The need for seed diversity
Africa has a less diverse pool of seed varieties than other continents, in particular when it comes to subsistence crops. The majority of seeds used in Africa are, incidentally, produced by farmers themselves, except for industrial farming and market gardens. They come from three sources: 1. varieties improving on conventional plants from public plant breeders which, for the most part, “evolved” in farmers’ fields and may have diverged from the original varieties; 2/ recent varieties from public and private plant breeders, mainly purchased by farmers. 3/ traditional varieties selected and preserved within a collective (family, cooperative).
Traditional or farmer varieties are not protected by intellectual property rights and are exchanged between farmers, respecting the collective rights (often oral) of communities which have selected and preserved them. These varieties represent an intersection of biological entity and farmer knowledge connected to it. They are often managed on a cooperative basis (community seed bank). They are adapted to regional environments and modes of production, and they present qualitative characteristics which appeal to local food product businesses and consumers.
The improvement of plants in Africa for subsistence crops traditionally involves a range of players: public research, responsible for creating the variety and basic seeds; the national seed service, responsible for organising the production of certified seeds either as a public administrator (although this is rarely the case any longer) or through networks of seed-producing farmers; the state service responsible for overseeing the certification and quality of seeds; extension services (which tend to be disappearing); and, finally, farmers, who buy the certified seeds which have been produced.
These farmer and traditional varieties do not have a legal status most of the time. Their characteristics have not been recorded, so as to be included in an Official Catalogue. However, original varieties are increasingly listed in regional catalogues (CEDEAO since 2015 and COMESSA more recently). To be recorded in these catalogues, varieties must present a minimum level of homogeneity. Without a catalogue, there is no trade, or almost none (AFSA and GRAIN, 2018).
The number of public plant breeders is in decline. The private sector, for its part, is almost exclusively focused on breeding plants in profitable sectors such as floriculture or market gardens, some industrial crops, and crops such as maize, in particular hybrid varieties. It is hardly present at all in the area of important traditional subsistence crops such as millet (Grain and AFSA, 2018).
The preservation but also the renewal of an increasingly less diverse seed pool in Africa are vital questions in the face of climate change. In certain countries, the average age of certain varieties of seed on the market is more than fifteen years. This is the case in Kenya (sorghum and cowpeas), Madagascar (maize and peanuts), Malawi (peanuts), Senegal (all crops) and Tanzania (beans). (Source TASIA, 2018). Without policies to renew the seed pool, there will be no resilience.