Feeding population vs market integration


Feeding a growing global population and improving the management of natural resources are two of the most urgent challenges mankind is currently facing. Agricultural markets, seed systems and crop genetic resources lie at the heart of both. Agricultural production is the main source of income and food for a large share of the world’s population, especially those in the developing countries. An estimated 70 percent increase in world agricultural production will be required to meet food demands by 2050, according to studies. Much of the needed growth will need to come from rain-fed crop production and areas of relatively low agricultural potential, and include both major cereal crops and minor crops important for food security. Increasing productivity by improving farmers’ access to, and use of, crop genetic resources is a primary means of meeting current demand and future demands.

We live at a time when issues about how food is produced, marketed, and consumed are matters of unprecedented personal as well as public interest. And why not? Food influences the lives of every person on Earth. On the personal side, everyone eats, and what we eat – in quantity and quality – greatly impinges upon our health. On the public side, food has extraordinary importance. The interconnectedness of the world’s food systems can be illustrated by such upheavals of the 2007 food crisis during which food price hikes rocked almost the whole world over. These interconnections are complex and the big picture is often hard to fathom.

Agricultural markets are a key vehicle for improving the farm level supply of seeds and the crop genetic resources that they embody. In addition, participating in agricultural markets can increase returns to the agricultural production, and thereby offer a pathway out of poverty. However, agricultural market integration has also been associated with a number of negative impacts, including on farm-crop genetic diversity and narrowing the crop genetic resource base of agricultural systems. Such loses raise concerns that immediate interests may be sabotaging the long-term viability of the system on which human survival depends. As more and more countries embrace industrialization, pressures fro crop producers to specialize and produce homogeneous products in order to increase market competitiveness for short-term economic gains. This can result an increase in the vulnerability of the crop production to a pest or disease that any other crop variety would lack resistance to. In the long run, such pressures would inevitably result in the erosion of the genetic resources available for future needs.

An illustration would be the increasing trend of farmers to grow cash crops in place of other crops they used to date. Increasing productivity and profitability of agriculture in this manner is not the problem, but the loss of seeds of crop varieties would indeed be a major issue of concern. The problem is perturbing if seen closely within the context of developing countries where the zeal for improved seeds, growing cash crops, and specializing in certain crop types is ever on the rise. Moreover, farmers in these countries do not have the means, although not the knowledge, to store and preserve genetic resources other than growing them every other time.

Studies show that trade-offs exist between the conservation of crop or plant genetic resources and market integration, or related processes such as globalization. There are several ways in which market integration can increase the opportunity costs of maintaining diversity on the farm with regard to cost of agricultural inputs, labour, specialization for better market competition. Market integration thus affects the supply of crop genetic resources. Seed systems are composed of a set of market and non-market institutions that govern farmers’ access to and use of seeds, and of the genetic resources held therein. This continuum includes public- and private-sector breeding and seed dissemination programmes, agricultural input dealers, local markets and social networks.

The formal seed sector is comprised of certified seeds of improved varieties produced by scientific breeding and distributed through commercial seed channels. The informal sector on the other hand is everything else which includes local varieties that have been developed through farmer selection over centuries, as well as recycled improved varieties, for instance seed of improved varieties that farmers have collected from their own harvests. While in the formal seed sector farmers generally access seed via some form of purchase, in the informal sector seed is generally saved from farmers’ harvests, and may be circulated among farmers via purchases, in-kind exchanges, and gifts. Farm-saved seed from non-commercial producers is mainly sold in local agricultural markets for cash purchases.

The informal sector is the main source of seeds for most farmers in the developing world, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Understanding how seed sales in the local markets affects farmers’ incentives to maintain or reduce crop diversity is important to determining how countries particularly those in Sub-Saharan Africa go about promoting a more sustainable use of crop genetic resources. The prominence of market development, for the inputs as well as outputs, has been a major source of recent development policy. Liberalization has greatly increased the influence of the market instrumentations on farmers. Markets are seen as a primary engine for promoting agricultural development and attention is now being turned to making markets work for small- and low-income farmers. In a parallel development, the dissemination of new seed varieties that compete hard with the existing ones has increased dramatically.

The outcome therefore would be a considerably growing trend in the erosion of genetic variety in crops and plants. Unless, serious efforts are made to conserve indigenous crop varieties, they would easily succumb to an unrecoverable loss within the face of a surge in the integration of agricultural markets. This concern has led a rise in the number of countries that provide legal protection to their plant varieties. Plant protection systems are thus being established in many countries mainly in response to the WTO Agreement of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual property Rights (TRIPS), which stipulates that members may offer protection though patents or geographical indications. Nevertheless, Ethiopia is not a member and may not as yet benefit from such provisions. On the contrary, increased market integration is gradually affecting the diversity of our genetic resources. While agriculture and rural development has to be led by market forces, mechanisms that enable us preserve our crop and plant genetic varieties have to put in place as early as possible.



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2 Comments on “Feeding population vs market integration”

  1. argylesock December 30, 2013 at 3:55 am #

    Reblogged this on Science on the Land and commented:
    argylesock says… Here are good words about how the informal sector (farmers trading seeds with one another) can be as important to food security than the formal sector (companies selling seeds). If not more important. Another way to say this is, food sovereignty can be as important as food security. Or more important. http://argylesock.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/food-sovereignty-the-next-big-idea/

  2. argylesock December 30, 2013 at 4:02 am #

    Great article! But which studies have convinced you that the world needs to grow more food? I blog about this question quite often.

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