Haiti. The study’s conclusions were drawn from extensive interviews with farmers in Kenya, Malawi, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, and Haiti that were conducted as part of the Seed System Security Assessment (SSSA). Launched in 2008, the assessment is part of SeedSystem.org, a collaboration involving CRS, CIAT, the UEA School of International Development, the Pan-African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). It contains extensive information on over 10,000 farmer transactions across ten different seed sources for 40 different crops.
- The investigators discovered that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it appears most smallholder farmers in Africa—the continent’s dominant producers who typically cultivate crops on about a hectare or less of land—are not reliant on seeds saved from year to year. Instead, some 55 percent of seed they plant is purchased—mainly from local markets or from friends and fellow farmers
- Local markets were found to be particularly important for legumes, accounting for 64 percent of seeds for crops like beans and cowpea that are an essential source of protein and other nutrients. In contrast, a relatively small proportion of transactions—2.4 percent overall with no country higher than 17.4 percent—involved “certified seed” produced by private sector companies and sold through farm supply stores or “agrodealers.”