“It was common to experience chronic food shortages due to drought or crop disease. My children were even too weak to go to school,” Datta told IPS.
Datta and a number of other farmers in this Horn of Africa nation are experiencing improving food and livelihood security since the introduction of hybrid seed here.
In 2013 hybrid seed trials became long-term strategies to reduce hunger for major agricultural organisations here including NGO Self Help Africa and the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).
“Improved seed varieties are produced by cross-breeding seeds from open pollinated varieties [self-producing] to obtain the best traits to create a high-yielding seed; whereas Genetically Modified seeds require the introduction of an organism’s genes into a plant’s genome to achieve desired traits,” John Moffett, director of policy at Self Help Africa, told IPS.
Improved hybrid seeds deliver benefits to smallholder farmers without the dangers that come with GM, said Moffett. “We are concerned that the introduction of GM crops could have an impact on the genetic integrity of open pollinated varieties with negative impacts on farmers reliant on saved seed,” he said.
Ethiopia currently prohibits the use of GM crops.
“The old seeds gave us a small crop. But the new seeds consistently provide us with a much better harvest every year … Since our increased yield they have more energy to attend and get an education,” said Datta who produces tuber crops.
In 2010, the FAO initially gave him 100 kgs of improved taro seeds from which he was able to harvest 800 kgs.
Three out of every four Ethiopians are engaged in agriculture, mainly in subsistence and rain-fed farming. Despite this, more than 31 million out of a total population of 91 million do not have adequate nutritious food in their diet according to the FAO.
The Ethiopian government is trying to transform the country’s agricultural sector through the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA).
ATA believes “not all seeds are created equal” and has been investing in improved, higher-quality, higher-yielding seeds as a strategy to raise productivity on many Ethiopian smallholder farms.
“High-potential seed varieties can double or even triple a farmer’s yield, which would certainly translate into increased food security on a regional and national scale. It would also lead to savings on foreign exchange – if Ethiopia can grow a higher volume of its own food, there’s less need to import goods at higher costs,” Yonas Sahelu, director of ATA’s Seed Programme, told IPS.
FAO has been working to help farmers in remote villages access the latest scientific research into improved crop varieties by collaborating with Ethiopia’s agricultural research centers for the multiplication and distribution of improved varieties of seeds.
Between 2009 and 2012, the organisation pioneered a three-year trial of improved seed varieties in 12 food insecure districts throughout the country in a bid to boost food security and the household income of small farmers.
The project replaced seeds that farmers normally used with improved seed varieties. According to FAO, 144,000 targeted rural households benefited from the improved high yielding and drought- and disease-resistant seeds. This year, the intervention was established as a leading programme.
“Seed security is food security,” project leader and FAO agricultural expert, Wondimagegne Shiferaw, told IPS.
“We are targeting large poor farming families who don’t have access to improved seeds to grow cassava, sweet potato and enset. Our aim has been to help farmers overcome barriers to access these seeds to increase their productivity and resilience when faced with drought and poor soil,” Wondimagegne said.
He added that the organisation was also providing training to local farmers.
“Improved seeds and improved knowledge,” he said.
Knowledge sharing between farmers plays a major role in community food security. Wondimagegne says that the initiative’s targeted farmers have shared their new seeds, which has increased knowledge transfer exponentially and created “a multiplication effect”.
“There is a good cultural practice of farmers sharing with friends and relatives. We have observed that farmers share the knowledge and the planting material without any imposition.”
Self Help Africa has established 15 improved seed-producing cooperatives in Ethiopia this year with a current membership of 625 smallholder farmers in Ethiopia’s third-largest state, the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR).
The cooperatives are now responsible for meeting 15 percent of the region’s wheat seed demand – Ethiopia is currently a net importer of the cereal grain.
“Typically, farmers repeatedly use saved seeds from one season to the next, which tends to reduce the genetic quality of the seed resulting in diminishing yields over time. By giving farmers control of quality assured seed production they have greater confidence of a sustainable supply chain that will lead to improved yields and improved food security,” Moffett said.
The NGO One Acre Fund distributes improved seeds to over 130,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania. Stephanie Hanson, director of policy at the fund, told IPS that their farmers have doubled their income per planted half hectare.
“Distributing improved seed varieties to smallholder farmers, when paired with training on how to use them, is one of the most cost-effective ways to increase a farmer’s productivity,” she said.