Towards quality seed certification in San Martín

Written by: Janet Mori 

Head of PERU-Hub’s Communications office

Interview with: Raúl Blas, Ph.D.

Principal Crop Researcher of PERU-Hub

PERU- Hub bets on the supply security of quality seeds for productivity and food security in the Huallaga Valley.

Peru has the ecological conditions and genetic diversity to become a potential supplier of quality seeds in the national and international market. So, why is seed certification not efficiently promoted for the benefit of small farmers? Although there are successful cases in the country on products that have contributed to national agricultural growth, the existing informality in the use of quality seeds does not allow improving the economic income of family farming or guarantee the productivity of their crops. Dr. Raul Blas, PERU-Hub’s senior crop researcher, analyzes this situation, highlighting the work that his team is doing in the plant nursery of the Instituto Regional de Desarrollo (IRD) of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, located in Tarapoto, San Martin. In this nursery they are working, through careful treatment, the genetic material of seeds such as passion fruit, soursop, cacao and camu-camu, to ensure the quality and high productivity of these crops. These cases are expected to be successful and serve as a production model and quality seeds’ source, improving farmers’ life quality and sustainability in the San Martin Region. PERU-Hub’s objective is to convert the IRD Selva of the university, into a seed center that offers farmers registered and certified seeds.

Dr. Raul Blas, PERU-Hub's Principal Crop Researcher (right) next to Dr. Hugo Villachica, PERU-Hub's Director, during a visit to a passion fruit cultivation plot in the Rio Negro district of Satipo.
Panoramic view of the nursery at Universidad Agraria's grounds located in Tarapoto. Here PERU-Hub produces crops with high genetic quality seeds, using technologies to increase profitability and care for the environment.

What is the problem facing Peruvian agriculture with seeds?

More than 80 percent of the country’s seed is informal, according to statistics from the National Seed Authority, which is currently administered by SENASA (National Agricultural Health Service). That means, they are not certified seeds. This translates into low product quality, low performance and, finally, farmers’ lack of knowledge, as they do not know the variety they are planting. For example, most cocoa production plots are mixtures, varieties and clones, which reduces the quality of harvests and as a result producers receive low prices that the market cannot acknowledge.

The botanical seed is plants' sexual reproduction unit and has the main functions of diversifying, multiplying and perpetuating the species. But agronomically, other vegetative propagation structures such as tubers, rhizomes, cuttings, stakes, etc. are also considered as seeds. Therefore, a seed is any botanical structure that allows the sexual or asexual propagation of a species. The Seed is the starting point in the process of agricultural production, so it must be of high quality. Photo: Ecología Verde

And what can you tell us about the cacao in San Martin, which exports have grown in recent years? Are they certified seeds?

There is no certification. Farmers basically have mixtures of varieties. Farmers are bringing seeds with health problems (bacteria, fungi, pests and other diseases) to the field. This problem translates into low performances. On the other hand, we have the problem of the lack of recognition of fine aroma cacao. As they are mixtures and are not well-defined varieties or clones, farmers do not recognize the price that their products should have for aroma and flavor.

"In Peru there is a lack of generating, producing and offering quality seeds to farmers".

Why then do we have success stories of Peruvian products that, due to their quality, win national and international awards, even though they do not have certification?

The genetic material exists. If a farmer, association or cooperative wants to win an award, they recognize which are the quality plants they grow, but we are talking about a few plants. Over the course of their crop history, farmers generate new variants and for competitions they use the best ones. They process the product, go to the contest and win. That clearly tells us that the quality genetic material is there. What is missing is to register it, multiply it for certification and offer those quality seedlings as seeds to all small farmers in the country, with a price recognition for obtaining that variety.

Where is the problem? For example, a cacao producer who has won a prize does not offer the seed to anyone afterwards. Someone will go and get it, but the seed is not certified. He may have taken care of that plant, but it has sanitary problems, it is not based on the certification protocol that a seed authority must provide. So it does not guarantee real quality. That translates into low performance, and low profits for the farmer.

Does this mean that there is a problem in exporting Peruvian cacao and its derivatives?

Definitely. In addition to the lack of plant nurseries that offer certified seedlings, there is the supply of farmers recognized only by trust. This is fine, but it does not guarantee that they have the specific genotype they would like to grow and offer to the market.

The main problem in the country and in San Martin is the limited supply of quality seed that guarantees good harvests, good yields and product quality for the users, i.e. direct or processed final consumers.

Certified seed use rate for the 2020-2021 season in Peru. As can be seen, export crops such as blueberries, cocoa and coffee, among others, do not appear. Source: SENASA (2021)

What needs to be done in the country for seed improvement and certification?

This issue involves the investment and promotion that should be made by the National Seed System, to help institutions dedicated to breeding and thus offer new varieties. That is to say, to help state or private companies that do both things: breeding and seed production to offer to farmers.

Peru is not a potential agricultural country. It has to look for special markets for its products. We cannot compete with millions of hectares planted with cacao or coffee, but we can compete in specific markets with quality varieties. For that we need to improve and offer quality seeds to producers.

The big problem with certification is that there is no registration of native commercial varieties/clones, for example, in the case of cocoa. Therefore, it is not possible to produce certified seed/seedlings. So the breeding entities have to do their own registration.  Otherwise it will simply be non-certified seed, where genetic identity is not guaranteed, although seedlings that have been generated following the established protocols for certified seed production, their genetic identity is not guaranteed.

Faced with this problem, the creation of a National Seed Institute is urgently needed, which has been under discussion for some time, but has not materialized in an investment and a political decision. Currently, the seed authority moves between INIA and SENASA. They are changed by decree, and this instability also affects the country’s seed specialists. We need stability for our researchers, technicians and specialists to develop long-term seed technology for Peru and the world.

In this context, what do you consider more important, producing or importing quality seeds?

In the first place, the country must generate its own seeds adapted to the conditions we have.  But another very important strategy is to introduce quality seeds from other countries where they have advanced in generating varieties, high productivity and competitive hybrids, thus gaining time and improving productivity for the benefit of farmers. So, if there are no quality seeds, we must import and test improved seed varieties from other latitudes. Their adaptation first in the country and then make the multiplication to offer to farmers.

What introduced seeds do we have in the San Martin Region?

For example, in the case of cacao, there is a variety known as CCN 51 that is introduced from Ecuador. It is grown almost everywhere in the country. The most important variety in terms of cultivated area (Cacao) and productivity that is why farmers prefer it. But nobody certifies it. The farmer produces, offers, but the issue of health, problems of mixtures, hybridization and segregation is not measured. Therefore, the CCN51 variety is no longer the same as it was introduced, because there are no seed breeders and consequently no one guarantees its genetic identity. So basically, segregating genotypes and/or hybrids with other local varieties are offered.

Which countries in the region are managing better the use of seeds, unlike our country?

For example, in the case of coffee, Brazil has a very important management of coffee, with an automated system, from planting to export, and of course, the use of certified seeds.

"Peru should be a seedbed for the world , due to its ecological condition, to produce seeds of different species for export".

What is PERU-Hub’s commitment to address the problem of the lack of seed certification in the country?

One of the main activities of the project is to encourage the production of quality seeds/seedlings. Therefore, a nursery has been established at the Regional Development Institute of Agraria University (IRD Pucayacu, in Tarapoto) to multiply genotypes of species of high genetic quality and profitability, which will be accessible to farmers when they need to use it. From these seedlings generated in the nursery, we will establish model production plots that should lead to high yields. Then it will be an attraction for farmers, because they will be able to use and multiply the seeds that have been introduced in the farm.

What we are doing is an innovation. This is part of the university’s important contribution to Peruvian agriculture. First we are looking at crops that are well adapted and profitable for the area. These seeds must be of high genetic quality with a good response to stress conditions, both biotic (tolerant to some diseases, pests, etc.) and abiotic (tolerant to drought, etc.) that favor environmentally friendly production. Therefore, they will need less pesticides and less demand for water, thus reducing production costs and increasing productivity.

Right image: Cacao plants for grafting at the Pucayacu-UNALM nursery, Tarapoto. Left image: seed germination.

What species are being considered at the Pucayacu farm?

We are planning to work with cacao, passion fruit, soursop, vanilla, among others.

"In the nursery we are going to guarantee quality seeds , see their physical and sanitary quality. We will coordinate the introductions with the national seed authority and SENASA".

How do you project the future of Peruvian agriculture if a coordinated effort is made to achieve seed certification?   

If 80% of farmers decide to use certified seeds, we would really be at a stage of higher productivity and better income for farmers.

Also, Peru can be a seedbed of the world, if it wants to be. For that we have special conditions. There are transnational companies that have their nurseries and seed propagation areas in the country, precisely because of the climate. The coast is like a natural greenhouse, so it favors seed production. Although Peru does not have enough area to compete with crops in large areas with millions of hectares, but it should be a seedbed for the world, due to its ecological condition, in the coast, highlands and jungle, but especially the coast. As a strategy, the country should invest in generating quality seeds. Peru’s great potential is to sell seeds to other countries.

In conclusion, in order to improve crop productivity and face environmental challenges (climate problems, soil degradation), the supply of high quality seeds of improved and competitive varieties (high performance, tolerant to biotic and abiotic stresses) is necessary to guarantee the growing demand of the population. In addition, this will allow better agricultural production under a sustainable development scheme, with minimal environmental impact.

Raúl Blas holds a degree in Agricultural Engineering from Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina (UNALM) and a MSc. in Phytotechnology, and a PhD in Biological Engineering and Agronomic Sciences from the University of Agronomic Sciences of Gembloux, Belgium. Main Professor of the Department of Phytotechnics of the Faculty of Agronomy of UNALM. Co-founder of the Institute of Biotechnology of UNALM (IBT), where he develops studies of genetic diversity of different native species of agronomic importance in Peru. His main area of research is the management of genetic resources and genetic improvement of crops. In the PERU-hub project he is the principal investigator, responsible for the production model crops in the Pucayacu farm.

Raúl Blas Ph.D.