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Policy experts call for harmonisation of regional seed regulations

Thursday January 24 2019

A farmer admires maize crops in his farm.

A farmer admires maize crops in his farm. Addressing bottlenecks to harmonised seed regulations is essential to ease rapid deployment of seed varieties and technologies across different regions. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

BRIAN OKINDA
By BRIAN OKINDA
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Access to improved quality seed varieties within the Eastern and Southern Africa region still remains low at 23 per cent, according to agriculture policy, trade, and technology transfer experts.

This, they say, is among the most key contributory factors to the low productivity, especially of cereal crops like maize, sorghum and pearl millet, despite countries in the region having a large share of arable land.

The experts who sought to identify bottlenecks in the implementation of harmonised seed regulations in the Eastern and Southern Africa region, as well as develop an action plan towards eliminating these challenges, noted that the continent’s seed sector meets only about 20 per cent of the demand.

This, leading to importation of seed varieties from abroad, despite the potential to produce more seed locally.

Consequences of this have been the continent’s share of seed production for the global market, which is valued at about Sh5.12trillion, dipping to less than 1 per cent.

According to the experts, weak and outdated seed regulatory frameworks have largely been identified as significant contributors to the poor seed production, trade and distribution, leading to low availability of quality seeds for farming communities as well as trade.

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Ineffective agricultural extension systems, poor linkages between research and extension systems, long technology testing and release systems, weak public policy and regulatory environments, and the absence of a regionally coordinated efforts to deliver seed variety and technologies across similar agro-ecological zones in the continent, have been identified as other causative factors.

“While much has been done towards making new seed varieties and technologies easily accessible to farming communities, we are aware that some challenges still remain. Seed systems in particular are still relatively inefficient and the movement of plant varieties across regions has been hampered by policy and operational bottlenecks, which make the process of variety release, testing and registration unnecessarily lengthy,” African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) Executive Director, Dr Denis Kyetere, said in a recent seed stakeholders’ forum, acknowledging these challenges.

These logjams have in large resulted to lack of faster seed variety and technology registration, and slow-moving implementation of harmonised regional policies.
“For most varieties, the process of release takes at least two years, which implies that if the same variety has to be released and traded for farming in 10 countries, it will take up to 20 years, which is hardly rational,” says Nnenna Nwabufo, the Deputy Director-General, East Africa hub of the Africa Development Bank (AfDB).

Addressing these challenges, according to the experts, is essential to ease rapid deployment of proven seed varieties and technologies across different regions without repeating their efficacies in similar agro-ecological zones.

OUTDATED NATIONAL SEED POLICIES

The African Seed Trade Association (Afsta) in effect, advocates for a review of the outdated national seed policies and implementation of harmonised seed trade regulations, at regional levels to facilitate availability of quality seeds for farmers.

“We have embarked on progressing several factors through the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) Seed Trade Harmonisation Implementation Plan (Com-ship) to achieve this,” says Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa (Actesa) seed expert, Dr John Mukuka.

These interventions entail supporting countries in aligning to the Comesa seed system through phased domestication, as well as supporting seed companies with varieties in the Comesa variety catalogue, and hence more effectively trade using the bloc’s seed standards.

This catalogue currently has 57 varieties of beans, groundnuts, Irish potatoes, maize, soybeans and wheat, which can be traded in the Comesa bloc’s member countries without being requested to be evaluated for a period in any of these countries.

Dr Mukuka also states that there should be support for the harmonisation of a Comesa bloc-wide plant variety protection (PVP), just like the harmonised PVPs in other blocs. These PVPs are the legal designations designed to protect plant breeders, granting them an intellectual property right over the seed varieties they breed.

He notes that there also needs to be support production of niche seed of small grains and legumes less attracted by regional or international seed companies, as well as establishment of borderless plant health inspections within bilateral agreements, through intensive training of the customs staff and seed companies on the harmonised seed documentations.

In addition, according to him, the bloc should also strive to implement the common variety identification number for same varieties that are marketed under different brand names to facilitate their easy registration in the variety catalogue.

“Key is also training the private seed sector in self-certification of their crop varieties and auditing of their systems, as well as designing, producing and distributing seed system guides and protocols for use by the seed inspectors and analysts,” he adds.

Once the components of the plan are fully implemented, small-scale farmers will have it easy providing food for their households, as well as trading the excess in local and regional markets and hence spur growth in household incomes, according to Dr Mukuka.

HARMONISATION OF REGULATIONS

Afsta closely works with trade blocs such as the East Africa Community, Southern African Development Community (Sadc), Comesa, and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) towards developing and implementing regional harmonised seed trade regulations, which will ease farmers’ access to quality seeds, across these regions.

According to the association, the population in Comesa countries is steadily increasing at 2.3 per cent annually while their food production grows at only 2 per cent, which has contributed to food insecurity to more than 130m people in the Comesa region alone.

Harmonisation of fertiliser standards, staple food (maize, beans and rice) grades and standards, warehouse receipt systems, and implementation of the regional food balance sheet are also sectors which, according to Aftsa, will improve the region’s farming communities’ food security and livelihoods.

This is, as Afsta also seeks to facilitate harmonisation of the livestock feed sector and implementation of the Comesa biotechnology and biosafety policy implementation plan (Com-bip) in countries whose smallholder farmers have adopted cultivation of bt cotton.

Mrs Nwabufo notes that there is an urgent need to push for harmonisation of these regulations and protocols through regional policy dialogue and consultations to assess what exists, identify the gaps and support the required reforms to accelerate these policies’ harmonisations.

“This will make it easy to get improved varieties and technologies to the farmers in good time, which will not only ensure returns on the heavy investments already made but, also make certain we have the ability and means to gain from our agricultural potential,” said Dr Kyetere.