Our Seeds: Lessons from the drought. Voices of farmers in Zimbabwe | Cereals | Agriculture

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Zimbabwean smallholder farmers consider seed security to be an issue of national security. For them, access to the right seeds at the right time, and for the right price, is critical to being able to produce enough food to eat in the face of growing climate disruption. Farmer seed systems and community seed banks provide an important safety net for cash-strapped, vulnerable people. They also help small-scale farmers manage climate risk. Supporting them is an adaptation opportunity that is currently being missed.
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  JOINT AGENCY BRIEFING NOTE DECEMBER 2016 Seed Fair in Zimbabwe, Photo: Shepherd Tozvireva/Oxfam Novib   OUR SEEDS: LESSONS FROM THE DROUGHT Voices of farmers in Zimbabwe Zimbabwean smallholder farmers consider seed security to be an issue of national security. For them, access to the right seeds at the right time, and for the right price, is critical to being able to produce enough food to eat in the face of growing climate disruption. Farmer seed systems and community seed banks provide an important safety net for cash-strapped, vulnerable people. They also help small-scale farmers manage climate risk. Supporting them is an adaptation opportunity that is currently being missed.  2 INTRODUCTION Zimbabwean smallholder farmers consider seed security to be an issue of national security. For them, access to the right seeds at the right time, and for the right price, is critical to being able to produce enough food to eat in the face of growing climate disruption. Farmer seed systems provide this seed security: ã  The right seeds: the only way smallholders can access crops which are not prioritized by the private sector, but which are locally adapted, resilient to drought and important for household food and nutrition. These tend to be women’ s crops. ã  The right time: locally available farmer seed means that farmers can access what they need quickly  –  important in the current context of shortages in the formal seed sector, and if farmers are forced to plant early or replant to react to unpredictable weather. ã  The right price: farmer seed systems provide low-cost seed for smallholder farmers who cannot afford to make recurrent purchases of hybrid maize seed every year, plus the even more expensive package of chemical inputs required to unlock their yield potential. They are an important safety net for vulnerable communities during the worsening economic situation, and are a lifeline for smallholder farmers with limited resources. Community seed banks are a way to strengthen farmer seed systems. As seen in one district during the recent devastating drought, a strong farmer seed system was the difference between smallholder farmers harvesting something or nothing at all. This report conveys the voices of farmers who depend on the seed bank and the related farmer field school programmes they operate and manage together with Community Technology Development Trust (CTDT). Beyond helping communities to weather shocks in the short term, farmer seed systems are a broader public good: they provide reservoirs of plant genetic resources that are needed in the longer term to adapt agriculture to climate change, pests and diseases.  Adapting the agricultural sector to climate change is a major priority for the Zimbabwean government as set out in their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, The upcoming National  Adaptation Plan will set out needs, costs and actions. Investing in seed systems which respond to the changing needs of smallholder farmers is exactly the kind of thing that will help meet the country’s climate change adaptation goals. It is also a step towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030. However, it is an opportunity that is currently being missed. Government policy is overly focused on protecting and supporting formal seed systems and seed companies. More can be done to balance this policy framework with farmers ’  rights to save, exchange, multiply and sell farm-saved seed.   3 WHAT IS AT STAKE: THE CURRENT HUNGER CRISIS Zimbabwe, like other countries in the region, is in the grips of an  –  after drought-crippled harvests in the 2015/2016 agricultural season. The drought was brought on by a combination of one of the strongest El Niño episodes on record combined with climate change  –  and it is the latest in a series of back-to-back droughts which have severely tested the resilience of the country’s smallholder farmers, reliant on rain-fed agriculture. The drought has exacerbated underlying chronic problems like underinvestment, which mean that even in the best of years, the small-scale farming sector remains in a poverty trap. This year’s hunger season  –  the period between harvests when food stocks become depleted  –  will be much longer and harder than usual. As it reaches its worst point, around January to March, more than four million people  –  or 42 percent of the rural population  –  are expected to be in need of food assistance. Meeting their immediate humanitarian needs remains the imperative, and all actors must urgently provide food and other assistance. 1  Now, in the midst of the planting season, the El Niño episode is swinging to its opposite ‘ La Niña ’  stage, which is normally associated with extreme rains and floods. Yet the picture is mixed for Zimbabwe: normal to above-normal rain is forecast for the first half of the season, while as the season progresses, normal to below  -normal rains are forecast for the more arid south. 2  In all cases, there is a need to help struggling communities plant successfully, as, following the failed harvests (and combined with the liquidity crunch), many farmers have no money to buy seed and fertiliser. Humanitarian agencies in the region have warned that many farmers lost their own seed stocks in the drought, either because they consumed the seed they had saved to plant, or because the crops which they intended to harvest and save their seed from were devastated by drought. 3   What are farmer seed systems? Farmer seed systems include farmer-saved seed, farmer-to-farmer exchange and local seed fairs. They are sometimes called informal seed systems  –  although this can be seen as a demeaning term. It generally refers to local systems where farmers select, multiply and distribute their own seed. Community seed banks are a way of reinforcing these systems. Farmer seed systems are the dominant seed system and constitute the backbone of agricultural production in many parts of the world, including Zimbabwe. A detailed 2009 study showed that for everything other than maize, farmers in Zimbabwe rely on their own or each other’s  seed for 95 percent of the seed they sow. 4  T his year’s ZIMVAC survey shows a similar picture  –  for small grains and indigenous crops like cowpeas and groundnuts, farmers relied on their own seed; whereas for maize, the biggest source was purchased seed, with government hand-outs the second biggest source. 5  The other system is the formal seed system  –  where the private sector operates within a supportive framework created by the public sector. The main actors are a handful of big seed companies which develop seeds which are sold through well-developed and often subsidized distribution channels, including large agro-dealers. This system focuses on protected, high-yielding varieties (mainly maize and cotton). In the case of maize, these are overwhelmingly hybrid seeds, dependent on expensive inputs to reach their full potential and which are not much good for re-use, as they lose their hybrid vigour for the next planting.  4 The two systems co-exist and need to complement each other.  The formal system is tailored towards large-scale, intensive farming of commercial crops. The famer seed system is an important safety net for cash-strapped smallholders who cannot afford to purchase seeds every year, or the accompanying package of fertilisers and pesticides needed to guarantee high yields (especially if the markets for their produce do not function well and they cannot be guaranteed high prices). Farmer seed systems also fill a gap in the market for crops which are less profitable yet play an important role in shoring up household food and nutrition security and contributing to crop and varietal biodiversity  –  these tend to be crops which women are responsible for growing. Farmers display their local seeds at a seed fair in UMP District, Zimbabwe, September 2016.
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