Crop yields are directly proportional to the quality of seeds. Quantity also matters. Farmers can’t hit a certain crop size and per-hectare yield if they don’t have enough seeds of a particular quality.
In Pakistan, crop seeds of all kinds are generally in short supply. The quality of the bulk of them is far from the best. Therefore, per-hectare yields are low and large pieces of land produce small volumes of crops.
That, in turn, means a higher cost of production per hectare, bigger financial subsidies for farmers and still higher market prices of food grains, sugar, cotton etc. In the local economy, it has an impact on food inflation. In foreign markets, it makes our food exports less competitive.
So what is the way forward?
Theoretically, the way forward is pretty clear: we need to revamp our seed sector; we need to produce larger volumes of certified seeds at affordable prices and we ought to streamline the distribution of quality seeds among farmers across Pakistan. Previous federal and provincial governments did not leave these areas unaddressed: they did launch some initiatives and got some results.
A majority of seed companies is engaged only in marketing certified seeds, which is why we don’t see new seed varieties more often
But the present federal and provincial governments need to do more — and better — to consolidate the gains of past efforts and make further progress.
Pakistan’s seed sector issues are many. The most outstanding one is that supplies of certified seeds are largely in the hands of the private sector. In the last fiscal year, farmers got more than 82 per cent of certified seeds from private companies and 12pc from public-sector institutions. Imports covered the remaining 6pc.
Industry sources say public-sector institutions at the provincial and federal levels manage to meet a tiny part of total demand for seeds of wheat, cotton and pulses. In the case of seeds of other crops, their role is negligible.
The Federal Seed Certification and Registration Department, an attached department of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research, keeps a constant eye on demand and supply of seeds and coordinates among various stakeholders of the seed sector.
Contrary to the public perception, imported seeds meet a small percentage of total demand. Markets rely on imports largely in the case of seeds for fodder crops, maize and vegetable crops. But lately, imports of hybrid, high-yield paddy seeds have also started, industry sources say. Whereas seeds for fodder crops and maize are sourced primarily from western and East Asian countries, vegetable crop seeds come mostly from India and China, they say.
Hundreds of national seed supply companies are operating in the country along with Pakistan-based operating units of some multinational companies, including Monsanto, Syngenta and ICI.
But most of the supplies originate from 10 to 20 leading companies. About 40 to 50 other companies are operating viably, sources in the seed industry say.
First of all, there is a need to examine why all other companies — 500-plus in number — are either struggling to survive or have packed up and quit despite the fact that the gap between the total requirement of certified seeds and their supplies is quite large — 66pc according to 2017-18 estimates.
Secondly, provincial governments should invest more in conducting research on new seeds for food and non-food crops. They should also spend more on preservation and better application of seeds.
Punjab Seed Corporation’s separate projects on enhancing the production of pulses and veggies through high-yield seeds have improved output. Under another project, development of some potato tissue culture seeds has boosted potato production in the province, senior officials of the corporation claim.
Development of new seed varieties is an expensive affair. Companies have to test seeds in designated farms before taking them to federal authorities for registration as candidates for approved varieties. The rate of rejection is very high because most of the seed companies lack adequate financial investment and technical inputs required for this purpose. Even when some seed varieties developed by seed companies are approved, their application does not immediately start for large-scale production. It takes lots of time. All of this means a low return on investment for these companies.
Finally, after new seed varieties are approved and their application begins on a large scale, crop-switching practices of farmers, corruption, bureaucratic red tape and political meddling in the farming business make the success of certain new varieties doubtful and less lucrative for seed companies, industry sources say. It is imperative to address such issues for ensuring smooth operations of seed manufacturing and marketing.
The industry sources say a majority of seed companies is engaged in just marketing of certified seeds produced by leading seed-producing companies, which is perhaps why we don’t see new seed varieties more often. And that is why even technological advancement in preservation of seeds is not progressing well in the country.
Since certified seeds account for just one-third of the total requirement of seeds in our farming sector, a large number of small and poor farmers continue to use traditionally obtained and preserved seeds that are easily infected with diseases. As a result, per-hectare yields of their crops remains lower than what it potentially could be. This has to change.
“But the change will not come so easily. With giant multinationals like Monsanto, Syngenta and ICI in the seed business and national private-sector seed companies enjoying support and patronage of one major political or feudal lords’ group or another, streamlining the seed industry has its own challenges,” warns an official of Sindh Seed Corporation.
Apart from that, Sindh’s seed sector also suffers from the illegal occupation of its farmland by politically influential people. Complaints about the supply of spurious seeds from the corporation are common as the Sindh Chamber of Agriculture keeps protesting about it off and on.
Of late, the Seed Association of Pakistan, a representative body of seed-producing and marketing companies, has been pressing the authorities concerned for streamlining the seed industry in Pakistan. Several working groups and technical committees of the association continue to identify the issues facing this industry and offer solutions. Their efforts have not remained completely unproductive. The Plant Breeders Rights Act promulgated towards the end of 2016 is an example.
This piece of legislation has come in response to the industry’s demand for full legal cover to new varieties of seeds developed by them. But the biggest beneficiaries of it are multinational companies that have the financial and technical resources available with them to conduct comprehensive research on seeds and develop new varieties.
Perhaps local private-sector companies can join hands with multinational companies operating in Pakistan to strike a win-win deal. “Incentivising them through public-sector funds is unwise because that would be against the principle of level playing field for all and unacceptable to foreign companies (operating in Pakistan’s seed industry),” opines a senior official of the Sindh agriculture department.
Meanwhile, provincial governments must eliminate corruption and mismanagement from their seed corporations before allocating larger funds for them to obtain better results.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 3rd, 2018