The South African government has been blamed for wide-spread seed saving practices by the country’s commercial crop farmers. This comes in the wake of concerns raised by various stakeholders in the SA crop industry regarding the scale of seed saving and its potential negative impacts on the future of national food security, and on the continued development of new seed technologies that could benefit these farmers.
A survey of the 2006/07 local cropping season carried out by the SA National Seed Organisation (SANSOR) revealed startling figures on seed saving, otherwise known as the production of farm seed. It was estimated that during the 2006/07 year, 85% of all soya seed planted had been saved by farmers, with only 15% bought directly from seed companies. Saved seed also made up 62% of wheat, 20% of oilseed rape, 10% of groundnut, 25% of grain sorghum, 42% of barley, and 19% of drybean crops. For maize the figure was only 1%, because maize seeds are mainly hybrids and it isn’t worthwhile to produce a second generation from saved seed.
“This is a very difficult subject to discuss,” says SANSOR’s general manager, Walter Loubser. “SA’s commercial farmers are currently under great pressure in trying to keep their enterprises financially viable. Since 1994, the enabling environment for this country’s commercial farmers has declined dramatically. They no longer have any significant government support, and many commercial crop farmers have understandably decided to try and save on input costs by producing their own seed.” Changes in legislation on plant breeders’ rights make it legal for farmers to produce their own seed from crops grown with bought seed, but Loubser says this is a move in the wrong direction if government is trying to create an enabling production environment for emerging farmers. He explains that seed saving works effectively for traditional or indigenous crops because they’ve been developed over many decades, but the same can’t be said for newly developed modern commercial crops. “Many modern crops deteriorate in yield, quality, and pest and disease tolerance over subsequent generations when grown from farm-saved seed. “This puts the farmers at potential financial risk,” he continues. “Growing crops from farm-saved seed at higher plant populations generally isn’t a solution because competition between the plants increases and still poses a threat to plant health and production levels. What’s needed is more support from government for commercial farmers, not legislation that benefits only emergent farmers.”
Unconfirmed rumours have it that some international seed companies are wary of releasing new products in SA because of the country’s reputation for seed saving, which undermines their profitability. This is in light of the astronomical expense that goes into developing new crop varieties and gaining approvals for commercial release. A commentator from the country’s commercial grain production industry, who wished to remain anonymous, said economics motivated seed saving, adding that if soya bought directly from seed companies made up nearly 50%, the price commercial farmers received for their product, it was no surprise they’d rather use saved soya seed. The source adds, “Government must take a balanced approach when handing out money to develop agriculture, spending on strengthening commercial as well as emerging agriculture. “Food security should be a priority, and only commercial farmers adequately supported by government can achieve this.”
Developing new cultivars
Nico Hawkins, Grain SA’s manager for industry services, told Farmer’s Weekly his organisation couldn’t oppose seed saving in light of the economic realities of farming, if farmers were happy with the quality of the crops they produced from saved seed. “However, we are worried about the possible impact of saved seed on yields, quality, and pest and disease tolerance of commercially grown crops, and we’re involved in trials to see what these impacts are,” Hawkins explains. “We’re also working with seed companies to try and develop new cultivars that are of good quality while remaining cost effective.” Grain SA says it’s concerned by government’s lack of contribution to the development of more productive, financially viable commercial crop cultivars. The organisation wants SA commercial agriculture to become more competitive both locally and internationally, but adds that government’s current budget allocation for the development of suitable commercial crop cultivars is negligible compared with those of many other countries. “Farmers must remember, however, that while it’s legal to use their own saved seed, it’s illegal for them to clean and sell this seed to other farmers,” Hawkins concluded. – Lloyd Phillips