Zimbabwe: Imported exotic Malaysian seed varieties may pose threat

Agriculture experts have voiced concern over plans to import seed varieties from Malaysia to address the critical shortage of farm inputs in Zimbabwe.

They warn that the Malaysian seed may be unsuitable for Zimbabwe's climate.

Reports that President Robert Mugabe had secured a wide range of agricultural inputs, including various Malaysian crop seed varieties, for importation into the mostly arid climate of Zimbabwe have also prompted fears that the untested varieties will be fast-tracked into the local environment, where they could either fail to adapt, destroy local crop varieties, or cross with them to produce 'superweeds' or 'superpests' that could develop resistance to local pesticides and herbicides.

Edward Mkhosi, a former provincial planning officer with the Agriculture Rural Development Authority (ARDA) confirmed that there were indeed dangers in the importation of Malaysian seed varities into Zimbabwe, due to the big variation in the climatic conditions of the two countries.

"Zimbabwe is an arid country whose climatic conditions can only be compared to those in Australia, if one wants to venture that far into the east. Malaysia has a typical moonsoon climate, characterised by hot, wet conditions. Crossing varieties that thrive in such a climate with local varieties would be tantamount to converting our country into a huge laboratory for breeding superweeds which no local herbicide or pesticide can control," he said.

"That can even pose a threat to the plant and animal life in the whole of Southern Africa ... so anyone who thinks of importing varieties from any different climatic conditions should carry out intensive and exhaustive tests for possible threats to local crop seed varieties, pests, diseases, alterations to soil characteristsics and general effects on the wider environment," noted Mkhosi.

A specialist with a government agricultural research centre said Zimbabwean maize seed varieties had never been crossed, or placed in conditions where they could co-exist with varieties from outside the savanna climatic environment.

"Our seed varieties have only been crossbred with what we have locally. The mass importation of moonsoon climate varieties poses the danger of wiping out our local varieties and remaining with uncontrollable superweeds. Besides threatening radical and undesirable changes to the local biodiversity, there is a possiblity of a string of failed agriculutural seasons and the perpetuation of starvation and poverty, should these varieties fail to adapt. So, there is no question about the need for pre-planting tests to see how those varieties behave in our environment, so that farmers can be given the necessary advice for the crop's management - if it is suitable at all," said the specialist, who did not wish to be identified.

A senior official with the Plant Protection and Research Department of the Agriculture Research and Extension Services (AREX) said the government had not approached the department about conducting tests on the Malaysian crop varieties.

"As far as we are concerned, the government has not [given] any indication [of] the possibility of importing Malaysian seeds. But if that were to happen, under normal circumstances officials from this department would be sent to Malaysia to test the varieties selected for export into Zimbabwe, to determine their suitability to our conditions.

"Testing is mandatory, and there is no question about its necessity," said the official, who refused to be named.

Efforts to get a comment from lands, agriculture and rural resettlement minister Joseph Made were unsuccessful.

Government announced last month that Mugabe had secured a wide range of agricultural machinery and inputs for this year's crop farming season, but did not say if the seed varieties to be imported had been tested for suitability to Zimbabwe's climate.

News of the pending importation of seed from Malaysia has also invoked memories of the far east country's involvement in the failed date palm venture at the height of the 1992 drought.

Under the project Malaysia was to supply date palms to the Mwenezi Development Trust, a consortium of farmers in the semi-arid area of Masvingo province.

Despite the expense incurred in land preparation and transport infrastructure, the project failed to take off as it turned out that date palms were not suited to the Zimbabwean climate.

The country is divided into five agro-ecological regions, with varying and seasonal weather patterns. The most productive are regions one and two - the eastern highlands and the northeastern part of the country, which generally experience good rains between November and February, and crops such as tobacco are farmed intensively. However, these regions are also dry for most of the year, hence the need for irrigation.

Agro-ecological regions three, four and five - the central, southern and western areas of the country, which account for the largest area of Zimbabweans soil - are characterised by dry conditions and might be most inhospitable to Malaysian varieties.

Any large-scale crop-farming ventures include early-maturing, drought-resistant varieties.

Commenting on the possibility of Malaysian crop varieties succeeding in the seasonally wet parts of Zimbabwe, Mkhosi said: "Malaysian varieties cannot survive, even in the so-called wet areas of the country, because of the short seasons, [and variance in] weather patterns. Any change of climate in the lifespan of any crop will ultimately affect productivity."

"So, for a country facing acute food shortages, it would still be a dangerous gamble to have those seeds approved for tests in regions one and two, since it is so clear that they simply cannot survive for a day in the other regions," Mkhosi concluded.

October 2003

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This article courtesy of IRIN may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003.