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 Milestone

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

‘Ghost fishing’ is threatening our oceans. Here’s how we can tackle it

Realise the beauty of unity in diversity

How powering food storage could end hunger

MWC 2016 LIVE: 5G to embrace unlicensed bands and Wi-Fi

99 per cent of intravenous drug users lack access to health, ‘social services with dignity’ says UNAIDS chief

Parliament approves €500 million for schooling of refugee children in Turkey

Germany’s strong anti-bribery enforcement against individuals needs to be matched by comparably strong enforcement against companies

We need to change the fast fashion model. Here’s how

5 surprising ways major cities are going green

Central African Republic: UNICEF outlines key actions so fresh peace deal can make real difference for children

How AI is bringing the ‘dark matter of nutrition’ to light, unlocking the power of plants

Summer pause gives time to rethink Eurozone’s problems

Africa: Urgent action needed to mobilise domestic resources as tax revenues plateau

Fairer food supply chain: Agriculture MEPs clamp down on unfair trading

Japan should reform retirement policies to meet challenge of ageing workforce

German egotistic inward turn to badly hurt Europe after Merkel’s exit

5 things to know about the Western Balkans

Amsterdam is getting a 3D-printed bridge

Asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic, symptomatic: what is the difference?

Is poor generational intelligence holding you back at work?

Rule of Law: The Commission opens a debate to strengthen the rule of law in the EU

All for equality – 2020 is a pivotal year for Gender Equality

Antitrust: Commission fines Google €1.49 billion for abusive practices in online advertising

Alexis Tsipras ready to test Eurozone’s political sturdiness; Up to what point?

COP21 Breaking News_05 December: Carbon Price Needed for Climate Change Success

A ship with containers at the port of Rotterdam. (Copyright: European Union. Source: EC - Audiovisual Service. Photo: Robert Meerding)

US follows the EU in impeding China market economy status in WTO

Germany resists Macron’s plan for closer and more cohesive Eurozone; Paris and Berlin at odds

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s speech from World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of New Champions

COVID-19: What the evidence so far means for containment

Questions and answers: Commission proposes SURE, a new temporary instrument worth up to €100 billion to help protect jobs and people in work

Youth2030: UN chief launches bold new strategy for young people ‘to lead’

TTIP: why it is worth not to pull the covers over your head?

Will the Greek economy ever come back to growth?

5 ways to be a better humanitarian

G20 LIVE: “Re-envisioning the economy to enable women to reach their full potential” live from Antalya Turkey

Universal basic income is the answer to the inequalities exposed by COVID-19

To build the workforce of the future, we need to revolutionize how we learn

Why the Fourth Industrial Revolution could spell more jobs – not fewer

UN human rights ruling could boost climate change asylum claims

MWC19 Wrap Up, in association with The European Sting, GSMA’s Brussels Media Partner for the 6th Consecutive Year

Parliament wants binding rules on common chargers to be tabled by summer

Do you dare to go to China?

Cholera surges, children in urgent need one month after Cyclone Idai slammed southern Africa – UNICEF

Juncker Plan exceeds original €315 billion investment target

Scotland in United Kingdom: It’s either the end or the beginning of the end

“Smoking steam instead of tobacco, are the E-cigarettes a safer alternative?”

Now is the time to seize ‘unprecedented opportunity’ of the Sustainable Development Forum, says ECOSOC President

Trade marks: Commission decides to refer Romania to the Court of Justice for not transposing the Trade Mark Directive

What are the greatest global health threats?

5 things you might not know about Leonardo da Vinci

COVID-19: EU co-finances the delivery of more protective equipment to China

Delhi Declaration: Countries agree to make ‘land degradation neutrality’ by 2030, a national target for action

Why do humanitarian crises disproportionately affect women?

Do men and women really have different leadership styles?

A silent killer: the impact of a changing climate on health

Step up action to protect the planet during wartime: UN environment chief

Silk Road Unlimited

You will be eating replacement meats within 20 years. Here’s why

These are New York Public Library’s 10 most borrowed books

An ECB banker wants to change the European social model

More Stings?

Advertising

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