Certifying Quality Seed in Pakistan

Accessing quality seed is a complex issue in Pakistan. Three UAF faculty members are working to provide integrated solutions to the problem.

Seed quality issues hinder the growth of agriculture in Pakistan.
Seed quality issues hinder the growth of agriculture in Pakistan.

Seed quality issues hinder the growth of agriculture in Pakistan.

Seed quality issues hinder the growth of agriculture in Pakistan.

Agriculture accounts for almost 20% of Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and is responsible for employing over 40% of the country’s total labor force. Yet, systemic issues continue to hinder the growth potential of Pakistani agriculture. One of the most complex issues is the availability of quality seed for farmers to use. Seed availability is influenced by several factors, and is such a widespread issue that the National Assembly of Pakistan passed the 2015 Seed Amendment Bill in order to provide a deterrence against fake and substandard seeds.

While high-quality seed remains a complex issue in Pakistan, members of the U.S-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Agriculture and Food Security are creating proactive solutions to these existing problems. In collaboration with institutional counterparts at the University of California-Davis, three faculty members from the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, are working to increase the availability of quality seed for Pakistani farmers.

There are several related issues in the Pakistani seed market, starting with how seed is bought and distributed. Dr. Amer Bibi, an Assistant Professor in the UAF Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics, is one of several UAF faculty members working to improve access to quality seed. “The main problem in Pakistan is that there are many seed companies and many people who have entered the seed business, but they are providing the seed to the farmers without any certification,” she says. “They are claiming [growth] rates of certified seed, but they are selling inferior seed.”

“We have about 850 individual seed companies,” explains Dr. Irfan Afzal, an Assistant Professor in the UAF Department of Crop Physiology working to improve seed storage solutions. ”Out of those, a few hundred are multi-national companies, and the rest are national companies. And when you exclude the multi-national companies, simply, the remaining companies cannot afford the infrastructure needed for seed storage.”

Adnan Adeel, an Agribusiness Specialist and Lecturer in UAF’s Institute of Business Management Sciences, elaborates on the practices of these small businesses. “In Pakistan, it is typical for only one person to found and run their own seed company. But he has only one function—he is not producing the seed, he is only procuring or marketing the seed. But he does not know the basic principles of variety registration. He does not know about proper financial management. He does not know about product liability or its importance.”

Each faculty member is confronting a specific aspect of the issue of quality seed: availability, storage, and business practices. Through their experiences working with researchers at UC Davis, these UAF scientists have united their efforts in combating food scarcity, starting at the source.

“Seed Business 101”: Practicing Entrepreneurship

Adnan Adeel is the first Pakistani national to be a certified seed sampler by the California Crop Improvement Association. Working to help develop the curriculum of UAF’s new Masters of Science degree in Seed Science and Technology, Mr. Adeel spent four months at UC Davis collaborating with Dr. Kent Bradford and the UC Davis Seed Biotechnology Center.

“When I started teaching in the Seed Science and Technology [Graduate Group], I taught one course in Seed Business Management. At that time, we just focused on simple business principles,” says Mr. Adeel. “But when I visited UC Davis… I attended one seed business course, I attended one seed sampling certification from CCIA, I attended some conferences and Seed Central programs, and I also visited different seed companies in the area. During these visits, I began to understand how they are developing with each other, and how they are developing their businesses.”

Since his return to Faisalabad, Mr. Adeel has worked with the Seed Science and Technology Graduate Group to devise a slate of classes that would emphasize entrepreneurship and industry collaboration. “We are developing two different courses, because when I audited the seed business course at UC Davis and visited the different seed companies in the Bay Area of California, then I decided that we should develop new courses on seed value chain management and seed entrepreneurship.” Mr. Adeel wants to train the next generation of Pakistani entrepreneurs in “Seed Business 101”, creating virtual companies to emphasize the importance of developing viable business plans and hiring employees who are trained in specialized areas.

He has also been working to develop further policy recommendations for the province of Punjab. This summer, Mr. Adeel began collecting data on how farmers use and navigate the current seed industry in Pakistan through a USPCAS-funded policy research grant. “In that project, our focus is the overview of the historical development of the seed industry,” he states. “What are the basic seed practices that have emerged? What new ones have been introduced? What has been done by the public research institutes and by private institutes? We will also focus on factors that affect the farmers’ choices, why they choose certified seed.” By analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the industry, Mr. Adeel hopes to identify further opportunities for reform and improvement.

Traveling in between Multan, Balwalpur, and Faisalabad, Mr. Adeel conducted a survey of farmers and commissioning agencies about their production and marketing strategies. Involved heavily in the research project are two graduate Seed Science and Technology students, supervised by Mr. Adeel. “From this research project, these students will also work on seed policy analysis in the coming semester. I have engaged both of my students in writing, in data collection, and they are learning a lot,” he explains. “That is a good opportunity for the students, because when I was a student [at UAF] in 1999, at that time there were a limited number of projects and no students were engaged.”

Student prepares portable seed sampling computer.
A UAF student researcher prepares a portable seed sampling computer to receive a tray of seeds.

“The basic thing that I learned from UC Davis is that they always work in coordination with each other,” Mr. Adeel responds when asked about lessons from his exchange experience. “If they are doing one thing, they do that thing properly. That is why I am focusing on market experience. If we will coordinate with each other, and if we will discuss our research ideas and our different thoughts with our colleagues and industry stakeholders, we will easily progress.”

Dr. Irfan Afzal, Assistant Professor in the UAF Department of Crop Physiology, also worked with the Seed Biotechnology Center and Dr. Bradford in 2008 as a Fulbright Scholar, where he witnessed the value of collaboration. “I was successful in my profession after my Fulbright Exchange, because I saw how my professor interacted with industry,” states Dr. Afzal. “You want industry to interact with students and faculty. So we started this organization [the Pakistan Seed Promotion Alliance] while collaborating with the private sector. The approach of my U.S. professor was to interact with the private sector as much as you can. So by doing that, I would be able to know their problems, and then I would be able to start working on the solution.”

Mr. Adeel and Dr. Afzal want to engage students and seed industry workers by creating more seed sampling workshops to train others and build industry capacity. The two are actively planning a seed sampling workshop for industry workers to coincide with the next meeting of the Pakistan Seed Congress, and plan to use sampling equipment from another project to encourage industry officials to purchase the equipment for their own companies. “In Pakistan there is only one simple method, where they observe seeds in hand. It is an old technique. We have to focus on the scientific methods,” states Mr. Adeel.

Maintaining Genetic Diversity: Producing Certified Seed for Circulation

Dr. Amer Bibi, an Assistant Professor in UAF’s Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics, knows quite a bit about identifying seed types for breeding purposes. Her laboratory at UAF is currently responsible for increasing seed supplies to the Pakistani government for four identified fodder crops by growing and multiplying breeder-nuclear seed according to the Pakistan Federal Seed Certification standards.

Dr. Amer Bibi and her research students.
Dr. Amer Bibi (left) and her research assistants in her nutritional analysis laboratory.

“Breeder-nuclear seed is the seed which the breeder produced under their own supervision, looking carefully with a magnifying lens to make sure the flower is uniform, it is true to type, its color is true, its leaves is true, everything is true and there is no other type of variety present,” she explains. As a breeder for fodder crop seeds, Dr. Bibi originally began researching drought-resistant traits in sorghum, commonly used for livestock feed in the Pakistani summer. “In Pakistan, we have a short period to grow fodder, especially during June, July, and August, due to high temperature, and there are many crops which cannot survive,” she says. “This means that our livestock do not produce according to their potential.”

“Nowadays, you can observe that there is a smell in [local] milk. This is due to not enough green fodder in the field, so they are giving other synthetic and alternative feeds, like cotton seed cake or empty pea pods,” Dr. Bibi states. “But if we have green fodder in the field, the animal’s stomach will suffer less and the quality of milk will be enhanced.”

In 2016, Dr. Bibi arrived in Davis for a six-month scholarly exchange through USPCAS-AFS. At UC Davis, she worked with Dr. Charles Brummer in the UC Davis Plant Breeding Center and planned to continue developing drought-tolerant sorghum lines. But her experience with the Plant Breeding Center soon opened new horizons for her to consider.

“One of the things which I learned there under the supervision of Charlie Brummer was if you have genetic diversity, you should maintain it,” Dr. Bibi says, elaborating on the revelation. “Diversity is the main property of the plant breeder. If you have maintained your gene bank, you have all the types of different tools with you. At any time, if there is any stress, any disease, any attack, you have a certain amount of genotypes saved in your gene bank.”

Upon her return to UAF, Dr. Bibi immediately established a unique gene bank of sorghum varieties which she had encountered during her previous research. She collected genotypes from different areas and began to grow additional plants to maintain her stock. Shortly thereafter, a window of opportunity opened.

“The [Punjab] Secretary of Agriculture visited our university, who is a very high authority in agriculture”, Dr. Bibi recalls. “He visited my field plots and my crops, and he asked many questions. And there were many high authorities along with him, like the Directors and Director-Generals—they asked many questions, and I was feeling very confident, because I explained very clearly in the field.” That visit resulted in an award and contract to produce certified seed for the government of Pakistan.

Dr. Bibi’s research laboratory coordinates with three other research institutes and two universities to produce breeder-quality seed stocks in sorghum, maize, oats, and berseem clover, all important fodder crops for livestock. Her research team is also responsible for quality analysis and ensuring that the stock varieties have appropriate nutritional amounts, the first such laboratory at UAF. “[The government] originally supplied us with 6 or 8 kilograms of seed to start, or enough to seed one acre with our technology, since breeder-nuclear seed is very low in quantity here,” Dr. Bibi states. After a successful growing season, UAF easily met their production targets: “We supplied 700 kg of oats, and 100 kg of berseem seed, because berseem is like alfalfa, it has a very small seed.”

According to Dr. Bibi, Pakistani farmers love berseem clover due to its nutritional content and because it is a multi-cut crop, providing multiple harvests for the farmer. She plans to develop a gene bank of berseem clover varieties, collecting the genetic material from her partner institutes and other sources. “Maintenance of the genetic diversity is important, and all plant breeders should maintain their genetic diversity in any crop,” states Dr. Bibi.

Dr. Irfan Afzal also believes that Pakistan’s crop diversity should be protected, and so does his clientele. “[The farmers] want to use their special varieties of crops. They want to use traditional crops. And they use the seeds for both seed purpose and grain purpose.” His interaction with farmers and private industry stakeholders, alongside his continued collaboration with Dr. Bradford, led Dr. Afzal towards another approach for solving Pakistan’s seed crisis.

The Dry Chain: Protecting Seed Stocks through Storage Solutions

Dr. Afzal has been working with farmers and industry professionals alike to develop hermetically-sealed seed storage systems for Pakistani farmers. “If you want to increase the shelf life of the seeds, you have to provide the tools,” he says. “We call it a dry chain concept—make it dry, and keep it dry. In the dry chain, the product is dry and can remain sealed even during humid conditions, and it doesn’t require extra energy for the infrastructure. Keeping seeds both dry and cold is the best approach, but our farmers cannot afford it.”

Dr. Afzal elaborates: “Two things are important for preserving seeds: number one, decrease the moisture, and number two, decrease the temperature. We cannot decrease the temperature because we have no means—I mean, [in Pakistan] we are facing an energy crisis. The multi-national companies, they have the budget and the proper infrastructure, they can [install refrigeration]. But local and national seed companies cannot afford that. So the approach is to reduce the moisture content.”

A seed’s moisture content, or the amount of water present in the seed, is an important variable when predicting storage shelf life. Seeds are typically dried in the sun and then stored in simple wooden boxes, where the seeds will equilibrate with the relative ambient humidity.

“You know, the wheat is harvested in April, and in that time as the grain is drying, the seed moisture content is about 8%. That is ideal,” explains Dr. Afzal. “The problem starts [in July], when the monsoons start and the relative humidity is 65% or higher. During the monsoons, the air is wet and warm. In this season, if you keep your cookies or biscuits without a closed container, they will spoil, and so does seed. But if the product is dry, and you keep it dry, there is no spoilage. So how can you keep it dry? You will need some hermetic solutions, some airtight containers or system which can protect the increasing moisture content from the seeds.”

Dr. Afzal began looking at hermetic seed storage systems available through international vendors, but found that most products were prohibitively expensive for Pakistani farmers. Moreover, the systems were small and wouldn’t hold the typical amounts of seed that most farmers stored. So, he and his research team decided to create their own solution. They repurposed old 200-liter plastic storage drums and outfitted each drum with a hydrometer and simple humidity scale, which allow farmers to easily verify that the humidity is right for storage. Dr. Afzal also points out another benefit of the storage drums: “The drum can protect your seeds from rodents as well. In the bags, we found some complaints from rural areas because a few of the bags were punctured due to mice and rats.”

The bags he refers to are ‘Anaaji Bags’, another storage solution that he has been developing with private industry. “We introduced the Anaaji Bags, an idea given to me by Dr. Tom Rost [from UC Davis],” says Dr. Afzal. “So he went to Lahore, and met a person who runs a large packaging company here in Pakistan, and he arranged a meeting for me with that person. I showed them the various other bags we had tested and told him what I was looking for. The bag is low cost, about 75 rupees ($0.70) per bag, and the capacity is 50 kilograms. There are still some issues to work out with the sealing and layers, but the company is confident that they’ve identified the problems and can fix them for production.”

Dr. Irfan Afzal demonstrates a seed storage bag he helped produce.
Dr. Irfan Afzal shows an Anaaji Bag, a low-cost seed storage bag that he produced in collaboration with local manufacturers.

Dr. Afzal is currently testing and demonstrating the Anaaji Bags in conjunction with several farmers in the Kashmir region. “We are focusing on farmers in the mountains because they are not using hybrid seeds,” he states. “They are using their own varieties, and typically store their grain in wooden boxes. We distributed the bags to farmers, and they put the grain in the bags and then put the bags in the wooden boxes.” So far, Dr. Afzal has been pleased with the bags’ initial performance in a real-world test. “One farmer said, ‘When we used the bags and put them in the traditional boxes over winter, when we pulled out the seed in spring, we did not see any yellowness [a sign of moisture damage],” recalls Dr. Afzal. “Previously, those farmers had needed to sow four seeds in order to get one to sprout. So this technology is very effective for hilly areas since they want to use their traditional crops.”

Along with Dr. Bibi, Dr. Afzal is helping Pakistani farmers secure their crop diversity and unique germplasm stocks. “Another project through ALP [the Agricultural Linkage Program, managed by the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council] is on community-based seed banks,” he states. “We are giving away the hermetic containers and drying beads to the community-based seed banks, because we want to protect our indigenous vegetable varieties, so they are not obsolete over the passage of time. The banks are preserving seed in traditional local varieties of cucumber, of okra, of bitter gourd, and other crops.”

Dr. Afzal is quick to point out that his collaborations with research institutions and private sectors businesses is the source of his success. He credits his work with Dr. Bradford as the factor behind his willingness to look beyond the initial problem. “Everyone is working on the release of new seed varieties, but no one has focused on the losses after production,” says Dr. Afzal. “Regarding seed storage, I always say that ‘sustainability means profitability’.”

The U.S.-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Agriculture and Food Security (USPCAS-AFS) was established to enhance Pakistan’s economic growth and prosperity through applied research, academia-industry collaboration, and innovative academic programs. Over two and a half years, USPCAS-AFS united the University of California-Davis and the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, in a unique collaborative relationship aimed at building the capacity of Pakistani agriculture to meet the country’s food security needs.

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Profile written by Levi McGarry.