Seed industry developing better varieties, but few farmers in Africa have access to quality seed

A zero hunger information booklet by Welthungerhilfe

Most smallholder farmers, especially those in Africa, do not have access to quality seeds.

A study, The Access to Seeds Index 2019, Global Seed Companies, published by the Amsterdam-based Access to Seeds Foundation, evaluated the activities of 13 global seed companies, to shine a light on where the industry can do more, to raise smallholder farmer productivity, improve nutrition and mitigate the effects of climate change, through the development and dissemination of quality seed.

Quality seeds reached only 47 million out of the world’s 500 million smallholder farmers in 2017. In addition, the companies invested in a small number of countries, mostly in South and Southeast Asia.

Though seed companies are adapting their products to combat the impact of climate change and address nutrition needs, limited access to quality seed in many emerging economies continues to persist. In Africa, Tanzania, South Africa and Kenya benefit most from investments in local seed business activities.

Reaching more smallholder farmers and directing investment to other geographical locations, is critical in tackling rising malnourishment in Africa.

“Although the industry is making advances in developing more nutritious and climate-resilient varieties, it’s clear that more needs to be done,” said Ido Verhagen, executive director of the Access to Seeds Index. “Material changes won’t be possible without reaching a greater percentage of smallholder farmers, who account for the lion’s share – 80%, of global food production.”

Developing improved varieties of seed, offers better nutritional value and supports crop diversity. The global seed industry can do more to address this need by supplying a larger number of crops and varieties, including legumes and local crops, which are currently neglected in favour of hybrid seeds.

The index also reveals a sharper focus on climate change. Of the 13 companies evaluated, 12 emphasize that increased yields and higher tolerance to climate and weather risks are essential when breeding. This is reflected in increased breeding for climate-resilient field crops and vegetable varieties since 2016.

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Seed companies have also found new ways to help farmers adapt to changing climatic conditions such as provision of farmer training and other services such as weather-based crop insurance. Eight companies are now integrating sustainability strategies at the corporate level, compared to three in 2016.

Shaping business models around the needs of smallholder farmers can be profitable. To demonstrate this, East-West Seed, a Thailand-based company is using a unique smallholder-centric approach and has a customer base made up almost entirely of smallholders (98%).The company topped the index, thanks to a strong performance across all areas assessed. Syngenta and Germany’s Bayer virtually tied in second and third place.

“The private sector is essential for achieving food and nutrition security, one of the major challenges outlined by the SDGs. With the world’s population rising – and hunger with it – amid growing concerns around the environmental impact of crop production, the role of the global seed industry remains crucial if Zero Hunger (SDG 2) is to be achieved by 2030,” said Verhagen.

The Access to Seeds Index 2019 – Global Seed Companies is one of the first Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) benchmarks published by the World Benchmarking Alliance. The alliance was launched in September 2018 during the UN General Assembly in New York.


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