The political economy of seed systems

maize_seedHuge expectations exist around the prospects of a new Green Revolution for Africa. Major investments have been made in supporting a science-led revolution in crop production, hoping that this will transform Africa’s fortunes. Institutions such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA), the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and regional research organisations across the region are gearing up to deliver new technologies. Seeds – particularly of staple cereal crops (e.g. maize, wheat, rice, etc.) – are central to this vision.  Future Agricultures’ work on the Political Economy of Cereal Seed Systems in Africa, coordinated by Ian Scoones and John Thompson, looks at the institutional and policy context for this effort, and unpacks some of the interests and influences that define the push for a ‘uniquely African Green Revolution’.

The work has resulted in much interest given that this is a hot topic for development investment. In Ethiopia, for example, with strong backing from the Prime Minister, the BMGF is supporting the new Government of Ethiopia ‘Growth and Transformation Plan’. Central to this is an overhaul of the national seed system, and the establishment of a ‘transformation agency’ linked to the senior levels in government policy. FAC researcher, Dawit Abebe is closely involved in this work given his position in the national research system, and is feeding in FAC research results as the work progresses. There is much demand for his first paper, with over 1000 downloads recorded from the FAC website in the first 3 months since publication. An international conference on the Ethiopian seed system is planned for 2011, and the FAC research will feature prominently. Ethiopian officials have asked for comparative perspectives from other countries, and the wider work from Ghana, Kenya and Malawi and Zimbabwe will be presented.

The Kenya seeds research led by Hannigton Odame has informed a related study entitled ‘Beyond Biosafety’ which has reviewed implementation of recent biosafety regulation in the country. A national workshop in November 2010 in Nairobi brought together key stakeholders from government, civil society and the science community who were hitherto in opposing camps to explore areas of mutual interest, including opportunities for the regulatory system to respond to the reality of farmers’ needs, regulatory harmonisation and institutional roles and priorities.

In Zimbabwe, FAC work conducted by Charity Mutonhodza focused on the rebuilding of the seed system following the economic collapse suffered by the country in recent years. Much effort by both government and donors is being invested in getting seeds to farmers under emergency, humanitarian programmes. Yet, FAC work shows that this is actually undermining the rebuilding of the seed system, distorting incentives for agrodealers and seed suppliers to reengage with the market, as well as failing to support local seed development and supply. Emergency aid it appears is not helping development. This is, not surprisingly, a controversial set of findings, but it has sparked much interest and debate. Presented at a series of stakeholder workshops, including those convened by FAO, UN agencies and government, the Future Agricultures-led research is helping to reshape policy discussions towards mechanisms of seed delivery and support that do not undermine longer-term recovery.

By Ian Scoones, FAC Co-coordinator

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