When it comes to seed, its quality affects a range of measures that are important to farmers, consumers, value chains and governments. But its impact on a wide range of key measures is often underestimated.
These extend beyond the obvious question of quantity. Without quality seed, tillage, irrigation, fertilisation and plant-protection efforts often do not deliver their full potential.
This was the starting point for a round-table discussion at AGRF 2018, in which several seed experts were given the opportunity to discuss the issues involved. Dr. Martin Kropff, Director General of CIMMYT (the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Centre), was quick to deliver the key message of the day, saying that better seeds mean better variety and better governance.
Critically, he added, without good-quality seed, you will never have quantity.
However, Dr. Kropff was highly aware of the barriers that currently make many smallholder farmers unwilling or unable to make the right investments in seed quality – lack of financing, poor choice of inputs, no access to markets, weak advisory support, erratic weather, pests and diseases, not to mention farmers’ heavy workloads.
As he said, the seed value chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Mohammed Sabik, Agronomist and Seed Technology Engineer at PETKUS Technologie GmbH, was in broad agreement. He illustrated the importance of quality by quoting from a recent study on rice in which high-quality seed delivered a yield 20 percent greater than a farm-saved equivalent.
As he explained, the quality seed benefited from cleaning and sorting measures to reduce disease, ensure better purity for field hygiene and separate out grain with a poor capacity for germination.
The bottom line for many farmers, however, is that yield-improvement has costs, meaning that good-quality seed is unlikely to come cheap. However, Andy Watt, Managing Director of Quali Basic Seed, pointed out that farmers always aim to put into the ground what they know will grow. This is the return on investment that makes spending more on seed worthwhile.
He also emphasised that farmers have it in their own power to help maximise that return. This includes paying attention to detail in even the simplest matters: “If you drop a seed from the bag, don’t pick it up to avoid cross-contamination,” he said.
In order to encourage farmers to use better-quality seed, Dr. Ndambe Nzaramba Magnifique, Coordinator of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Chairman of the Rwanda Agriculture Board was in favour of a straightforward and direct approach.
As scientists, we are not good marketers, Dr. Magnifique argued, highlighting how the emergence of new varieties every two to three years can make it difficult for farmers to keep up. But these issues might be resolved through making small changes like:
• using colour coding instead of complicated labels
• creating demand with better marketing
• considering what is easier for farmers to understand
• explaining outcomes in terms of weight, not numbers