Selling Soybean Seeds In Africa: Public-Private Partnership Seeks Funds To Expand Variety Tests

By Dana Sanchez Published: February 19, 2016, 4:43 pm
A Peace Corps volunteer talks about soy with farmers in Malawi. Photo: motherjones.comA Peace Corps volunteer talks about soy with farmers in Malawi. Photo: motherjones.com

African soy growers don’t have enough soybean seed varieties and are at a disadvantage compared to U.S. farmers, according to a report in Phys.org.

A U.S.-Swiss public-private research program is testing 25 soybean varieties in Africa that it says will help African soy farmers.

The Syngenta foundation partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Soybean Innovation Lab in what they describe as a coordinated soybean variety evaluation program.

Switzerland-based seed giant Syngenta is a biotechnology company known for selling seeds and conducting research on genetically modified organisms. It has a separate foundation — the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture — which operates independently from the parent company, Phys.org reports.

As of 2009, Syngenta ranked third in global seeds and biotechnology sales, according to SeedSaver.org. Sales in 2014 were approximately $15.1 billion US, and half of that came from emerging markets, according to Syngenta’s 2014 full year results.

Soybean farmers in the U.S. can choose from a “candy store” of hundreds of varieties of soybean seed—high-yielding seed with proven performance traits for every region and latitude, according to Phys.org.

Soybean farmers in Africa may either only have access to a few seed varieties with an unimpressive yield potential, or a few high-yielding varieties for which no performance data exists for their latitude and altitude.

Peter Goldsmith is an economist at the University of Illinois and chief investigator of USAID’s Soybean Innovation Lab.

“An important component to establishing a foundation for soybean in Africa is having a third-party trial program,” Goldsmith said. “It’s vital to have independent confirmation about varieties, yield, adaptation to a particular area, yield performance in area A versus B, and disease resistance.”

The Syngenta Foundation has experience running variety trials across Africa, according to Goldsmith. “They have test plots and protocols, and managers to make sure everything is done consistently. Planting soybean trials at those same locations saves time and money.”

The soybean variety trials are running at 12 locations in Kenya, Malawi and Zambia. Each research station tests about 25 varieties on small standardized plots, each about 12 by 15 feet.

“You don’t always know if the yield response was due to genetics, seed quality, agronomics, or just the wrong seed for that particular location,” Goldsmith said. “Varietal testing addresses that by testing a set of varieties in numerous locations. Soybean seed is very sensitive to both latitude and altitude so this kind of varietal testing gives objective, third-party assessment.”

In 2015, South African soybean farmers planned to plant a record area of soybean crop, using the oilseed as a substitute for corn, Bloomberg reported in February 2015.

“There is a huge demand for soybean, but we don’t produce enough to supply the demand,” said Wessel Lemmer, senior economist at Grain South Africa, the biggest representative of commercial growers.

The South African crop was planted in an area 23 percent bigger than the previous year, according to the report.

“Soybean-processing capacity in South Africa has aggressively expanded in the last few years,” said Brink van Wyk, a Pretoria-based trader with BVG. “Per hectare, soybeans would give some farmers a bigger profit than maize,” he said.

University of Illinois soybean geneticist Brian Diers and USDA-ARS geneticist Randy Nelson are working with the Syngenta Foundation.

“Collecting and distributing unbiased variety testing results will be important as soybean production increases in Africa,” Diers said, according to Phys.org. “Only through testing varieties together in field trials do we know which varieties have the best potential to help African farmers generate income that will help them out of poverty.”

“Having a public-private partnership is unique,” Goldsmith said. “This kind of trans-border seed movement can be complicated. Syngenta Foundation has done all of the local regulatory work, such as how to bring seed into the country. They have their own network through the donor community and private-sector seed growers with their program called Seed2B (seed to business). It’s educating African soybean breeders and growers about why trials and third-party information is important in countries that have had little varietal improvement thus far.”

Since USAID’s Soybean Innovation Lab began two years ago numerous soybean breeders and public and private seed organizations have come forward seeking to benefit from the varietal testing programs, Goldsmith said.

Current funds are allocated, but USAID and the Syngenta Foundation need more private- sector funding to expand in Africa.

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