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October 03, 2011

Traditional vs hybrid seed debate looms large in proposed Pioneer take over of South Africa's Pannar Seeds

(1) Old-style seed keeps farmers poor, says Pioneer head

by Hopewell Radebe

The call by nongovernmental organisations for small- scale farmers to have access to open pollination variety seeds is misplaced, and likely to condemn them to subsistence farming methods and poverty in the 21st century, says Paul Schickler, president of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of US-based DuPont.

He says while it is farmers’ choice to opt for old-fashioned and low-yielding open pollination seeds, which they can sun- dry and save for the next season, Pioneer’s experience worldwide is that farmers want access to "good quality and high- yielding seed" to prosper.

Mariam Mayet, director of the African Centre for Biosafety, says the centre has intervened in the Competition Tribunal hearing on the merger between Pioneer and Pannar Seeds, which produces open pollination variety seeds among others, to raise concern about "the imbalances in the food chain and the need for protecting small-scale food producers and consumers from the abuse of corporate power".

Represented by Legal Aid SA advocates Steven Budlender and Isabel Goodman, the centre has argued the merger could affect pricing and "the availability of alternative products", particularly open pollination maize seed. There is concern only more lucrative, high- yielding or genetically modified varieties may be made available.

Another concern is the effect on food production and food security, particularly in the light of Pannar’s extensive maize germplasm inventory and the opportunities that it presents for development.

Mr Schickler says Pioneer wants to bring in better genetics and combine this with Pannar’s expertise and understanding of local conditions. However, to secure the merger, Pioneer and Pannar have pledged to keep producing the open pollination variety at the same price for three years and thereafter to increase the price according to inflation.

Mr Schickler says in China, where about 30-million hectares is farmed by 130-million maize farmers exclusively, Pioneer supplies proximately 5-million maize farmers.

While Chinese farmers tend to be crop-specific, in India farmers have a mix of, for example, maize, rice, sorghum and sunflower. Pioneer supplies about 2-million farmers in India. "Our goal is to convince small- scale farmers to get good seed to improve their yields and grow economically as we continue to do in Asia," he says.

"I disagree with interveners who want us to continue to produce open pollination variety to sustain the status quo … this simply sentences a black farmer to subsistence farming for life and they would never get out of the circle of poverty of living one year and barely to the next.

"Instead we can teach them to use better seed, get better results and sell to neighbours and markets, which would get them out of poverty and grow their business like their peers in countries such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia," Mr Schickler says.

SA has 2,5-million hectares of maize in SA, and with 8-million hectares in southern and east Africa, there are many different climatic zones that need to be understood and properly researched.

He believes it would take more than 20 years to reach the objective of servicing Africa to be as productive as Brazil.

At the moment, Africa’s harvest average one to two tons a hectare, compared with Brazil’s eight tons and 10 tons in the US. SA alone has an average of 4,8 tons per hectare, while its irrigated areas have an average of 15 tons per hectare.

If we are going to help deal with food security issues, nutrition and poverty, Africa’s agricultural revolution must happen, he says.

In Asia and the Pacific about 578- million people are facing starvation — with 239-million of those in sub- Saharan Africa, and 53-million in Latin America and the Caribbean. The near East and north Africa have 37-million starving people, and developed countries 19-million.

It is not just seeds, he says. Pioneer also provides services and education in managing the seed carefully to ensure it delivers better yields.

Africa is the next area in the world that must develop its agricultural production areas holistically with the same vigour as Brazil.

This kind of revolution is now also occurring in eastern Europe, particularly in countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Georgia, Mr Schickler says.

Business Day

(2) Hybrid and GM seed are out of reach for small farmers – African Centre for Biosafety

by Ann Crotty

The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) warned yesterday that effective use of hybrid and genetically modified (GM) seed relied on a package of inputs that cost money and were not available to the majority of small-scale food producers in South Africa.

Mariam Mayet of ACB said hybrid and GM seed could not be saved from season to season, and was unable to adapt over time to the natural environment.

“Hybrid and GM seed are unstable and the traits they were bred for disintegrate after one season. We need ‘old-style’ seed – the open pollinated varieties (OPVs) – to adapt effectively to the challenges of food production into the future.”

Mayet was reacting to comments by Pioneer Hi-Bred International that non-governmental organisations, such as ACB, were focusing on ensuring continued access by small-scale farmers to OPV seed rather than helping to provide them with access to “good-quality” and high-yielding hybrid seed.

The comments were made in the context of the Competition Tribunal’s hearing into the proposed merger between South African-based Pannar Seeds and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of US-based Du Pont.

The tribunal is hearing closing arguments today in a case that has raised concerns about food security as well as about the rights of a company – Pannar – to determine its future.

Earlier this week ACB, which has been granted intervention status by the tribunal, presented a set of proposed remedies aimed at addressing some of the concerns about the proposed merger.

These proposals were in response to proposed remedies that the merging parties had earlier presented to the tribunal.

Both sets of remedies appear to focus on dealing with the impact the merger will have on small-scale and developing farmers.

The merging parties undertake in their proposed remedies not to increase, for three years after the effective date of the merger, the price of hybrid maize seeds Pannar ordinarily sells to developing farmers; and for an additional three years the price increases will be limited to the increase in the consumer price index.

The merging parties have also undertaken to keep in place these products in sufficient commercial quantities to meet demand from developing farmers.

Pioneer will establish an international research and technology hub in South Africa by 2016. The merging parties have also undertaken “to foster and work with the government to establish further community programmes and partnerships in the interest of developing farmers”.

In response, ACB has called for a set of remedies that will help build smallholder farmers’ capacity to produce seed for themselves and so make them less reliant on large seed companies.

ACB also wants black smallholder farmers to have access to plant material and germ plasm for cultivation to advance their opportunities for production.

To this end, ACB has called for the merging parties to establish a programme to improve maize OPVs and establish a fund that can be drawn on for building seed-production capacity among smallholder farmers.

Mayet said the use of hybrid and GM seed sold by the companies involved not only the purchase of seeds, but also of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, which were often produced by the same companies. The seed also required irrigation and established marketing channels.

“The majority of small-scale food producers in South Africa do not have any hope of gaining sustained access to this package of inputs. They don’t have the resources, and will never have them until there is a fundamental redistribution of wealth in our society as a whole.”


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