Variety Improvement: Deferred to IARCs

SorghumAs host governments budgets become progressively squeezed to the point that many government services are basically Financially Stalled one of the first agriculture support services sacrificed is the variety improvement with accompanying seed multiplication and certification programs. With the balk of government revenues required just to meet contract obligations to its officers in terms of salaries and fringe benefits there are virtually no funds for operating costs.

After the initial acceptance of high yielding varieties these programs have always had a small but additive incremental impact that is difficult to show except through long term multi year analysis. Thus for governments trying to invest their limited financial resources, not already obligated to personnel needs, where they will have the best chance for short term impact, it is difficult to provide variety improvement with the significant funding for what is basically a fairly expensive program to implement. Therefore in many developing countries the variety improvement efforts have been deferred to collaboration with the different IARCs that make up the CGIAR network and their out-reach programs for assisting NARS. These restricted variety improvement programs would include Tanzania, Nigeria, Malawi, Ghana, Kenya, etc. The IARCs can only covers the crops each IARCs is internationally mandated to work with. However, that mandate covers most of the major staple crops grown throughout the developing world. Chief among these are maize working with CIMMTY, rice working with IRRI and WARDA, cassava and soybeans working with IITA, beans working with CIAT, and sorghum working with ICRISAT. For crops with no IARC support, the variety improvement is simply dropped as is the case for sesame, one of the six value chain commodities being promoted by the USAID funded MARKETS project in Nigeria and other West African countries. In this case producers, processors, and seed companies are on their own to identify and distribute new varieties.

While the IARCs are doing the major breeding and variety selection work, the host country scientists are collaborating with the international scientists, and mostly operating on the IARC’s operational budget instead of the national revenue budget, except for contracted personnel costs as mentioned above. This can be reasonable effective for at least getting fresh genetic material into a host country and new varieties released for distribution. Typically new varieties of a crop are released about once every four or five years. The CGIAR’s IARCs distribution of genetic material among developing countries NARS is perhaps the greatest contribution they have made to agriculture development and food security over the past 50 years. Virtually every improved Indicia rice variety grown in the developing world has an IRRI contribution at some point.

Once developed and released the varieties are turned over to the host government for multiplication and distribution. The expected result is certified seed being available to all farmers across the country each year. This is consistent with the perceived blanked use of certified seed in developed countries. However, usually there aren’t the government financial resources to operate a seed multiplication program capable of moving seed from breeder seed, to foundation seed, to registered seed, and finally certified seed for sale to farmers.

Usually local professional and technical personnel are available sufficiently trained in seed technology to implement a seed quality program if they had adequate funds. Without the operational funds the multiplication and distribution of new varieties are financially stalled. In Kenya IITA and CIAT recently developed five soybean varieties for release the government. However, after release, it was impossible to determine what became of the Seed Multiplication Effort, or when the seeds would be available to the farmers. Even if the seed is multiplied to registered seed and this is contracted out for production to certified seed, the seed inspection officers are too few to undertake the internationally recognized inspection requirements of three field visits usually designated as:

  • Early season to assure isolation from cross contamination from other lines,
  • Mid season to assure physiological uniformity of the plants, and
  • Harvest for seed inspection and germination analysis

In Nigeria there is only one seed certification team per state to cover a multitude of intended seed multiplication fields that are often less than a hectare each. Physically this can’t be done, even if there was vehicles available with unlimited fuel and other operational resources available to make the necessary field trips, or even if authorized to use public transportation. There just is not enough time for one seed certification inspection teams to make the mandated number of field visits. Thus most of the certification has to be done on the honor system, or perhaps on the gratuity/baksheesh system. Unfortunately, encouraging and investing in a seed certification system in many developing countries could do little more than provide an excellent opportunity for seed officers to supplement their limited official salaries with some Informal DSC02858-WebIncome at the expense of a seed quality. The resulting seed supply is most likely little, if at all, better than that informally circulating within communities or local markets. Certainly, it would not justify the premium price being charged, presumable to justify the extra production costs as well as transportation costs from producer fields to remote growers’ fields. Thus in Nigeria the vast majority of the “certified seed” is marketed to the government for their subsidized seed distribution program, with very little sold on the open market. Whether this“certified” seed can actually be delivered on time is an open question. It may be Piled Up at the ADPs, unsold, because it was delivered too late and without any variety identification to be used.

Certified Seed: How Critical?

This brings forth the question of, how critical is certified seed compared with the locally retained and marketed seed. While most development project personnel, host country professionals and commercial or public sector seed companies swear by the necessity of having certified seed, for self-pollinating crops there could be little, if any, difference. The problem is to look closely at the vested interest of the people involved in promoting or insisting on certified seed. Certainly the commercial and public sector seed companies have a vested interest in promoting the sale of their products. Likewise, the host officials have vested interest in supporting their involvement as well as potential Informal Income opportunities as mentioned above. The development personnel may not have a personal vested interest, but they expect the host country seed program to be on par with their home country seed programs and go along with their hosts. After all they claim they are following the same internationally recognized procedures.

However, unless there is some substantial out-crossing, more than the three percent associated with rice, there will be little if any genetic deterioration between generations of retained seed. The biggest problem would be contamination by trash such as chaff, stones, mud clods and weed seed. All of these can easily be removed, if need be. Of these the biggest problem in manually planted areas, that would include most smallholder communities, is the weed seed. It will impact on the weeding requirements of the pending crop. The inert manner will not be a problem unless mechanically planting machine and the trash jams the planters. It should also be noted, contrary to the impression often conveyed to developing countries, 70% or more of the wheat crop in Colorado and most like other western states in the USA are planted to retained seed. Similar in excess of 90% of crop land in most smallholder communities is planted with retained seed. Even rice, with it three percent out crossing, can be retained for four or five generations between obtaining certified seed, or indefinitely if the farmers rouge out the off-types. However, that is something rarely done, even after training. Apparently, the benefits do not justify the extra time and effort. At least that was the case in Ghana.

Private seed companies in developing countries are reluctant to produce seed for self-pollinated crops since they rely on repeat business that is minimal for self-pollinated seeds. They prefer concentrating on crops with a hybrid seeds potential such as maize and sunflowers. These seeds need to be replaced each season. However, this provides a massive logistic problem that rarely penetrates to smallholder communities, or at least with sufficient amounts to be effective.When the supply logistics breakdown for even a single season forcing the farmers to resort to retained seed, the F2 generation of the hybrid will segregate resulting in an uneven low yielding crop. Thus for open pollinated varieties to conveniently serve smallholder communities the need is more for composite varieties that can be open pollinated without substantial yield decline, then hybrid varieties. Commercial seed companies also prefer to import vegetable seed which requires fresh seed each year. For vegetables the seed is often included with the harvested fruit, or the plant is harvested prior to seed setting. Also, vegetable seeds are often small so small amounts with minimal transportation costs can cover a large area.

Ultimately, despite the collaborative development of improved lines through the IARCs few of the new lines for some of the major crops reach the smallholder producers. The smallholders are effectively left on their own with only retained seed informally distributed through the communities. An example is the photo at the top of the page where a Nigerian farmer is growing sorghum that is over three meters tall. Certainly, ICRISAT has produced shorter more productive varieties. Often under these conditions the crops have completely lost their formal variety identity. While there may be some local understanding of the differences between varieties being grown in an areas, this can no longer be coordinated with varieties used in other parts of the country or region. For many crops such as maize, soybeans, sorghum etc. where the grain quality is not a major factor in the utilization, the loss of variety identity may not appear critical. However, in addition to grain quality the variety usually impacts on crop morphology that will effects the manner it is produced, and pathogen resistance that will get lost with the variety identity.

SeedYieldMadibiraEven when the variety identification is retained and farmers are all using improved plant types how much difference can be expected between certified seed and that retained within the community. This can often be difficult to determine as shown by a study of rice varieties in Madibira, Tanzania that compared seed being distributed by the project with the same variety being informally distributed within the community. It was not possible to show any significant difference between source and most of the time the framers’ seeds out-yielded the project seed as shown in the table.

In Tanzania and Ghana there has been no influx of rice genetic material from IRRI or WARDA for over 10 years. What fresh genetic material that is moving into a community is done informally. This can result from visits to distant relative, or farmer study visits, etc. In Madibira, Tanzania one of the most popular varieties is Zambia. This is not a recognized variety either in Tanzania or Zambia. Most likely some rice farmer slipped across the border to visit friends or family in Zambia, saw a rice variety he liked, and returned with a handful of seed which he grew out, shared with his neighbors, forgot what the variety was, started referring to it as Zambia, and it was quietly multiplied and distributed to become an established variety in the region. A similar thing happened in Nigeria where an interviewed farmer indicated he grew a variety referred to as Cameroon that was obtained during an informal visit to that neighboring country. It was then quietly multiplied and distributed, but drew a lecture from the ADP officers, intent on promoting only released varieties.

Genetic Pump: The solution to this problem is for NGO’s working with smallholder communities to endorse the use of retained seed within the village in what might best be called a Genetic Pump of improved germ plasma. Basically by-pass the government seed multiplication programs, and go directly to the IARC’s doing the actual variety development for crops of interest. From them obtain small quantities of seed for selected lines, perhaps 10 lines at most. Most IARC breeders are usually willing to allow a small sample of seeds to be distributed to private individuals and organization, particularly if the recipient is willing to participate in verification trials (which are the final trials before a variety is formally release and normally done on-farm) and report the results back. In Nigeria one enterprising individual did this to obtain some cassava cutting of lines being considered by IITA, only to find them better suited for cassava flour instead of garri.

The seed obtained from such informal contacts with the IARC could be as little as 100g of seed per line, the amount most IARCs distribute for their observation trials of small grains or legumes. Return this to the community and either grow the nursery in the NGO’s trial plot or through a cooperating farmer. This will give the whole community a chance to exam the lines. They can accept or reject what they like. Hold the seed for planting the next season. Since most grain or legume crops have at least a 40 to 1 multiplication, the 100 g will become 4 kg the first season, then 160 kg the second season and 6400 kg after the third season. At 50 kg/ha seeding rate this will be enough to plant 128 ha, which is more than enough to have it an established variety within the community. If the farmers don’t like the variety it will simple disappear with very little risk involved. It is actually highly desirable to have five or six established varieties in community to protect against a breakdown of resistance to a pathogen causing a complete loss of a crop.

This needs to be repeat about once every four or five years as that is how long it really takes to identify a few new varieties. The host country seed program will most likely resist this effort, but will not effectively be able to do anything about it, and the smallholders will get access to the new genetic material they need. This could then fairly easily and informally slip out to neighboring communities. Given the overall financial limitations of the host government is there really any alternative.

Last Revised: 17 March 2010

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