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Seed retention – what’s the fuss?16 July 2013

This article was originally published in September 2012 by Afgriland magazine. It is republished here with permission of the author.

Seed companies agree that seed retention by farmers poses a significant threat to sustainable production. Why so? Is it not just a matter of making more money?

Afgriland asked Dr Rikus Kloppers, Manager: Technical Services, PANNAR and Dr Antony Jarvie the company’s soybean programme manager a few questions.

What does a seed company lose, over and above income from seed sales, when a farmer retains seed?

Seed companies do indeed lose sales. The research and development (R&D) costs are shared by the farmers who buy seed. In the case of soybeans where about 85% of annual plantings take place with retained seed, it means that the investment in the development of new cultivars is only covered by a small portion of the market. Seed companies lose interest in the crop, as continued investment in its development is plainly not worthwhile. The seed company simply directs its resources towards crops that deliver a return on investment.

The more seed retained, the more each bag of sold seed is loaded with R&D costs and the less spent on the development of those crops. R&D costs include not only the development of cultivars, but everything that takes place concerning the crop: support, advice, evaluation of agrochemicals on the crops (seed treatments and spray programmes), etc. The farmer is the ultimate loser, as he/she will not profit from continued growth and development and benefit from the latest technology. The current degree of soybean retention is endangering access to new technology. South Africa will not receive access to the 'Roundup Ready 2' trait as the technology developer will not be able to capture the technology fees.

Local farmers no longer compete with each other at a local level, but in the international market. In the world grain market, South Africa’s farmers are price takers. Countries where the practice of retaining seed is not the order of the day and farmers have access to the latest developments will be the ultimate winners. In the long-term, we run the risk of threatening the food security of our country.

What is the difference between seed retention of maize and soybeans for example and why are the risks of retaining soybeans probably higher than that of maize?

A distinction is made between self-pollinated crops such as soybeans, dry beans and wheat and hybrid crops (maize, sunflower and sorghum). If you were to retain grain from a hybrid crop like maize and planted it as seed, the hybrid vigour (in terms of performance and agronomic characteristics) in the hybrid seed would be lost.

Self-pollinating crops do not have any such hybrid vigour that will be lost. The greatest risk is probably the fact that little or no quality control (genetic or physical) is exercised in multiplying and conditioning this seed. The quality controls of any reputable seed company ensure that only seed that is free of any seed-borne pathogens is distributed, benefitting the sustainability of such a crop. Planting seed with a low germination percentage or seedling vigour for example puts you on the back foot at the outset and risks wasting other costly inputs (diesel, fertiliser, agrochemicals) that have already been incurred during planting.

What risks are farmers exposed to when the grain harvested is held back for the next season’s planting?

Some varieties or characteristics may have legal restrictions on seed retention, placing the farmer on the wrong side of the law. The downside of farm-saved seed is that you are not being exposed to new genetics through the supply of new cultivars. While a cultivar may remain acceptable for a long time, it is important to continually take advantage of the best genetic potential.

What are the risks in terms of untreated seed? A loss in yield? Is the plant exposed to viruses/diseases?

The risks associated with untreated seed depend on the crop, but are not factored into the debate as farmers acquire and apply seed treatment products on-farm (often with unfortunate consequences given that the doses are not always optimal and the physical handling of the seed in an unprofessional manner may stunt the seed’s germination). Development of seed treatment products in conjunction with chemical suppliers will be stranded if the research activities in the crop are scaled back.

Although the practise of seed retention of open-pollinated cultivars by farmers may not be illegal if the conditions for seed retention are adhered to, trading in or selling seed over the fence to neighbours certainly is. This practice will expose the farmer to unnecessary legal risk.

For more information, write to Kloppers (rikus.kloppers@pannar.co.za) or Jarvie (antony.jarvie@pannar.co.za).

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