By Charles Mkoka
LILONGWE, Sept 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Malawi's government has given in to mounting pressure to recognise the importance of locally grown and saved crop seeds, as well as commercially produced varieties, as it revises the country's farm policies.
In a meeting in the capital this month, representatives of non-governmental organisations told Erica Maganga, principal secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, that by excluding indigenous seed varieties in a draft seed policy the government was ignoring a sector responsible for feeding a large part of the country.
The government is revising its more than 20-year-old policy and laws on seeds, and is developing a bill to protect the commercial rights of plant breeders.
In a speech to Parliament in May, President Peter Mutharika said an updated seed policy and other new laws would help strengthen the agriculture sector.
But critics charge that the effort to ensure the quality and supply of seeds the country needs was drafted largely with the interests of commercial companies – both national and international - in mind, rather than the country's food security.
Most farmers in Malawi obtain seeds through one of two systems. The formal system includes Malawian and multinational seed companies, most of which have their own breeding, production and distribution programmes, according to the draft National Seed Policy and Strategies.
The informal system, on the other hand, in which farmers save and exchange seed from their own fields, provides seed for the majority of small-scale farmers in Malawi.
Many farmers say that traditional crop seeds – rather than the newer varieties sold by big companies – are more accessible and cheaper, suit local conditions better, and can yield better harvests in the face of climate change.
Government officials say the original draft policy focused exclusively on the formal seed system because only this type of seed has scientifically traceable genetic sources, which makes it easier to control quality.
David Kamangira, of the government's Agriculture Research Services, said that such seed is rigorously selected to help make sure that crops will not fail, and that storage and marketing is monitored to make sure the seed is viable when planted.
New seed for commercial purpose has to be approved by a government committee after being assessed by an internationally certified laboratory at the Chitedze Agricultural Research Station in Lilongwe, he said in a telephone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The latest draft of the new seed policy, however, acknowledges that "although quality of seed and yields in the informal seed system are low, saving of traditional varieties increases diversity and also provides breeders a resource for genetic material".
However, some farmers and activists say the revised policy does not do enough to protect farmers' rights to plant the seed of their choice.
It would continue to require that any seed sold be certified first through the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development's agriculture technology approval committee.
So far, farmer-run seed cooperatives are not part of that system, said Mangani Katundu, a senior lecturer in nutrition and food security at the University of Malawi, though he said they could be considered in the future.
"It was agreed that local seeds should be recognised as long as quality is guaranteed," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation after the meeting with the government. He said the policy was most likely to recognise seed from farmers "working in groups" as a cooperative.
Herbert Mwalukomo, programme director at the Malawi-based Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy, one of the NGOs that met with the government, said focusing on improved varieties and the formal seed system alone will not address Malawi's food security needs - not least because over 70 percent of the rural farming population relies on the informal seed system.
"Under the informal system, farmers save, sell and exchange farm-saved seed among themselves. It is for this reason that we believe the right approach should be an integrated system in which both the formal and informal systems complement each other," Mwalukomo said in an interview.
The Malawi chapter of Find Your Feet, an international NGO that works on food security for the rural poor and one of the groups that met with the government, supports 16 community seed banks in Rumphi, Mzimba and Nkhata Bay districts, covering areas underserved by the formal seed system.
Billy Mayaya, a human rights activist spearheading a right-to-food campaign in Malawi, said his group and others had met the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture to stress the importance of recognising farmers' rights when the Plant Breeders' Bill comes before Parliament, perhaps as early as November.
Some of Malawi's farmers are adamant about the advantages of being able to select their own seeds rather being limited to buying commercial hybrids.
Mybeius Mkandawire, a farmer who lives in Rumphi district, said that hybrids planted in the past season had failed to impress farmers when compared to the local varieties.
Local Tchayilosi groundnuts, for instance, outperformed a key commercial variety, which had failed to cope with scarce rainfall, he said.
Edwin Kasambanyati, from Lobi in Dedza district, described how he and fellow farmers select seeds for the next planting season while the crop is standing in the field, choosing healthy maize cobs with straight lines and large kernels.
"We preserve selected seed using indigenous knowledge," Kasambanyati said. "We hang the maize cobs above the fireplace, exposing them to smoke, and this prevents any pest attack. We also use ash or crushed tobacco leaves to increase the shelf life and prevent damage by pests."
Yohane Kadzuwa, a chief of Kamenya village, also in Dedza, pointed to his crop of dark-coloured maize locally known as Chisowa, and said it had flourished thanks to organic fertiliser made from crop residue. Kadzuwa said his variety was covered in hard leaves that pests could not penetrate.
"This is not the case with hybrids that open up when the cob has matured, thus making them prone to decay due to moisture," he said.
(Reporting by Charles Mkoka; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.