Which way forward for Zambia’s smallholder farmers: Green Revolution input subsidies or agro-ecology?

Thursday, 15 October 2015
African Center for Biosafety

The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) has released preliminary findings of research conducted in Zambia: “Which way forward for Zambia’s smallholder farmers: Green Revolution input subsidies or agro-ecology?” The research is part of a three year multi-country programme looking at the impacts of the Green Revolution on small-scale farmers in southern Africa, with a particular focus on seed and soil fertility.As with the rest of the region, small-scale farming households in Zambia have maize as their primary crop and produce mainly for household use with surpluses sold or exchanged locally. Government support is premised on the extension of Green Revolution technologies to these households, in particular hybrid maize and synthetic fertiliser. Support takes the form of input subsidy programmes and maize purchases through the Food Reserve Agency (FRA). Together these have entrenched hybrid maize to the detriment of other crops and production. These programmes direct farming households towards maize production even in marginal conditions, reducing ecological sustainability and ultimately production diversity. They also have negative implications for production diversity and hence the diversity of nutrients available in food. While farmer support is essential, the report questions the forms of support being provided. Many smallholder farming households are currently in a maize dependency trap in a politically-entrenched production regime.As with most African countries, Zambia has a dualistic seed system with a small, highly formalised commercial sector focused on maize, and a much bigger, unsupported farmer-managed sector that produces most of the remainder of its seed. The former receives a large amount of support and attention, while the latter is poorly recognised with limited support. The expansion of formal sector quality controls and certification threatens to criminalise essential on farm practices which ensure agricultural biodiversity. The Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) Act protects a good portion of farmers’ rights, but does not allow farmers to produce seed for commercial sale without a licensing agreement with the PBR holder. Farmers’ rights are recognised and are defined as the right of farmers to produce, reuse, exchange or sell any seed in their possession.However, Member States of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO), including Zambia, have recently adopted the Arusha PVP Protocol (July 2015) which threatens to undermine these rights should the Zambian government choose to ratify the Protocol. The adoption of the ARIPO Protocol is unlikely to have a major beneficial impact on breeding capacity in Zambia, since seed bred elsewhere in the region will enjoy easier access into the Zambian market. Consequently there will be no reason for private companies to establish seed breeding and R&D facilities in each and every country. They will focus on those countries where they already have infrastructure and expertise.There appears to be a major issue regarding diversification of the varieties being improved and produced. Stringent seed laws and regulations make it difficult for small-scale farmers to be involved in seed improvement and production for commercial purposes. A proposed alternative is to start with in situ or localised experimentation and seed enhancement for specific local conditions, together with farmers, based on their specific priorities. It is apparent that farmers are innovators and experimenters. They would not survive without these qualities. But they are not being given an opportunity to participate in innovations and experiments.The logic behind the introduction of synthetic fertilisers is that soils lack crucial nutrients or are unbalanced in other ways that limit yield potential. However, this is not based on context-specific evidence. The last national soil survey was done over three decades ago and it is certain that there are no systematic localised surveys, which are necessary to understand soils in a particular context rather than in general terms. This begs the questions of how nutrient deficiencies are identified, and what remedies are proposed. The current flawed approach is profoundly unscientific and seems to be more about creating a market, both for hybrid maize seed and for synthetic fertiliser, than it is about identifying and resolving specific soil nutrient deficiencies.Zambia has gone a long way down the Green Revolution path, in particular through the huge outlay of public resources to sponsor FISP and the FRA. These programmes have influenced production patterns and oriented farmers towards hybrid maize in particular. This has come at the cost of diversity in production, the undermining of traditional seed varieties, the marginalisation of agro-ecological production practices, and has created a technological and financial treadmill on which farmers are forced to keep using these technologies, even if the results are mediocre. Farmers in Zambia are increasingly dependent on subsidised inputs over which they have no control.

While there is widespread recognition of the limits to the long-term sustainability of the subsidised input route, even politicians have become dependent on its structures. It will be difficult to move away from this approach in the short term, despite the fact that farmers remain as deeply mired in poverty as they were prior to a decade of subsidies. The report proposes some possible first steps to be taken in weaning farming households off unsustainable input subsidies and in reorienting public and donor support towards more decentralised activities based on priorities identified by farming households.

Read the full report