Africa is facing a food crisis due to COVID-19. These seeds could help prevent it

african

(Annie Spratt, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Christopher Ochieng Ojiewo, Principal Scientist, ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Nairobi, Kenya & Rohit Pillandi, Senior Communication Officer, ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Hyderabad, India


  • Sub-Saharan Africa is facing one of its biggest farming crises in living memory. COVID-19 is dealing a blow to farmers already struggling with floods, drought, pests and diseases.
  • Emergency relief must provide high-quality seed for future harvests, not just food to be consumed now.
  • Supplying certified seed for nutritious crops that are treasured in traditional African diets is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of achieving future food security.

Sub-Saharan Africa is facing one of its biggest farming crises in living memory. Floods, drought, devastating diseases such as maize lethal necrosis, and pests such as fall armyworm and desert locusts weakened its food supply even before the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures. An even bigger problem is looming on the horizon. All these disastrous factors are not only hurting the current crop, but disrupting the supply of quality seed for future harvests. As a result, seed demand is expected to outstrip supply by nearly twice in the coming seasons, based on expert opinions from seven African countries compiled by the AVISA research project.

The challenge for relief organizations and governments will be to ensure availability and access to high-quality seed for the most nutritious crops, so farmers can feed themselves and their nations. Failure to do so could result in a vicious cycle of meagre harvests, malnutrition and poverty.

Here is what aid organizations, governments and research institutes can do to stave off the looming crisis and build a sustainable future for African farmers.

How COVID-19 disrupts seed systems
How COVID-19 disrupts seed systems
Image: ICRISAT

The seed challenge

Supplying certified, high-quality seed is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of achieving future food security. Such quality seed has been selected, bred and treated for drought and disease resistance, high yields, and a short growing period from sowing to harvest. It can double the yield of legumes and cereals, all other things being equal.

In a crisis like the one we are facing right now, seed assistance programmes suddenly face a sharp rise in demand. However, it takes at least a season to produce and supply the required seed, once stocks are exhausted – meaning 3-9 months, depending on the crop. Meanwhile, farmers are likely to resort to sowing ordinary grain that was originally intended as food, not seed. To the naked eye, grain for consumption and high-quality seed for next year’s harvest look the same. A farmer will only know the difference days or weeks after planting, and sometimes not until it’s harvest time.

Many African farmers struggled to obtain quality seed even before the pandemic. There were instances where seed consignments of rice in Mali, sorghum in Burkina Faso and Maize in Uganda had lower germination capacity, vigor and genetic purity than expected of quality seed. One estimate suggests that more than 95% of legume and dryland cereal seeds in Africa are from sources of unknown quality. Such low-quality seed can lead to persistent food insecurity, as harvest after harvest yields disappointing results. The coronavirus crisis is likely to exacerbate this problem. Farm production in the upcoming crop season will probably be low across Africa owing to lockdowns and floods in East Africa.

Relief organizations and governments have recognized that they must step in to prevent a farming crisis that could result in famines, and are preparing to fill a massive seed shortage. They are currently the biggest procurers of seed in Africa, say partners working with the AVISA research project. Seed-producing organizations and agriculture research institutes across Africa have been asked to reserve their seed for relief orders after the pandemic. In Nigeria, the government and ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) are distributing seed to 10,000 farmers to shield them from the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown measures.

Any short-term efforts to boost seed supply must ensure quality if we don’t want to cause long-term problems. But how can we achieve this in the face of soaring demand and a global pandemic?

Food

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose’s impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

Beans and nuts for nutrition

One solution is better cooperation between development agencies, seed institutions – private, public and community – and agricultural research organizations at the national and international level. Such linkages exist, albeit in a limited way, and predate COVID-19. Governments and relief agencies could step in to strengthen these links, and facilitate seamless cooperation.

Cooperation with research organizations and seed institutions can help relief agencies access high-quality seed sources. It can also tackle another challenge: helping farmers plant the most suitable crops for long-term food security.

In the present crisis, the most suitable crops are nutrient-dense cereals and legumes. African cereals such as sorghum, finger millet and pearl millet, and legumes such as groundnut, chickpea, common bean, cowpea and pigeonpea, can help tackle any threat to food and nutrition security in one go. Chickpeas for example are high in iron, zinc and magnesium, and a portion of only 100-200g can meet an adult’s daily requirements of those nutrients. They are also high in protein and fiber. Varieties exist that can be sown and harvested within 90 days from sowing. These nutritious crops are treasured in many African diets, and are part of food systems that have sustained the continent generation after generation.

Chickpea, for instance, is commonly eaten in Ethiopia in the form of shiro, a stew paired with sourdough flatbread. Groundnut soup in Uganda is the main accompaniment of matoke (banana and plantain) staples. Chickpea, pigeonpea, common bean, cowpea and groundnuts are mixed in various proportions with maize to form githeri, a delicacy in many rural homes.

Growing such legumes alongside or in between cereals offers a whole range of benefits to farmers. Legumes help with crop rotation, fix nitrogen in the soil, cover and protect the soil and break the cycle of pest, disease and weed that afflicts monocultures. Cultivated mostly by women, legumes are typically consumed at home, balancing cereals with proteins, vitamins and micronutrients. Surplus is sold at high prices.

Sowing resilience

Producing and supplying seed to grow nutritious, suitable and vigorous crops requires agricultural research and development. Agriculture research institutions can help relief agencies promote the right crop and the right variety in the right place, all the way to supporting the best post-harvest management practices such as conditioning, cleaning, drying, storing, and processing the crops.

CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future, has worked with African governments through its centres, such as the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and ICRISAT, to support crisis-hit seed systems. In Ethiopia, a collaboration with the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research ensured access to quality chickpea seed after a drought. In Northern Uganda, post-war relief efforts focused on distributing quality groundnut seed.

If it endures beyond COVID-19, the region-wide cooperation described here could assume early warning capabilities to anticipate spikes in demand for high-quality seeds in certain areas. It would also build links with markets, which are necessary to create resilient supply chains after emergency relief.

A cooperative, connected system would be well-poised to stimulate demand for nutritious foods and promote nourishing diets based on people’s traditional preferences. Ultimately, a solid and well-considered seed system could not just help us respond to this pandemic. It could also help Africa reach its Sustainable Development Goals, and work towards a prosperous future.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Here’s how tech can help governments fight corruption

Khashoggi trial in Saudi Arabia falls short of independent, international probe needed: UN rights chief

Mobile technology saving lives: Changing healthcare systems with simple technology solutions

Tuesday’s Daily Brief: Venezuela-Colombia baby breakthrough, Italy piles on rescue boat pressure, States must combat hate, Kashmir rights latest and a musical plea to combat CAR hunger

Climate change will force us to redefine economic growth

This AI can predict your personality just by looking at your eyes

Northern Ireland: Parliament wants to secure post-Brexit regional funding

UN launches Facebook Messenger-powered bot to take on climate change

Keeping cool in the face of climate change

‘Favour dialogue’ over violence, UN chief urges all parties following clashes in Mali’s capital

Building climate resilience and peace, go hand in hand for Africa’s Sahel – UN forum

Being blinded by labels stops social change. Art helps us see a better future

Here’s why upskilling is crucial to drive the post-COVID recovery

UN, African Union make significant joint commitment to global health

Protecting refugees in Europe: UNHCR calls for a ‘year of change’

Yemen: UN envoy asks Security Council for more support ‘to move back’ to the negotiating table

Is the EU denying its social character favouring a banking conglomerate?

UN rights chief Bachelet appeals for dialogue in Sudan amid reports ‘70 killed’ in demonstrations

How the US should react to the pandemic, according to Bill Gates

One million facing food shortages, nutrition crisis after Mozambique cyclones: UNICEF

4 ways Africa can prepare its youth for the digital economy

UN agencies launch emergency plan for millions of Venezuelan refugees and migrants

Do doctors need to know their patients’ sexual orientation and gender identity?

The next 48 hours may change the European Union

The UK referendum has already damaged Europe: even a ‘remain’ result is not without cost to Britain and the EU

Mali facing ‘alarming’ rise in rights violations, warns UN expert

A European Discovers China: 3 First Impressions

5 things to know about African migration

MWC 2016 LIVE: GTI shifts to phase two – 5G – after hitting milestones

If we want to solve climate change, water governance is our blueprint

Minsk “ceasefire” leaves more doubts than safety, with EU already planning steps further

Trade: First year of the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement shows growth in EU exports

Electronic Cigarettes: Are they really as safe as we think?

UN and African Union in ‘common battle’ for development and climate change financing

Parallel downfalls of Merkel and Deutsche Bank threaten Germany and Europe

For video game addiction, now read official ‘gaming disorder’: World Health Organization

A new proposal breaks the stalemate over the Banking Union

To Brexit, or not to Brexit…rather not: 10 Downing Street, London

AI can be a game-changer for the world’s forests. Here’s how

What young people can teach world leaders about mental health in 2020

How can you or your organization support the Hour of Pride initiative?

Why do humanitarian crises disproportionately affect women?

Russia and the West to partition Ukraine?

Uzbekistan wins its long fight against malaria, as global rates continue to rise

Clean air is good for business

These are the world’s 20 most dynamic cities

Making the most of the Sustainable Development Goal 3: its overlooked role in medical education

Capital transaction tax on Ecofin table

International Women’s Day 2019: more equality, but change is too slow

An all-out fight for the EU budget

World Digital Media Awards winners announced at WNMC.19 in Glasgow, in association with The European Sting

Millennials (and Gen X) – Here are the steps you should take to secure your financial future

Forget GDP – for the 21st century we need a modern growth measure

David Attenborough’s worried about this ocean threat – and it’s not plastic

Is this the way to finally beat corruption?

80 adolescents a day will still die of AIDS by 2030, despite slowdown in epidemic

UN ceasefire monitoring chief tours Yemeni port of Hudaydah

DR Congo elections: ‘historic opportunity’ for ‘peaceful transfer of power’ says Security Council

Consumers’ rights against defective digital content agreed by EU lawmakers

Parliament mobilised to channel EU funds to those affected by Coronavirus pandemic

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s