Reforming a seed system
Farmers take action to shake up Pakistan’s moribund onion seed sector
Onion farmers in Pakistan are fed up with the exorbitant prices and poor quality of onion seed, and they’re doing something about it by reforming their seed supplies. Their approach could be a model for improving seed supplies for other smallholder vegetable growers.
Onion is one of the most popular vegetables in Pakistan and no meal is complete without it. Chronic supply problems mean prices often escalate beyond the reach of many consumers, but poor seed means farmers find it hard to increase production.
Semi-arid Baluchistan in southwestern Pakistan borders Afghanistan and has an annual rainfall of only 260 mm—an ideal area for producing onion seed, with few pests and diseases.
It takes two seasons to produce onion seed, but only one to produce a saleable onion bulb. Strong demand for fresh onions prompted professional seed growers to produce bulbs rather than seed, and as a result, over the past 20 years seed production declined precipitously. Farmers might let a crop to go to seed if onion prices were low, but the seed they sold was not true to type. With limited bargaining power, farmers who did produce seed received low prices from traders.
With few options available, farmers purchased onion seed from seed companies. Yet most seed companies in Pakistan import seed rather than sourcing it locally. The seed sold to farmers is often of poor quality due to mixed seed lots, untested varieties, and inadequate storage methods.
Facilitated by AVRDC and with assistance from the Agricultural Research Institute (ARI) in Quetta, a group of ten farmers decided to do something about the problem by setting up a joint venture for onion seed production. They didn’t have much competition: as Bashir Ahmad, Director of ARI, said, “There are over 600 seed companies registered in Pakistan, but only one producing seed in Baluchistan.”
AVRDC provided the growers with true-to-type onion bulbs of popular open pollinated varieties Sariab Red, Chiltan-89, and Phulkara, and gave training in certified seed production. ARI helped them with harvesting, threshing, grading, certification, and attractive and durable packaging.
“It’s very profitable compared to fresh produce, and as the temperatures drop it is easy to keep the seed for up to six months for sale next season,” said Arbab Mir Ahmad, one of the seed producers. “It’s also much better than buying high priced local seed back from the seed companies. That seed is often adulterated.”
AVRDC Vegetable Seed Specialist Mazullah Khan noted that fresh onions sell for 400-800 rupees per 100 kg bag and the gross income per hectare is around 200,000 to 400,000 rupees. “The price of seed doesn’t vary as much, and a farmer can produce about 450-500 kg/ha and sell it for 2000-2500 rupees/kg,” Mazullah said. “So growing onion seed can return a gross income about three to four times as much as fresh produce.”
This year the farmers produced over a tonne of seed. AVRDC introduced 10 traders to the group; they were besieged by buyers wanting to buy their entire crop. “There is a huge demand for high quality seed, and we have access to good land and cheap labor,” said Mazullah. “If farmers are trained in seed production then the seed industry will have more confidence to invest in the region. We’re expanding the number of growers, crops and production next year.”
“This can be a model for improving the vegetable seed industry in other parts of South Asia where farmers can’t access good seed and traders have neither the incentive nor the skills to produce quality local seed,” said Regional Director Warwick Easdown.
The growers are considering their options: continue to market their own seed, supply traders with a branded and packaged product for national sale, or move into bulk seed sales to traders. However they decide to move forward, the prospects for onion growers and consumers can only get better.
Story and photos: Warwick Easdown, Sreeram Banda, Mansab Ali