One of the leading 20th century philosophers Ayn Rand opined in one of her controversial essays on compromise that, ‘in any union between food and poison, it is death that wins and in any compromise between good and evil, the evil always reigns’. And she was right. After the implementation of the fast track land reform exercise from 2000, newly resettled farmers faced and still face an uphill task of having to produce seed enough to supply the whole nation. But they are not yet equal to the task. Now, seed houses seem to prioritize research and development of staple grains and the Seed Inspectorate seems to match. The result? Pulses and other non critical crops like small grains have been literally neglected in terms of research and development. Whatever farmer grows soy or sugar beans and thinks that his/her crop is good enough can simply call a seed house and market the crop as ‘seed’. But there are agronomic standards to it, than just being a good crop.
For groundnuts and Bambara nuts, the seed situation has been sustainable in communal farmers based on the retained seed for generations. However, retained seeds have certain toxins that make them unsuitable for comercial sales ???? (is that true). But the situation is different with soybeans and sugar beans. Retain the seed for 3 consecutive seasons and the vigour is gone and therefore replacement is needed. Go to a shop to buy the seed and guess what, the seed is equally retained! Now, to apply Rand’s opinion; ‘in any compromise between seed houses and the seed inspectorate, it is the perpetuation of poverty and food insecurity that wins’, particularly for smallholder farmers. These are the ones who are more affected by any shocks along the value chain because they are takers in everything and are less diversified unlike their commercial counterparts. And more importantly, because they rely on pulses for a commercial orientation, otherwise, the large grains need more land which they may not have access to.
When asked at a Food Security workshop, what it takes for a farmer to produce good yields year after year, University of Zimbabwe lecturer (now retired) Dr. Ian Robertson’s answer was astonishingly simple, yet accurate: “germplasm, knowhow and finance”. Yes, access to good germplasm (seed) is an important aspect of any production system involving crops. The knowhow is needed to get finance and good germplasm and the finance is needed to get knowhow and germplasm as well as other critical inputs for the field production. And the three are intricately interwoven. However, it is the germplasm which is more critical in this case. This is because seed viability directly influences crop development and even with good knowhow and all other required inputs, bad seed will always fare badly in terms of yield. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Zimbabwe’s average sugar bean yield after the fast track land reform exercise has been around 0.6 tonnes per hectare. During the sugar bean harvesting season, prices fall to $25 per 20 litre bucket (which is the current sugar bean price in Mazowe and other markets), which translates to $1250 per tonne. With an average of 0.6 tonnes per hectare, each hectare will give the farmer no more than $750 in gross income.
One of ancient Rome’s strongmen Cicero (ironically, his name means chickpea, a pulse!) uttered a famed statement that says ‘of all the occupations by which gain is secured, there is none better than agriculture, nothing more worthy of a free man’. Then, technology was still behind and production was more irksome. Seed research and development was still far behind what it is today. In fact by then, there were no hybrids. Technological bottlenecks prohibited access to information and today, we have radio and television systems where production data can be accessed. More importantly, we have the internet for research anytime, anywhere and yet, our problems are worse than those of Cicero’s time.
In conclusion, the seed inspectorate needs to raise the bar when it comes to standards in pulse seed. This will enable the smallholder farmer to realize more yields and hence incomes, because part of the yield losses faced by the smallholder farmers is attributable to poor pulse germplasm. But the inspectorate may not be able to raise the bar sooner than we would have wanted. So meanwhile, our smallholder farmers need to be trained and capacitated to produce their own seed, with proper agronomic standards. Some of the problems may at least, be alleviated and raise yields and hence incomes of smallholder farmers. Otherwise, we will continue to look into the region to obtain our soybean and sugar beans because domestic production isn’t enough to meet national requirements.
You had a meeting at Prime seeds, you wrote the following, that I cannot see in your blogg:
On Monday, 3 March myself, Justice and Wilbert attended a meeting at Prime Seeds as an information gathering meeting for our seed working papers. These are the key findings according to that meeting;