Seed dumping threatens food security

SOURCE: IBON Special Features Vol 6 (24), by Marcel Chimwala, 3 april 2001
http://www.ibon.org/if01-24.htm of genet archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html

When hybrid corn varieties were introduced in Malawi, the country's smallholder farmers who mainly grow corn for subsistence thought they had a reason to be happy. The coming of the genetically engineered seed ensured a boom in production of the crop. But now the farmers are crying foul. The growing of hybrid corn varieties is plagued with both financial and economic problems. "I do not know why our government rushed to encourage us to abandon our local varieties and switch to these hybrid varieties," laments Samuel Banda, a smallholder farmer in the district of Mchinji in southern Malawi.

The reason for concern is that the growing of the hybrid crops has led to the diminishing of the local corn varieties which suited the country's weather and soil conditions. Malawi boasted of scores of corn varieties, which were native to different areas of the country. But nowadays one rarely finds the local crop. The other concern among farmers who are growing the imported varieties is that these genetically engineered varieties require intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides while the local crop could do well without any chemical application.

"I do not know why African governments rush to let their people adopt anything that comes with Europeans without much consideration and research on it. If we had stuck to our native varieties, we could not have landed into this problem of buying fertilizers and seeds every year," says another smallholder farmer in Blantyre Rural, Finess Phiri.

The farmers' concern is derived from the lack that the prices of both seeds and fertilizers are going up every time in response to the demands of the world market, which is manipulated by a few monopolistic Western companies. Many of Malawi's subsistence farmers, who form the bulk of Malawi's rural population, can hardly afford to buy fertilizer in a country where 60% of the population live below the poverty line and which s ranked 163 in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) poverty index. Probably, such alarming levels of poverty are what drove the Malawi Government to seek the assistance of the donors three years ago and introduce a scheme to give out seeds and fertilizer to the country's smallholder farmers.

The small packs (not more than 20 kilograms) contain corn and legume seeds and have been given out to the farmers countrywide in the past three years. But the disappointing thing with the program is that the genetically engineered seed varieties were being distributed without environmental considerations, as the same type of corn seed and fertilizer was distributed countrywide. Probably, this is what led some farmers to sell the start packs in some areas of the country, especially in the Shire Valley districts of Nsanje and Chikwawa, which are known for having alluvial soils rich in nitrogen.

Scientists say the use of nitrogen fertilizers in soils already rich in nitrogen will affect the pH of the soils, thus rendering the soils less productive in the log run. The Program Coordinator for the Food Security program of Malawi's NGO Churches Action on Relief and Development (CARD), Melton Luhanga, has also attacked the act of providing handouts to farmers. In its food security program, which has targeted the lower Shire areas among others, CARD does what can be seen as a good alternative to the provision of handouts. It provides inputs to farmers on a loan basis. In CARD's program, the farmers are briefed by experts on the environmental conditions of their areas.

They are, therefore, asked to choose the seeds which will favor their areas best. "As much as possible, we try to empower the farmers to make decisions on what crops they want to grow after imparting knowledge to them on the nature of their soils," says Luhanga. CARD also encourages farmers to employ farming practices that will help conserve the environment. The environment in the areas CARD is concentrating on has been at the mercy of population pressure due to an influx of refugees from neighboring Mozambique. But it seems such programs will never succeed in empowering the masses if the government continues with the started pack program. The government has already set the ground to give out the free seeds and fertilizer for this year.

Agriculture Minister Kennedy Mangulama, however, says the program will be different this year as the government has targeted only those who cannot afford to buy the farm inputs. This comes after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank refused to bankroll the starter pack program this year, saying it goes against their policy of empowering the poor. But it is too late for the Bretton Woods institutions to reverse the effects of the program since they have supported the program in the past years.

Right now, every Malawian farmer seems hesitant to buy seed and fertilizer as they are waiting to get free seeds. The rains have, however, started falling and the seeds and fertilizers the government is sourcing from other donors such as the Libyan government are too little to cater to the farming population.

Third World Network / IBON Features

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