Hybrid seed a solution to food insecurity
Food scarcity cycles in Kenya have reduced from 20 years (1964-1984), to 12 years (1984-1996), to two years (2004-2006) and to a year (2007-2009). The government has consequently distributed 528,341 metric tonnes of relief food worth Ksh20 billion ($235.3 million) to 3.5 million people in the past five years.
The United Nations defines food security as "all people at all times having both physical and economic access to the basic food they need". The big or breakthrough question is: What will it take the government to make the country food secure in terms of physical and economic access to food?
The answer lies in appreciating the diversity in agronomic potential of different agro-ecological zones and commitment to develop region-specific strategies to address food scarcity.
The results of a recent on-farm demonstration in Kitui County by the Kenya Environmental Resource Network (KERN-Kenya) indicate that farmers in that area can earn Ksh6 million ($70, 600) without using hybrid seed. Using the farm gate price of Ksh20 (23.5 US cents) per kg one can make Ksh240,000 ($282) from a hectare (2.47acres) of hybrid (F1) watermelon variety known as Sukari.
A demonstration conducted by Dr Juma Nyamai, CEO, KERN Kenya, yielded 300 tonnes of the fruit. If not using hybrid seed, one will harvest 12 tonnes based on the national horticulture report. It takes the variety used in the demonstration between 72 - 90 days from planting to harvesting, meaning a farmer can pick four crops in year.
The lesson here is: Farmers in Kitui and other arid and semi-arid areas can attain economic access to food through appropriate interventions. Such interventions will have to prioritize local production of high quality hybrid seed to make it affordable. In the case of the KERN demo, a kilogramme of the seed costs Ksh17,000 ($200) - definitely out of reach of most smallholder farmers. Add to this erratic weather patterns, lack of guaranteed markets and prices and the farmer has every reason to give hybrid seeds a wide berth. Of the estimated 18,000ha (44,479 acres) under greenhouse tomato cultivation in Kenya, only 2,000ha (4, 942 acres) are planted with hybrid varieties.
The situation calls for investing in the local production of high quality hybrid seeds as it guarantees availability at affordable prices. This has been demonstrated with maize seed with locally produced hybrid (F1) maize costing Ksh230 ($2.70) per kg compared with Ksh380 ($4.47) per kg of imported varieties.
In Kenya, only the Ruiru-based Syngenta-pollen produces hybrid vegetable seeds. The site is a satellite breeding station for Syngenta Seeds of Netherlands, implying that seed produced at this station cannot be sold in the local market directly but is taken to Netherlands for packaging before it is distributed.
Droughts, floods and the prevalence of pests and diseases creates an urgent need to avail seeds tolerant to ecological factors to enable economic crop production. Currently, smallholder tomato greenhouses in Nyanza and Western Kenya are turning into white elephants due to the bacterial wilt disease. For example, a tomato project of 14 greenhouses in Wamuini, Kitale County, estimated at Ksh2 million ($23, 500) has been ravaged by the disease.
The situation in smallholder greenhouse farming has been exacerbated by lack of an economically viable rotational crop to tomato. Syngenta East Africa recently introduced a hybrid cucumber (Trinidad F1) as a rotational crop in the greenhouses to tomatoes - as did the Kenya Highland Seed Company with the Water Melon Black Magic F1. The high-end colour capsicum that enjoys a good market in the United Arab Emirates is also a good alternative. The latest viable hybrid varieties of capsicum are Commandant F1 - Red and Admiral F1 - Yellow. The Red Onion Hybrid (Red Passion F1) is also a suitable rotational crop in bacteria wilt infested greenhouses due to its high wilt resistance.
According to projected sales records of hybrid seed by major dealers such as Syngenta and Monsanto only 10 per of horticulture seed in the country is hybrid. And this figure could be lower at 5 per cent. The two local leading seed companies, Kenya Seed and East African Seed, do not actually produce hybrid seed for horticulture but multiply the comparatively inferior open pollinated products. The country will thus not address food scarcity adequately if sufficient resources are not invested in local production of hybrid seed.
Although investment in research for breeding high quality seed is a long-term solution, the government currently allocates about Ksh20 million annually according to Dr Lusike Wasilwa, the head of the horticulture department at KARI. This money goes into the national research on horticultural crops, but this should be raised substantially. However, the annual budget for leading companies such as Syngenta is approximately Ksh80 million (Just under a million dollars) towards breeding programmes.
Tanzania, through the Africa Vegetable Research Development Centre, which mainly deals with indigenous vegetable seeds such as amaranthus and nightshade recently introduced locally-bred hybrid tomato known as Tanya.
The more likely immediate solution to inaccessibility to hybrid seed by smallholder farmers is developing workable and agreeable business arrangement between leading local and multinational seed companies. Such business arrangements already exist but to a limited extent. For instance, Simlaw Seeds and Syngenta are jointly marketing Gloria F1 and Pructor F1 cabbage varieties; Farmchem and DuPont are jointly marketing Pioneer seed maize. Under such arrangements, the multinational seed companies benefit from marketing structures established by the local companies. The government can further provide incentives ilike tax reduction for multinational seed companies that undertake such joint ventures. It is imperative for the government , a non-partisan player, to spearhead the campaign for smallholders to adopt hybrid seeds.
Breeding temperate crops in tropics presents major technical challenges and vice-versa. This is why seed companies based in temperate climate with interest in breeding seed for tropics set up satellite breeding station in the tropics. The government can therefore pursue the possibility of establishing satellite breeding stations in temperate countries to produce seed for the local market.