Bringing Seeds of Hope to Farmers

By Paul Teng and Genevieve Donnellon-May
SINGAPORE, May 2 2022 (IPS)

Amidst a backdrop of rising food insecurity worldwide and a global food supply chain crisis, many countries are attempting to increase the level of food self-production. One improved input for farming which is receiving renewed attention is improved seed. The two most populous countries in the world, China and India, have recently made ground-breaking moves to improve their competitive position by developing new seeds which will improve their food production and increase resilience to climate change. So far, in 2022, new regulations on using biotechnology (genetic modification and gene editing) have been put in place by both countries to ultimately allow smallholder farmers to benefit from these new seeds.

Paul Teng

The COVID pandemic and, more recently, the Ukraine-Russia war have significantly disrupted food production and supply chains for food and farm inputs. Fears are growing about reduced crop planting by farmers in developing countries and reduced yields due to the lesser use of high-priced fertilizers. Apart from fertilizers, supply chain disruptions affect all inputs needed for farming, including seeds. The seed is the first link in the food chain. The availability and access to seeds are essential to farmers, particularly in developing countries or areas affected by droughts and other disasters, giving rise to the concept of “seed security, which the UN FAO defines as the “ready access by rural households, particularly farmers and farming communities, to adequate quantities of quality seed and planting materials of crop varieties, adapted to their agro-ecological conditions and socioeconomic needs, at planting time, under normal and abnormal weather conditions.” In many developing countries, quality seed is commonly produced by companies operating under public scrutiny.

The importance of having reliable supplies of improved seeds for farmers has been particularly highlighted in the world’s most populous country, China, where seeds are high on the policy agenda.

In early April 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for working toward food self-sufficiency and developing the country’s seed industry during a visit to a seed laboratory in Hainan Province, southern China. He noted that China’s food security could only be safeguarded when seed resources are firmly held in its own hands. President Xi’s comments come at a time when many countries aim to increase their self-production of food in anticipation of disruptions in supply chains such as those caused by the Ukraine-Russia crisis and the COVID pandemic.

Genevieve Donnellon-May

President Xi’s comments fit in the broader context of seed and food, issues that will only continue to grow in importance. They come at a time when there is rising food insecurity worldwide and a looming global food crisis brought on by the Ukraine-Russia War, a worsening geopolitical environment and growing vulnerability of the global food supply chains due to accelerated climate change impacts and Covid-19-related disruptions.

All the above background factors have led China and India to make important moves to tap a proven tool for developing new crop varieties, namely biotechnology.

In April 2022, China’s agriculture ministry announced plans for the first time after many years of deliberations to approve two new genetically modified corn varieties developed by the Syngenta Group. Earlier, In January 2022, China published new guidelines for the approval of gene-edited plants, paving the way for faster improvements to important food security crops. And this came amid a raft of measures to overhaul China’s seed industry, seen as a weak link in efforts to ensure it can feed the world’s biggest population. China’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Tang Renjian, had likened seeds to the “computer chips” of agriculture.

In an unrelated parallel development, India approved a key change in rules at the end of March 2022 to allow genome-edited plants or organisms without any “foreign” genes to be subjected to a different regulatory process than the one applied to genetically engineered products. As in China, this is anticipated to lead to faster development of new crop varieties that can meet the challenges of climate change and higher yields.

However, not all interested parties support the use of biotechnology to develop new seeds or patenting new crop varieties. Although the evidence is strong that multinational and domestic seed companies have played a major role in lifting crop production through their improved seeds, this has also led to concerns about the control that the private sector may have over this important input for food production. And related to this issue of control of seeds is the patenting of new seeds.

There has been a rise in ‘seed activism‘ and interest in seed sovereignty as part of the pushback against the modern agricultural system that is supported by patented seeds such as hybrids. This pushback has been helmed by groups which exploit the fear (often speculative) that by having control over seeds, a handful of multinational companies, rather than farmers or countries, have control over the global food supply. This omits the reality that farmers have the right to choose whatever seeds to plant and even keep their own seeds if desired. These groups have also failed to recognize that investments to innovate and produce new seeds would not have been possible without adequate protection of seeds as intellectual property. Countries like China and India realise the importance of promoting innovations in the seed industry.

China, in particular, has announced that it aims to revitalize the seed sector, encourage germplasm collection, and strengthen intellectual property protection in the sector. In China, views on the importance of seeds in food security are reflected in various domestic policies such as in 2022’s “No 1 Central Policy Document”, the country’s agricultural blueprint. A top policy priority is the development of the seed industry in China.

The issues of seed sovereignty based on farmer-saved seed, when balanced against the track record of improved seeds from companies which give high yields, are complex. But in the final analysis, farmers will choose the seeds that give them the most assured yields under risky conditions, even if they have to pay for such seeds. This has been the case with almost all the developed and developing countries with food surpluses for export, such as the U.S.A., Canada, Brazil and Argentina. And consumers, as well as food importers are those who benefit by there being more food at affordable prices.

The first “Green Revolution” in Asia which took off in the 1970s was based on improved seeds of wheat and rice, bred using technologies which were novel at that time. However, towards the latter part of the last millennium, the need for more novel technologies to improve crops became obvious as yield gains were stagnating in many crops. The challenges facing all smallholder farmers arising from changes in climate, pests and natural resource depletion are becoming more intense and frequent. And unless new seeds are developed and made available to farmers in shorter timeframes, it is the consuming public that will suffer the consequences of reduced, unreliable food supply and higher prices.

The conundrum is how to balance local ownership of seed sources which are commonly unimproved and low-yielding with improved high-yielding seeds developed by seed companies (either domestic or multinational) using modern science. Ultimately, smallholder farmers worldwide deserve new “seeds of hope”.

Paul Teng is Adjunct Senior Fellow, Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at Nanyang Technological University Singapore. He has worked in the Asia Pacific region on agri-food issues for over thirty years, with international organizations, academia and the private sector.

Genevieve Donnellon-May is a master’s student in Water Science, Policy and Management at the University of Oxford. Genevieve’s research interests include China, Africa, transboundary governance, and the food-energy-water nexus.

IPS UN Bureau

 

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