Local – not just commercial – crop seeds key to food security, Malawi admits

    By Charles Mkoka

    LILONGWE, Sept 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Malawi's government has given in to mounting pressure to recognise the importance of locally grown and saved crop seeds, as well as commercially produced varieties, as it revises the country's farm policies.

    In a meeting in the capital this month, representatives of non-governmental organisations told Erica Maganga, principal secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, that by excluding indigenous seed varieties in a draft seed policy the government was ignoring a sector responsible for feeding a large part of the country.

    The government is revising its more than 20-year-old policy and laws on seeds, and is developing a bill to protect the commercial rights of plant breeders.

    In a speech to Parliament in May, President Peter Mutharika said an updated seed policy and other new laws would help strengthen the agriculture sector.

    But critics charge that the effort to ensure the quality and supply of seeds the country needs was drafted largely with the interests of commercial companies – both national and international - in mind, rather than the country's food security.

    Most farmers in Malawi obtain seeds through one of two systems. The formal system includes Malawian and multinational seed companies, most of which have their own breeding, production and distribution programmes, according to the draft National Seed Policy and Strategies.

    The informal system, on the other hand, in which farmers save and exchange seed from their own fields, provides seed for the majority of small-scale farmers in Malawi.

    Many farmers say that traditional crop seeds – rather than the newer varieties sold by big companies – are more accessible and cheaper, suit local conditions better, and can yield better harvests in the face of climate change.

    Government officials say the original draft policy focused exclusively on the formal seed system because only this type of seed has scientifically traceable genetic sources, which makes it easier to control quality.

    David Kamangira, of the government's Agriculture Research Services, said that such seed is rigorously selected to help make sure that crops will not fail, and that storage and marketing is monitored to make sure the seed is viable when planted.

    New seed for commercial purpose has to be approved by a government committee after being assessed by an internationally certified laboratory at the Chitedze Agricultural Research Station in Lilongwe, he said in a telephone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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