Seeds are the most important inputs in agricultural production. Plant genetic resources are the raw materials indispensable for crop improvement, whether by means of farmers’ selection, conventional breeding or modern biotechnologies. Crop genetic diversity is also essential in adapting crops to unpredictable environmental changes and future human needs.
Malawi opened up its seed sector since the liberalization of its economy in the mid 1990s. As part of its economic liberalization, the country adopted an open seed market policy (its 1996 Seed Act) that has resulted in private seed sector development and gradual handing over of government responsibilities to them. Plant breeding, variety testing, commercial seed production, processing and sale are mainly done by private seed industry. The formal seed sector, where the private seed companies dominate, has been further promoted by the Farm Inputs Subsidy Programme, while the farmers’ seed system or informal seed system which meets 80% of the seed demand in Malawi, receive no policy, institutional and financial support. Capacity building of farmers on agronomic knowledge and skills has also been focusing on commercial crops.
Moreover, the focus of the private sector has been only on hybrid maize and other commercial crops rather than food and nutrition security crops such as cassava, millet, beans and sorghum. The motive for private seed industry is largely profit. Hybrid maize and other commercial seeds are expensive for majority Malawian farmers and not easily accessible. Even those who have had access to hybrid maize seed is because of the farm input subsidy program. Access to hybrid maize seed becomes impossible when the subsidy stops. The government breeding program has also embarked on the same crops duplicating the private sector's priority areas instead of prioritizing other food and nutrition crops. Instead of empowering farmers to develop, manage and conserve their own seeds, the system has made the smallholder farmers dependent on seeds coming from the private seed sector. Malawi's agriculture has thus become increasingly homogenous with hybrid maize taking over local varieties and other indigenous crops. Availability of locally adapted diverse seeds especially for maize is increasingly becoming a challenge.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and has some of the highest rates of malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa. Experts warn repeatedly that malnutrition will have economic cost for Malawi, if it not dealt with as top national agenda. Yet crop diversity is not promoted for dietary diversity and nutrition.
A vibrant, sustainable and dynamic seed sector development needs integration of the formal and informal seed sectors. This begins at policy level. However, in the recent revision of national seed policy and strategies Malawi did not recognize the importance of the farmers’ seed systems or the informal seed sector neither the valuable contribution of smallholder farmers for the conservation and development of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. It also ignores farmers’ rights to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds and propagating materials, protection of traditional knowledge; participation in decision making as well as fair and equitable benefit sharing from the utilization of their genetic resources as defined by the International plant treaty that Malawi is part to. The policy generally criminalizes farmers’ seed system in its current form. A danger for sustainable food security?
In order to increase awareness and support development of a robust national agriculture and seed policies and legislations, the Development Fund of Norway in collaboration with Global Forum on Agricultural Research hosted in FAO and Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy in Malawi supported the development of capacity building material on farmers’ rights promotion and implementation through active participation of different stakeholders including farmers’ organizations, academia, public and civil society organizations. The capacity building material includes among others a legal analysis of the national seed policy and strategies to ensure promotion of farmers’ rights to seeds. The capacity building material was launched on the first national workshop on the first of June 2015 in Lilongwe. The report of the conference is accessible here. The development of the capacity building material utilized experiences from Development Fund supported community seed banks for conservation of crop diversity, increasing access to and availability of diverse local seeds and ensuring seed and food sovereignty in Malawi. So far 14 community seed banks have been established.
The organizations behind this capacity building effort on farmers’ rights are concerned with the wrong policies and strategies that will affect national seed security, thus long-term food security in Malawi. The organizations, therefore, urge the western development cooperation with Malawi to focus on sustainable resource management instead of short-term food security benefits. The advantage of the current farm input subsidy program that western countries support can have negative impact on sustainable food security in Malawi as it creates farmers dependency on seed companies and loss of genetic diversity which is crucial for adaptation to climate change and developing new high yielding varieties. Donor countries can divert its support to increase the efficiency of the public domain, which is at present characterized by a number of factors that negatively affect its service delivery. For instance investment in the national breeding programs that uses participatory crop improvement with the support of international agricultural research institutions and engagement of farmers and capacity building of farmers organizations which will greatly contribute to sustainable food and nutrition security.
Teshome Hunduma, Development Fund, E-mail: Teshome@utviklingsfondet.no
William Chadza, Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy, E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chaves Juanita, Global forum on Agricultural Research, E-mail: Juanita.Chaves@fao.org