Eighteen new seed varieties developed in Timor Leste are thriving despite tough local conditions. Tried and tested by Timorese farmers, the quality seeds are contributing to higher yields and production rates than traditional varieties, and reducing the nation’s import requirements and hungry season.
When Timor Leste achieved independence in 2002, years of struggle for statehood had taken a toll on local agriculture. More than 63% of the country’s population were farmers but war had isolated them from the advances and advantages of agricultural research. “The best thing we could do was to get farmers access to new varieties from around the world,” explains research agronomist Dr Rob Williams. Fourteen years on, the innovative ‘Seeds of Life’ project from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) has produced 18 new high-yielding seed varieties of staple crops, including cassava, groundnuts, maize, rice, sweet potatoes, mung beans and red beans that have been trialled, tested and replicated by Timorese farmers for Timorese conditions.
To get world class seed stock for testing, the project sent a mayday call to a range of CGIAR centres involved in agricultural research for development. Back came sacks of seeds from around the globe and about 3,000 Timorese farmers were involved in the early research phase, providing feedback on yields, storage abilities, taste and returns at market. “We wanted to know if they could produce more food if they changed varieties – without changing anything else, no other inputs,” states Williams. Using a new variety gave some farmers twice the crop yield in half the time – such as sweet potato in 4 months instead of 8 months.
More than 4,000 farm experiments tested the suitability of the new CGIAR varieties with different farmer practices, seasons and agricultural ecological zones. Superior yield, agronomic adaptability and social, environment and gender were also analysed. Top performers were given a Timorese name and launched by Timor Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) – there were no hybrids and no issues with patents. To replicate and distribute these selected seeds, community groups multiplied 1 t of seeds into 6 t for community use. This method was used to establish Timor’s National Seed System for Released Varieties, empowering farmers to breed seeds and distribute them through local groups. The groups receive starter seeds, a tarpaulin for spreading seeds on, and storage drums. “They’re usually family-based and can turn 5 or 10 kg of seed into 200 kg,” says Williams. “For sweet potato and rice, it was done via cuttings.” By 2009, about 100 t of seed was distributed to 20,000 farming families.
Now MAF contracts growers to produce 30 t of certified seeds. These seeds are provided to commercial seed producers – there are 69 of these large farmer groups across the country. The seeds are purchased by MAF, FAO and NGOs and distributed to farmers. Farmers can also buy seeds from shops run by their local production group. In 2014–15, sufficient seed was produced by commercial seed producers to replace 75% of the nation’s seed import requirements.
The Timor Leste seed programme has reduced the hungry season and almost doubled production, says ACIAR research manager for crop improvement and management, Dr Eric Huttner. In addition, quality seed of improved varieties has been shown to contribute 15-131% higher yields than traditional varieties. However, the macro- economic climate is changing and young farmers are moving to work in the capital, Dili. “While the yield has increased, some areas of production, particularly rice, have decreased. Cost of production remains too high compared to cheap rice imports from Thailand and Vietnam,” says Huttner.
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