Africa is facing a food crisis due to COVID-19. These seeds could help prevent it.
Photo: Pearl millet harvest from a field in Mali. Photo: Agathe Diama, ICRISAT
“Seed demand is expected to outstrip supply by nearly twice in the coming seasons, based on expert opinions from seven African countries compiled by the AVISA research project.”
Sub-Saharan Africa is facing one of its biggest farming crises in living memory. COVID-19 is dealing a blow to farmers already struggling with floods, drought, pests and diseases. Emergency relief must provide high-quality seed for future harvests and not just food to be consumed now. Supplying certified seed for nutritious crops that are treasured in traditional African diets is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of achieving future food security says ICRISAT.
Floods, drought, devastating diseases such as maize lethal necrosis, and pests such as fall armyworm and desert locusts weakened sub-Saharan Africa’s food supply even before the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures. An even bigger problem is looming on the horizon. All these disastrous factors are not only hurting the current crop, but disrupting the supply of quality seed for future harvests. As a result, seed demand is expected to outstrip supply by nearly twice in the coming seasons, based on expert opinions from seven African countries compiled by the AVISA research project.
The challenge for relief organizations and governments will be to ensure availability and access to high-quality seed for the most nutritious crops, so farmers can feed themselves and their nations. Failure to do so could result in a vicious cycle of meagre harvests, malnutrition and poverty.
Here is what aid organizations, governments and research institutes can do to stave off the looming crisis and build a sustainable future for African farmers.
The seed challenge
Supplying certified, high-quality seed is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of achieving future food security.
“Such quality seed has been selected, bred and treated for drought and disease resistance, high yields, and a short growing period from sowing to harvest. It can double the yield of legumes and cereals, all other things being equal.”
In a crisis like the one we are facing right now, seed assistance programmes suddenly face a sharp rise in demand. However, it takes at least a season to produce and supply the required seed, once stocks are exhausted – meaning 3-9 months, depending on the crop. Meanwhile, farmers are likely to resort to sowing ordinary grain that was originally intended as food, not seed. To the naked eye, grain for consumption and high-quality seed for next year’s harvest look the same. A farmer will only know the difference days or weeks after planting, and sometimes not until it’s harvest time.
Many African farmers struggled to obtain quality seed even before the pandemic. There were instances where seed consignments of rice in Mali, sorghum in Burkina Faso and Maize in Uganda had lower germination capacity, vigor and genetic purity than expected of quality seed. One estimate suggests that more than 95% of legume and dryland cereal seeds in Africa are from sources of unknown quality. Such low-quality seed can lead to persistent food insecurity, as harvest after harvest yields disappointing results. The coronavirus crisis is likely to exacerbate this problem. Farm production in the upcoming crop season will probably be low across Africa owing to lockdowns and floods in East Africa.
Relief organizations and governments have recognized that they must step in to prevent a farming crisis that could result in famines, and are preparing to fill a massive seed shortage. They are currently the biggest procurers of seed in Africa, say partners working with the AVISA research project. Seed-producing organizations and agriculture research institutes across Africa have been asked to reserve their seed for relief orders after the pandemic.
In Nigeria, the government and ICRISAT are distributing seed to 10,000 farmers to shield them from the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown measures.
Any short-term efforts to boost seed supply must ensure quality if we don’t want to cause long-term problems. But how can we achieve this in the face of soaring demand and a global pandemic? Read more: http://gldc.cgiar.org/africa-is-facing-a-food-crisis-due-to-covid-19-these-seeds-could-help-prevent-it/
& Theme leader, Seed System, ICRISAT
Senior Communication Officer,