Johannesburg — Thembikosi Gumedze, the curator of the national seed bank in cash-strapped Swaziland, has been unable to supply much-needed drought-tolerant food crop seeds to farmers for more than two years.
He has not been able to source the US$7,000 to $10,000 a year needed to produce enough seeds to distribute to the country's smallholder population.
For almost a year, the bank did not have money to repair its defunct vehicle. Once the vehicle was repaired, the bank was unable to afford the petrol needed to get it on the road. "We have been grounded essentially," Gumedze said over the phone.
As farmers in Swaziland grapple with an increasingly erratic climate, the shortage of funds has affected the bank's production of climate-resilient maize seeds and hardier legumes, like pigeon peas, that can thrive in drought-like conditions.
Two years ago, the bank could supply maize seeds to at least 40 percent of the country's farmers - the number dropped to 10 percent in 2012. "And these are farmers who are able to come to us," said Gumedze.
The seed bank only managed to produce 10kg of pigeon peas last year, he said, sounding both apologetic and embarrassed.
Seed banks suffer region-wide
The public-sector seed bank is one of several in developing countries that have been affected by global funding shortages, a result of the recession and slowing domestic economies.
Many national seed banks rely on funds that trickle down through the CGIAR Research Program for Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections. The programme provides funds to its regional centres, like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Plant Genetic Resource Centre (SPGRC) in Zambia. The SPGRC, in turn, supports seed banks in the SADC member countries.
Paul Munyenyembe, the head of SPGRC, says the centre has had to cut back on this support, which has had repercussions for poor countries. "Funding shortages mean that poor countries have had to drastically reduce their plant genetic resource conservation activities, especially collection, multiplication and characterization. What this means is that the use of conserved plant material in breeding drought-tolerant and other varieties of staple grains is negatively affected."
The national banks not only produce and distribute extreme-climate-tolerant seed varieties but also collect seeds of hardier plants bred by farmers.
Should a major flood, drought or disease wipe out a country's entire crop, its seed bank would offer a back-up to ensure farmers have a supply of seeds with which to start over. The bank's collection also gives countries the option to plant a diverse variety of crops.
This is particularly critical now, as farmers race to keep up with a changing climate. Gumedze, of the Swaziland bank, said, "These indigenous varieties of seeds will give us a fighting chance to face climate change and have some food security in the future, especially when development activities in our country are encouraging the growth of non-food crops like sugarcane."
Despite his funding dilemma, Gumedze tries to attend local seed fairs to collect seeds from farmers. "I could have left, but I know if I do the place will shut down, and we cannot let that happen - we will have no future."
Maize production in Swaziland has been on the decline for the past decade, aided by a combination of factors such as erratic weather, high fuel and input costs, and a high HIV/AIDS rate, which has reduced the number of people able to work in the farms.
Poor rainfall in earlier seasons will leave 11 percent of the country's population food insecure this year, according to the World Food Programme.
The kingdom of Swaziland, whose king's lavish lifestyle has been frequently publicized in the media, has been cash-strapped for a while. The country was forced to ask for a R2.4 billion bailout from South Africa in 2011 (over $264 million, using current exchange rates). But the money came with conditions, which Swaziland did not fulfil, so the funds never materialized.
Seed banks like the one in Swaziland do not receive adequate support from their national governments, according to Gumedze. Despite agriculture being described as the "backbone of the country, it never gets sufficient funding [from the national budget]. Priority is given to other sectors like defence or education," he said.
Help on the way
But some help might be on its way to Gumedze's bank and others.
The Global Crop Diversity Trust and the CGIAR Consortium announced on 31 January that they would provide $109 million over five years to the CGIAR Research Program for Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections, which maintains 706,000 samples of crop, forage and agroforestry resources. These resources are held in "gene banks" at 11 CGIAR research centres around the world.
"Given all of the turbulent issues surrounding agriculture and food today, from high commodity prices to threats from weather extremes, I think the international community is waking up to the enormous value of preserving crop diversity," said Margaret Catley-Carlson, the outgoing chair of the Trust's executive board and former president of the Canadian International Development Agency.
"We want to put the seed banks on a more firm financial footing to make sure they remain prepared to respond to any new challenges, expected or unexpected, that could threaten agriculture production anywhere in the world."
In addition to the lack of funds, crop diversity collections have been threatened by political unrest and weather disasters. For example, the gene bank at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and its valuable collection of wheat, barley, lentil, chickpea, fava bean and forage crops were recently threatened by fighting around ICARDA's headquarters in Aleppo, Syria.
Fortunately, all its contents have safely been replicated in other CGIAR gene banks, with national partners, and in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Despite the current situation in Syria, the materials in the ICARDA Aleppo gene bank remain safe, says the CGIAR.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]