To plant or not to plant improved seeds

Show goers pick improved cloned coffee seedlings recently in Masaka City. Photo / Michael J Ssali

What you need to know:

  • The science of crop and livestock improvement has been going on since mankind stopped being a hunter and gatherer. The objectives were varied but they included better taste, larger size, higher yields, disease resistance, drought tolerance, and better nutrition among others.

There is an ongoing debate about whether farmers should grow modern crops, replacing traditional crops and whether they should plant seeds saved from previous harvests on their farms or incur the expense of purchasing seeds from seed companies and agricultural research stations.

Some farmers and civil society organisations argue that buying seeds every planting season is an unnecessary expense and only makes farming more costly, thus reducing profits. 

Improved seeds

The seeds from agricultural research stations and seed companies are often referred to as improved seeds.

They are often seen as new arrivals in Ugandan agriculture aimed at destroying the ability of smallholders to freely manage their seed sources and resulting in loss of crop biodiversity.

Some people even argue that when traditional smallholder farmers lose control over their sources of seed, which is going to laboratory based corporate researchers; there will be loss of crop sovereignty.

Each ethnic community has crops believed to be sovereign to them. Yet many food crops we now refer to as sovereign to our ethnic communities, such as maize and cassava, were actually introduced to us from far off countries many, many, generations ago.

Common practice

The common practice among many smallholders is that a farmer harvests some maize and reserves a few maize combs to be used as seed for the next planting season.

Gerald Ssendaula, former Minister of Finance and a prominent farmer, believes that the practice of saving seeds from previous harvests is carried out by the poorer category of farmers who cannot afford to buy improved seeds or who are ignorant about the advantages of sowing improved seeds.  “Most such farmers grow food crops for their own consumption,” he says. “However, if the farmer is serious and is doing farming as a business for generating income he must be prepared to buy improved seeds. The seeds from seed companies or agricultural research organisations are clean and free from diseases. The farmer who plants seeds saved from the previous harvest runs the risk of using already diseased seeds which may result in low yields and loss of income,” he adds.  Ssendaula’s words are also echoed in the Bible in Mathew Chapter 7, Verse 17: “So then, every good tree produces good fruit, and the evil tree produces evil fruit.”

The food crops as well as the ornamental trees and the flowers that we grow today were once wild plants and they were collected from the wild by human beings. It is also true that the farmed animals and birds such as cattle, goats, pigs, chicken, and sheep among others were part of wild life in the jungles.

Most of them looked different from the varieties that we have nowadays because for thousands of years mankind has been improving on them and protecting them from the vagaries of nature. 

Evolution of hybrids 

Noel Kingsbury, author of the book Hybrid, which analyses the history of science of plant breeding, has said: “They were watered if they got too dry, fed with fertilisers if the soil was too poor and weeded --- that is, competing plants removed.” They were crossed with better breeds to improve their meat quality or milk production and, in the case of chicken, mankind improved their egg production through breeding. The farmed animals were protected from dangerous animals such as lions and leopards and the farmer has always been battling pests and crop diseases.

Crossbreeds

European cows have been crossed with African cows in order to improve milk production. Nowadays, scientists are carrying out hybridisation of crops to come up with better varieties and superior yields.

Grafting which is the uniting of two separate plants structures, the scion and the stock, is another form of crop improvement. Cloning which involves selecting and cutting the twigs of preferred plants and causing them to sprout is another way of crop improvement. 

Tissue culture which uses biotechnology to propagate crops is also a form of crop improvement. Genetic modification is now used in many countries to reduce pest attack on crops and to minimise the use of pesticides by farmers. Genetic modification is also used to improve the nutritive value of some food crops and thus exorcise under-nutrition and related health issues.

Joseph Nkandu, a coffee farmer and Executive Director of, National Union of Coffee Agri-business and Farm Enterprises (NUCAFE), has said: “We strongly encourage all our farmers to plant cloned coffee seedlings obtained from approved Robusta coffee nurseries because they grow fast, they are resistant to most coffee diseases, they are high yielding, and they have big coffee beans. These are the varieties that farmers must plant if they want to increase their household incomes.”

He went on to explain that given today’s climate change challenges farmers cannot ignore the benefits of scientific agricultural research. “Due to population explosion and land fragmentation many farmers are working on small plots of land. They cannot therefore plant seeds that are prone to diseases and likely to give low yields,” he notes.

Charles Katabalwa, a trained agriculturist and chief executive officer of Community Enterprises Development Organisation (CEDO) which promotes bean production in the greater Masaka region, says; “As much as possible, farmers should take advantage of improved seeds approved by agricultural research institutes. Planting seeds saved from a previous harvest is risky especially for maize farmers because the yields tend to be lower and the risk of spreading pests is greater. In addition, most farmers do not have the capacity to store saved seeds properly which makes it even more risky for them to plant such seeds.”

For farmers to opt for home saved seeds would be to ignore the contribution made by agricultural research scientists towards the growth and improvement of farming.

Advice

In an era of population explosion and climate change our farmers should be embracing the numerous breakthroughs made by crop breeders that include the release of improved crop varieties which are high yielding, drought tolerant, and early maturing.

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