Background. Seed and questions surrounding who controls the seed have always been emotive issues. The tendency for seed to spark controversy entered a whole new era in 1985 when the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of patenting of crop varieties, which allowed seed companies to prevent farmers from re-using seed from their previous harvests. Then, in 1992, a US biotech company, Calgene, introduced the first genetically-modified crop, a tomato engineered for longer shelf life. The first genetically-modified variety of maize, engineered with a gene from a bacterium to resist insects, was introduced in 1995. This was followed shortly by a variety of soybean developed by Monsanto which was resistant to its broad-spectrum herbicide, “Roundup.” Next came “Roundup Ready” maize, in 1998, followed by the stacking of these traits into varieties with multiple GM traits. Today, 88% of maize and 94% of soybeans grown in the United States are GM.
Twenty-nine countries worldwide allow commercial production of GM crops. About three quarters of the world’s soybean crop, half the world’s cotton, and a quarter of the world’s maize, is now GM. Nevertheless, it is important to note that only about 10% of cropland worldwide is planted to GM crop varieties. However, the land cultivated by GM crops tends to be among the highest-yielding cropland in the world, including that of the US, Brazil, Argentina, and Canada. Europe remains almost completely free of GM crops, and in Africa, only South Africa has allowed the cultivation of GM food crops, while Burkina Faso has allowed the cultivation of GM cotton.
Permission to cultivate GM crops in other African countries does not appear imminent. Neither does the patenting of life forms, including crop varieties. Trials of GM varieties of maize, cotton, and banana have been on-going for several years in Kenya and Uganda but no approval has been given for them to be commercialized. Burkina Faso is also testing a GM variety of cowpea which resists insects, but again approval for this appears to be several years away.
AGRA does not fund research on, or testing of, GM crop varieties. None of the seed produced by its grantees is GM. However, the Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation have both been active funders of GM crop research, and the Gates Foundation today funds a large ($25 million) GM maize research project aimed at developing drought-tolerant maize.
AGRA does, however, fund the development and sale of hybrid crop varieties. So far, it has funded the development of hybrid maize, sorghum, pearl millet, and pigeon pea. Some people confuse GM technology with hybrid technology, and hence it is important to know the difference: Hybrid maize was first developed in the US in 1909, and sold commercially beginning in 1926. Hybrid maize was first introduced into Africa in Zimbabwe, in 1960. Hybrid varieties are formed by the controlled crossing of two selected, pure-line parents to form a more vigorous seed crop which is planted as a hybrid. However, the advantage of hybrid vigor only lasts one season, after which farmers have to purchase new seed (although, if they can’t, the recycled seed will still geminate; it just won’t have the same yield). Genetic modification, in contrast, is done in a laboratory and involves transferring the DNA from one species to another. There is no widespread controversy around the use of hybrid seed. The acceptance of GM seed has, however, been highly controversial.
With this set of facts as a basic background on the set of issues surrounding genetic modification and hybrid seed, following are a few frequently-asked questions (FAQ’s) on AGRA’s work on seed and answers to those questions.
Frequently-Asked Questions on Seed.
Q: How does AGRA get improved seed to farmers?
A: There are three ways. AGRA makes grants to farmers’ associations, public breeding institutes, and private, private, start-up seed companies. Farmers’ associations and public breeding institutes mainly produce cuttings of the vegetatively-propagated crops like sweet potato and cassava. For these crops, once farmers have the new materials they can keep it for many years. But for the seed crops, the best method for getting seed to farmers has been via locally-owned and managed seed companies.
Q: Who owns the seed companies AGRA supports?
A: These are owned by local entrepreneurs, either as owner-operated businesses or as partnerships between local business people. We sometimes refer to them as “grass roots companies” because they are genuinely born out of ideas that come from people living in rural areas who see the opportunity to establish a business based on supplying farmers’ unmet need for better seed.
Q: Why did AGRA decide to focus on private seed companies as a main vehicle for seed?
A: We knew we couldn’t finance seed purchases indefinitely so we were looking for a sustainable model for supplying seed, but beyond that we just looked at what was working on the ground, which turned out to be local businesspeople, linked to public breeding of new varieties, plus a bit of assistance from ourselves. The creation of large numbers of agro-dealers selling seed in local villages also helped make private seed companies a more viable option.
Q: How does AGRA identify grantees?
A: We publish notices in local newspapers of our intention to support seed supply initiatives, and people send in their concept notes for consideration by an internal panel. The best proposals get a follow-up. What we mainly look for is evidence of local knowledge, business management skills, and long-term commitment to seed supply among poor, smallholder farmers.
Q: How does AGRA support these private seed companies?
A: We make two-year, non-renewable grants of up to $150,000 to help newly-formed companies get started as producers and marketers of improved seed. During this period and even afterward, we provide them with training and business development support from former seed company managers.
Q: Who owns the varieties produced by these companies?
A: All the crop breeding funded by AGRA is by public, government-owned research institutes. The new varieties they develop remain the sole property of these public institutes. However, we encourage liberal licensing of these products to any duly-registered and qualified seed company. In many case, the licenses require payment of royalties back to the institute, which helps fund future breeding initiatives.
Q: What crops does AGRA focus on?
A: AGRA’s vision is to improve nutrition within rural households. As such, we support breeding of a wide range of nutritious food crops. The list varies from country to country. In the Sahel, for example, we focus a lot on sorghum and millet, while in the high rainfall areas of Liberia and Sierra Leone, we focus on rice and cassava. Maize – or corn – is the most widely consumed food crop in Africa today, so we focus quite a bit on maize. In all countries we include legume crops such as beans, cowpea, and pigeon pea, in order to provide an opportunity for a balanced diet.
Q: Who determines the price at which the seed is sold?
A: Seed prices are determined in the market place, based on the laws of supply and demand and competition among suppliers. However, during the period of the AGRA grant, we require the seed to be sold at 10% below the prevailing market prices. In some countries, government subsidy schemes have the effect of reducing the cost of seed as well as increasing its distribution, resulting in more rapid adoption of improved seed.
Q: Can poor, smallholder farmers afford to buy seed every year?
A: Yes. In fact, we are finding that seed companies regularly sell out of their stocks every year, and still cannot keep up with demand. Selling seed in small packages and making it available at village level where they can find it has greatly increased farmer adoption of improved seed. Mobile money has likewise boosted sales of seed in remote villages. AGRA also works with farmer groups which offer group buying opportunities as well as access to credit. What we are increasingly seeing is that by adopting improved seed, farmers are becoming more prosperous and more able to purchase additional seed, as well as other inputs.
Q: Is any of this seed GM?
A: No. African governments, outside of South Africa, do not allow the sale of GM seed, and the markets are strictly regulated.
Q: Does AGRA support the use of hybrid crop seed?
A: Yes. We have found that even the poorest farmers, once they get the opportunity to buy hybrid seed, will go for it, because they need the extra grain at harvest time. It has taken some time, but Africa’s farmers are now learning that good seed doesn’t cost, it pays.
Q: Doesn’t the use of hybrid seed condemn farmers to being dependent on private seed companies?
A: No one can be forced to buy any kind of seed, and hybrid seed can be re-used just like any other kind of seed, only the farmer won’t get as big of a yield advantage in the second season. Furthermore, most of the seed sold by seed companies does not need to be purchased a second time, unless the seed is lost. But in practice we are seeing that farmers are very willing to pay the extra cost for hybrid seed, and to buy new seed every year, if necessary. We have even seen farmers demonstrating against government policies when they prevent them from buying seed.