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June 7, 2016

Smart seeds


June 7, 2016

Southern Africa is undergoing the worst drought in more than three decades. More than 30 million people in South Africa, Malawi, and my home country Zimbabwe are facing hunger.

While this year’s drought is largely attributed to the El Nino effect, rains have been increasingly erratic over the past two decades.

This could be the new normal as climate change models forecast less rainfall and more extreme weather for much of East and Southern Africa.

Moreover, experts project that we may be entering a time of global weather uncertainty, or a “dark age”.

Having grown up on a small farm in rural Zimbabwe, I know full well how mother nature can destroy livelihoods for one of the world’s most vulnerable populations - smallholder farmers. I also recognise the look on many of those farmers’ faces: helplessness.

Yet, the narrative does not always have to end badly. Plant breeders, working through publicly funded research institutes, are developing new crop varieties with traits that allow them to withstand extreme weather - and not just drought, but also flooding, and frost.

People like me who work in agriculture call them ‘climate-smart’ crops, because they offer a fast and affordable way for farmers to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change.

For a number of reasons, such as restrictive seed laws and government monopolies, lack of money and a limited number of rural seed outlets, many smallholder farmers in Africa still rely on seed from outdated seed varieties saved over many generations.

That may sound quaintly self-reliant. But actually, most of these saved seeds are for crops that long ago became vulnerable to pests and disease and produce poor yields even when the rains do come.

Less than 30 percent of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa use improved seed that has recently undergone a formal breeding process.

But it does not have to be that way. Consider the Drought-Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project, which was launched in 2007 and has been implemented in 13 African countries.

This partnership of national and international agricultural research institutions has to date released about 200 distinct drought-tolerant maize varieties. The new varieties are bred to match growing conditions in a particular region and, along with drought tolerance, their yields are equal to or higher than other commercially available varieties.

Farmers are noticing the difference and voting with their wallets. In Nigeria and Zambia, two of the drought-tolerant varieties had become the most popular commercial varieties by 2013. This is especially impressive given how slowly most smallholder farmers adopt new varieties.

Breeders are also working on the other extreme, developing crops for when climate change produces heavy rains.

The International Rice Research Institute has developed rice varieties that can withstand being submerged under water for two weeks. Rice varieties with the so-called ‘scuba’ gene are currently being grown by more than five million farmers in Asia. The trait is now being transferred into popular varieties in Africa.

For the sceptics, it should be noted that none of the technologies cited above has anything to do with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Moreover, they were all produced by public research institutions and commercialised by small, locally owned seed companies.

Nothing can fully protect crops from extreme weather. Crops still need water to grow, but not too much of it. Climate-smart seed can reduce the impact of extreme weather, but it cannot eliminate it.

Further, smallholder farmers in Africa face many other challenges, such as depleted soils, limited access to extension services, high post-harvest losses and poor access to markets. Those problems cannot be solved by improved seed alone.

However, improved seed offers perhaps the cheapest way for farmers to adapt to climate change because farmers can use the seed without any need for additional training.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Climate change and ‘smart seeds’ in Africa’.