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Monday, February 27, 2012

Seed trade in the region rises

By Esther Nakkazi

Intra-regional seed trade has risen to $727 million per year from less than one percent a decade ago, stepping up use of quality seed production to increase yields, which is crucial to unlocking the region’s agricultural potential.

The Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in East and Central Africa (ASARECA) also says prices for key tradable seeds like maize has largely stabilized due to harmonized seed policies in the ten African countries of its operations.

Policy reforms in the region that have improved seed trade are clustered around five areas; variety evaluation and release, seed certification, plant variety protection, phyto-sanitary issues as well as export and import documentation.

Now scientists are talking about investing and increasing use of biotechnology to further increase high quality seed production in the region, which is key to food security, production and seed trade.

“Biotechnology can do a lot of things in the food industry but people will only put money where they can get it out,” said Dr. Geoffrey Arinaitwe a plant geneticist based at National Agricultural Research Laboratories in Kawanda.

Dr. Arinaitwe explained during the Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (UBBC) meeting last week that biotechnology in seed production could speed up multiplication of vegetatively propagated crops and detect pathogens transmitted by seed or planting materials.

It would also protect seed with biological control agents and test variety identity and purity. According to the Uganda Seed Association, in 2007, there was a seed shortage of about 100,000 metric tonnes in Uganda and ‘these technologies would have come in handy to save the nation.’

But while the seed markets in Kenya and Tanzania are progressive, Uganda still lags behind in using biotechnology due to lack of Biosafety legislation.

At least 60 percent of the farmers in Uganda still store their seed for replanting and use their own cuttings. A major concern of high cost of biotech seed to farmers is still imminent.

Even at a regional level, majority of farmers use seeds obtained either saved from their own previous crop or from open-air markets, which have problems of purity with mean germination rates rarely above 50 percent, said Michael Waithaka, manager of the Policy Analysis and Advocacy Programme at ASARECA.

Depending on seeds from such sources also means that farmers have limited access to seeds of improved varieties that meet consumer preferred attributes.

However, at a regional level many genetically modified seeds including soybean and maize with herbicide tolerance, cotton and maize with insect resistance have already been commercialized.

Scientists insist that an effective seed supply systems and an assured market for seed is critical in unleashing the potential to improve food security and livelihoods of target communities.

An example is the private sector mediated farmer-led seed enterprises model in Kenya where farmers are earning on average $4,500 per annum from indigenous vegetables seed production.

Farmers in Dodoma, Tanzania are also said to be selling high quality seed of African eggplant, amaranths and nightshade fetching good prices of $3 per kilogram.

“The story is going to change for banana cuttings,” said Dr. Arinaitwe. Banana is a key staple crop for millions of Ugandans to which genetic engineering techniques have been deployed to enhance its nutritive value like adding Vitamin A, Iron, becoming resistant to nematodes and to the banana bacterial wilt.

“Getting the legal system is part of the whole network, we need the law,” said Dr. Theresa Sengooba, Uganda coordinator for the Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS).

Ends.

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