IT is undeniable that seeds play a fundamental role of sustaining food security and nutrition across the world.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a specialised agency of the United Nations (UN), describes seeds as the primary basis for human sustenance.
As a key agricultural input, seeds support the livelihoods of farmers and rural communities.
They contribute to sustainable resource use and climate change adaptation.
Without seeds, farmers cannot grow crops to feed different countries, a situation which would result in food insecurity.
However, indigenous seeds and crops face a threat of extinction because various factors such as climate change, modernisation and extensive land clearance, among others.
Crop diversity has disappeared from farmers’ fields due to the spread of new, deadly pests and diseases, extreme weather conditions, wars and change in food preference where people neglect native crop species.
Gladly, not all hope is lost particularly in the 16-member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
This is because the regional block is currently preserving seeds varieties that may no longer be available in member states.
Indigenous species are important not only for consumption but also for traditional uses, such as medicine.
In 1989, the SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre (SPGRC) was established to conserve all genetic resources in the region for the benefit of member countries.
Located in Zambia’s Chongwe District, the SPGRC coordinates collection, conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic diversity for the benefit of present and future generations in Southern Africa.
SPGRC works with National Plant Genetic Resources Centres (NPGRCs) in each of the SADC states to contribute to food security and improved livelihoods and coordination of all activities.
The SPGRC, also known as the ‘seed bank’, works by improving plant genetic resources information management and makes information easily available through a web-based documentation and information system accessible to all SADC countries and other stakeholders across the world.
Currently, the national centres collectively hold more than 62 accessories of plant genetic material collected from local farms and in the wild.
Preservation of plant stocks is achieved through collection, documentation and long term storage of seed samples and other plant parts, known as accessions.
More specifically, an accession is a unique entry in a gene bank collection.
It represents a distinct genotype or plant variety as collected at a specific location and time.
When an accession is collected, basic information about it is gathered and such information may include its local name, allocation of unique collection number, date of collection and village name, among others.
Such information about the collection sample is important for the unique identification of the samples in its subsequent use by various stakeholders and possibly linking it with its original source.
The work of the SPGRC is in line with the SADC Protocol on Agriculture.
The protocol promotes sustainable agriculture development in the region and enhances food security even in the wake of climate change.
So far, the centre has managed to restore Kadononga variety in Lukwipa Village of Southern Province in Zambia.
It also restored the Bambara nut variety in Rufunsa District in Zambia in addition to hosting students and farmers.
The Zambian gene bank has further embarked on a programme to duplicate vegetatively- propagated species that do not produce seeds, like sweet potatoes and cassava.
The SPGRC has already planted 260 different varieties of sweet potatoes from the 10 provinces of Zambia.
According to SPGRC Head Justify Shava, the centre has 63,000 accession or unique varieties of seeds in its storage from different SADC member states.
Dr Shava thanked the Government of Zambia for providing 86 hectares of land for the facility in Chongwe.
He said all staff, equipment and other facilities at the centre are being funded by SADC countries.
Dr Shava said in Chongwe recently when SPGRC hosted this year’s SADC Day commemoration in Zambia under the theme; “Safeguarding Plant Diversity for Sustainable Livelihoods.”
He said the centre is unique globally as it is essentially merging politics and agriculture.
“Politicians in SADC have committed their money to make sure the facility runs and ensure we have food security in the region,” he said.
Dr Shava said many farmers are dying with their rich knowledge of certain varieties.
He said there is need to preserve indigenous seed varieties.
“The value of the seeds we are losing is priceless. Imagine how diverse Zambia is in terms of culture! Each culture embraces certain seed varieties and this is why we are conserving the species,” he said.
The SPGRC keeps seed varieties which are being used by researchers in agriculture to come up with new improved varieties.
For example, seed companies in the SADC region rely on SPGRC material to come up with new varieties on the market.
Although the SPGRC is well protected in view of its regional importance, it has a backup in Norway.
The materials from the gene bank are duplicated in Norway as a risk mitigation arrangement for the SADC region.
“We work with global partners to duplicate our materials in case of a disaster. So far, we have about 38,000 duplications in the North Pole in Norway. We want to ensure everything goes there,” he said.
Dr Shava said there are community seed banks in the region where farmers are getting seed species.
In terms of challenges at the centre, Dr Shava said available resources are inadequate to undertake certain projects within the shortest possible time.
Further, most youths have not pursued agricultural related courses in universities and other institutions of higher learning.
As a result, this has brought about a skills gap especially in the areas of conservation agriculture.
“In communities where we go to, sometimes we don’t get seeds and so we ask them to bring to us. Consequently, there could be seeds which are being left out or lost forever,” Dr Shava said.
He emphasised that the centre is not giving incentives to farmers to supply their seed varieties.
“Farmers know the importance of what we are doing here and so we don’t give them money,” he said.
Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre senior agricultural extension officer Austin Chilala called for promotion of more traditional seeds.
Mr Chilala said most farmers in Chongwe and Rufunsa districts are growing indigenous seed varieties which have been lost over the years.
He is of the view that people’s eating habits should change from nshima to other crops, like sorghum and millet, among others.
“If you grow different crops like finger millet and cow peas, you will indirectly have benefits like soil fertility. If farmers are introduced to other crops, our nutrition will be improved and balanced,” he said.
Mr Chilala is happy that the SPGRC provides knowledge transfer.
He said most of the farmers have appreciated the efforts of preserving their seeds.
“At community level, we are setting up household community seed banks in collaboration with the SADC centre and the Ministry of Agriculture.
We have gene banks in Chainda, Chongwe and Rufunsa,” he said.
Mr Chilala said the Kasisis Training Centre is hopeful that the seed banks will be sustainable in the next five years.
Zambia’s Information and Media Minister Chushi Kasanda commended the SPGRC for preserving different seed varieties that might no longer be available in the member states.
Ms Kasanda said SPGRC has continued to play a crucial role by serving as a storage for different varieties of master seeds.
She said farmers in the SADC region are free to visit the centre and request for certain type of seed if they ran out of particular seeds.
Ms Kasanda said this in a speech read for her by Information and Media Permanent Secretary Kennedy Kalunga during the SADC Day commemoration.
Esther Mumba, a small scale farmer based in Chongwe District, said farmers have benefited a lot in the area of conservation agriculture.
By and large, the SPGRC is doing a commendable job to preserve indigenous seed varieties in the SADC region.