Can the nation afford the loss?

Editorial Cartoon

A big debate has risen over the disappearance of indigenous seeds. According to small scale farmers in many parts of the country, the indigenous seeds are disappearing at an alarming rate, replaced by newly introduced hybrid seeds.

While some agricultural stakeholders have been drumming up for these new seeds as panacea to the ongoing climate change and for curbing food insecurity, small scale farmers who contribute 98 percent of all the food produced in the country are skeptical.

Many view these modern varieties as a threat to their indigenous seeds which they have been growing since time immemorial.

The farmers who met over the weekend in Dar es Salaam to discuss the fate of local seeds under the umbrella of the Eastern and Southern African farmers’ forum (ESAFF) said, like the conventional hybrids, indigenous maize seeds like Ibandawe also have multiple nutritional benefits.

They too are drought-tolerant and disease-resistant but unlike the hybrids Ibandawe is palatable, of good threshing quality and boasts big cobs.

The farmers spoke of indigenous varieties that are on the verge of extinction like the Loti potatoes that were found in Makete District, Iringa Region and maize seeds which used to be grown in Southern Highlands known as Ibandawe and Nchancha which are now disappearing.

They also argued over cost of using the genetically modified seeds saying due to transport problems, conventional hybrid seeds do not readily reach remote rural areas. Then even if the seeds do get there, many of the farmers are too poor to buy them. According to the farmers, Ibandawe for example, is sold at 1,000/= per kilo compared to 4,000/= per kilo of improved or certified seeds.

Much as we have always argued for modernisation of our farming methods to increase yield, and indeed see the need to address the growing challenge of feeding a rising population using the outmoded farming techniques, we must point out that the issue of disappearing indigenous seeds raised at the Eastern and Southern African farmers’ forum deserves due attention.

However many of our MPs, notably Halima Mdee, have questioned the integrity in allowing large corporate interests to guide a critical aspect such as the nation’s food security saying it creates dependency on the company seeds (for they can only be used once forcing farmers to buy them every season.

Then there is the question of chemical build up in humans, animals and soil that threatens development of cancers and other ailments.

There is also the point that local farmers have accumulated invaluable knowledge passed down for centuries including cheap and safe traditional preservation techniques like the use of local hem known as Isogoyo, Tephrosia, Utupa and even ashes; methods that don’t work with the new seeds that need sophisticated storage facilities.

The local varieties are also soil friendly unlike the chemical prone modified ones that fluctuate the soils PH calling for repeated rebalancing by the use of yet again more chemicals. Most importantly is the medicinal value that the local traits have developed over millennia of existence.

Modern techniques do not have to mean artificial inputs. Organic manure is preferred over fertilisers, crop rotation and grafting over chemical inputs and gene modification.