Local seed varieties have been around as a source of food and nutritional security for most Malawians for ages. However, as hybrid seed invades the market coupled with lack of preservation and accommodating policies to sustain them, local varieties are a dying breed. Yet, farmers aren’t just about to give up because hybrid varieties fall short. CHARLES MKOKA reports
Local crop varieties may be under siege from hybrid ones but these ‘foreign’ seeds cannot match the taste, durability and flavour of local seeds.
This is what members of seed banks in Rumphi said on our visit there recently.
The majority of the farmers argued that they are proud of local maize and legumes varieties. They said these varieties are compatible to the agro-ecology of their areas, they withstand climate in those areas and they give them the needed benefits compared to commercial hybrid varieties.
At Chikwawa seed bank in Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe area near Bolero Rural Growth Centre, Mybeius Mkandawire showcased some of the crops she grows in her field. Mkandawire showed the harvests she has been able to bring home from the field and how she is able to beat food insecurity with the local varieties.
She detailed how hybrid maize varieties failed to impress in the past season as compared to local maize variety.
The farmers have since urged the formulators of the seed policy, currently under debate in the country, to ensure the policy recognizes the role of the informal seed sector where the bulk of the farmers access seeds through exchange.
Herbert Mwalukomo, Head of Programmes at the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa), said while there is a place for improved varieties and a formal seed system to meet national seed and food requirements, focusing on improved varieties and a formal seed system alone will not address Malawi’s food security needs.
He said over 70 percent of the rural farming population relies on the informal seed system. He therefore recommended integration of the two systems.
“Under the informal system, farmers save, sell and exchange farm-saved seed among themselves. Those who can afford to buy seed from the formal market are able to produce more depending on the rainfall and the area agro-ecology.
“It is for this reason that we believe the right approach should be an integrated system in which the formal and informal systems complement each other. Integration of both systems would involve working with farmers and building on their knowledge in variety selection, undertaking participatory plant breeding, facilitating establishment of local seed banks and promoting knowledge exchange,” said Mwalukomo.
Malawi’s economy is predominantly agro-based with a large majority of the rural population directly dependent on small-scale farming. Most farmers use indigenous varieties which are adversely affected by policy choices that emanate from the domestication of the international instruments, according to experts.
Chimwemwe Soko, Country Director of the local charity Find Your Feet Malawi, said no one can dispute the fact that the informal seed sector has significantly shaped Malawi’s agricultural system as it has been responsible for the diversity in plant genetic resource and has successfully put diversified food on the plates of Malawians for a long time.
He added that the 16 community seed banks that Find Your Feet is supporting with the development grant from the Development Fund of Norway and the Big Lottery Fund of UK in Rumphi, Mzimba and Nkhata Bay continue to be a source of hope for the majority poor households who often times live in the hard-to- reach areas and undeserved by the formal seed system.
“Households in these adjoining districts of northern Malawi have always been assured that at the onset of the rains they will have indigenous seeds of good quality to plant. This is courtesy of their collective work in saving, using and exchanging these seeds that are not only superior in their contribution towards better nutrition but are also better adapted to the reality of climate change,” said Soko in a separate interview.
Soko said the number of households that have seen merit and importance to fight for their rights as farmers is increasing as evidenced by the majority participating in the seed multiplication programmes, seed and food fairs as well as on farm preservation.
A farmer from Bembeke in Dedza, Grace Itende, said local varieties do not require pesticides to be applied. They need minimal manure for them to grow, a case that is not possible with hybrids. Once they are matured they are strong and durable.
“When taken to the maize mill more flour is collected. This is in sharp contrast with hybrid varieties which when cooking demand more flour,” she said.
Linda Chipeta another farmer from Mzimba said crop diversification is the way forward in order to conform to the changing climate. This will help to foster both good nutritional and food security interventions among all demographic age groups across the country.
“Hybrids have a strong association with herbicides sold on the market. But while this may look good to kill grass in the short term they have long term repercussions on the environment. This means leaving the land bare and making it prone to direct rain drop impact and exposure to soil erosion,” Chipeta warned during a farmer day gathering recently.
Hilda Mtiya, a farmer from Thyolo said farmers share local varieties freely while hybrid seed has to be bought and goes at a price many small farmers cannot afford.
However, Malawi just like other countries in the region, faces various challenges including inadequate technical and legal expertise to effectively negotiate and implement policy options relating to sustainable use of biodiversity, agro-biodiversity and equitable sharing of benefits arising from utilisation of these; protection of indigenous knowledge systems, farmers’ rights and traditional practitioners’ rights.
In the National Policy Analysis and Advocacy for Sustainable Livelihoods, partners such as Biodiversity Conservation Initiative, Find Your Feet and Trustees of Agricultural Promotion Programme are working with Cepa to raise the much needed awareness for a seed system that is robust and vibrant.
Experts say genetic resources in agriculture represent the foundation for food security, rural income and livelihood and the basis for adaptation to impacts of climate change.
According to Mwalukomo, the limited recognition of agricultural biodiversity is reflected in the rapid replacement of the informal seed system with the formal system and its modern varieties. An example of this in Malawi is the focus on maize, a crop that lends itself to hybridisation, which then makes seed saving impossible.
The ‘maize model’ of technology transfer, high inputs and subsidies has been promoted through research, investment and favourable institutional and policy frameworks. The result is that it has become such a dominant crop in Malawi that it threatens to replace not only traditional maize varieties, but also many other crops, reducing diversity in farmers’ fields and in people’s diets, Mwalukomo said.
Through stakeholder consultations, however, the informal seed system is gaining recognition as essential for food security. Farmers continue to save seed and the informal seed system has survived.
At the same time, farmers prefer varieties with specific adaptation to local conditions or with taste, cooking and storage qualities that cannot be obtained from the formal sector.
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