The role seeds play in your life is bigger than you think

Angela Day - Recipes with seeds. Picture: Antoine de Ras, 12/04/2015

Angela Day - Recipes with seeds. Picture: Antoine de Ras, 12/04/2015

Published Dec 4, 2023


By Lukeshni Chetty

The festive season is fast approaching and It will be an opportunity for families across the country to spend much needed time together to rest, reflect on the past year and importantly, to feast together.

In a country as diverse as South Africa and against the context of a tough economy, the festive meals enjoyed by families will be a little different in every house. From enticing seven colour spreads, braais with all the sides, roast dinners and plant-based spreads to tables offering a variety of curries, and more, South Africans will be cooking a vast array of foods to celebrate and see out 2023.

When South Africans make these meals, they don’t really think about the role played by seeds, in fact, perhaps only thinking of them when they sprinkle some on salads.

But seeds and the seed industry underpin our ability to enjoy these delicious feasts.

The vast consumer choice we enjoy in South Africa, both in terms of fresh produce and animal products, can all trace their availability back to seeds in one way or another.

For years, the South African seed industry has been hard at work to ensure that the best of local and global seed breeding innovation has been available to South Africa’s farmers. Seed breeding technologies are central to growing better crops.

Thanks to many advances, we have been able to grow an enormous variety of produce that keeps pace with international markets and gives the South African consumer enviable access to food choice year- round.

Over the coming holidays the availability of watermelon, seedless grapes and plump strawberries to eat on the hot days we visit the beach or have a chance to swim are perfect examples of this choice.

When you lift a glass to clink at the festive table – your beer comes from hops grown from seeds, and your wine comes from grapes grown from seeds. Seeds produce the feed for animals that give us the assortment of dairy products, from custard, to cheese, to ice cream that we enjoy over this period as well as being a vital input for the meat products many holiday dishes rely on, the festive season braai being an important example.

The seed industry’s responsibility - as the point of origin for so much of our food products - is often overlooked. There are entire groups of people maintaining local and international seed certification standards, while ensuring that seed is produced, multiplied and marketed according to legislated systems.

This has also been central to ensuring food security, because high quality seed is vital for adapting to the pressures of climate change, evolving pest pressures as well as to ensure that crop yields can keep pace with population growth.

This pressure is increasingly apparent as the country has just experienced a severe heat wave. The challenge that this kind of extreme weather can pose to crops can in part be mitigated by the availability of the highest quality seed which is bred to be adaptive to heat stress.

The industry is also a significant contributor to the economy at a time when it is much needed. In 2022 the value of the markets for different segments of the seed industry, just for the members of the South African National Seed Organisation, (SANSOR) highlight its Importance.

The market for field crops seeds in this period was a whopping R7 948 609 000, for vegetable crops and ornamentals trading it was R1 627 965 000, while the value for production for this segment stood at R538 783 000 and finally, for forage, which refers to crops grown for animal feed, the value was R681 852 000 in 2022.

But seeds contribute more to the economy and society than the value of their direct markets.

Growing vegetables, grains, cereals and oil crops is not possible without starting them from seed. Once grown, these crops are of significant economic value, they are not only sold on as commodities, as they are processed there is an entire value chain that further adds to the economy.

Above and beyond this they also provide South Africans with access to quality food stuffs and significant choice.

For example, the Crop Estimates Committee recently released its final estimate for summer crops for 2023. Their final estimate for white maize was 8 499 965 tons, while for yellow maize it was 7 895 260 for the year.

Using the most recent spot prices for these commodities we can make a ‘back of the envelope’ estimate of the value of the maize market to economy for the 2023 period.

For white maize this would be equivalent to R37 127 847 120 and (for yellow maize) R31 383 658 500

This illustrates the enormous value that seeds unlock for the economy, considering just a single commodity, over a single year.

Seeds matter to our daily life in much broader ways than we think. There is a significant value chain, all of which relies on technology and innovation to keep pace with global challenges, behind getting our food onto store shelves.

The not so humble seed is the first and arguably one of the most vital links in that chain. For the industry to continue contributing as it already does, it must be able to continue accessing the best innovative seed solutions available, enabled through appropriate regulation.

Without this our feasts, and even everyday sustenance, will look very different in the future.

Chetty is General Manager of the South African National Seed Organisation.