Seeds constitute solid foundation for agriculture – crops and livestock productions; good and improved quality seeds connote bedrock foundation for agriculture while poor and unviable seeds connote shaky and shallow foundation. Thus, seed is the first most important input in agricultural production. Improved quality seed is the basic potential element of increasing yield as well as fundamental in complementing the efficiency of other farm inputs. For instance, the efficiency of fertilizers, agro-chemicals, agro-machinery and new practice are enhanced and achieved through the use of improved quality seed. Without good seeds, the performance of other inputs will amount to nothing. In fact, greater percentage of improvement in agricultural production has come from the use of improved seed. In essence, no farm operations and practices such as weeding, fertilisation, irrigation etc can improve crop production beyond the limit set by the seed. This is why all efforts are geared towards improvement of crop varieties that are higher yielding, early maturing, more resistant to diseases and pests, and adaptable to different ecologies. This means that seeds are developed not only to increase yield but to reduce cost (remove or reduce weeds, pests and disease resistant variety) and reduce time (early maturing variety) or even reduce crop water intake (drought tolerant variety).
Improved and viable seeds are developed with due considerations of the environmental ecology, climate, market needs and the dieting culture of the people. The process of seeds development to serve targeted purposes is achieved through plant breeding. Plant breeding is the art and science of changing the traits of plants in order to produce desired characteristics. Plant breeding can be accomplished through many different techniques ranging from simply selecting plants with desirable characteristics for propagation, to more complex molecular techniques. Plant breeding activities lead to the development and release of improved crop varieties. The purpose of releasing improved crop varieties is to increase productivity and overall crop production to anchor food security. Food security is achievable through mass utilisation of varieties which are high yielding, resistant/tolerant to pests and disease pressures, ecologically suitable, tolerance to drought and soil mineral toxicity.
Plant breeding has been practiced for thousands of years, since near the beginning of human civilisation. It is practiced worldwide by individuals such as gardeners and farmers, or by professional plant breeders employed by organisations such as government institutions, universities, crop-specific industry associations or research centres. International development nation agencies believe that breeding new crops is important for ensuring food security by developing new varieties targeted to suit different environments and growing conditions. To successfully accomplish this noble task, all the factors of production likely to affect viability and genetic purity of the crops must be taken into account. Similarly, the production techniques should be mastered and the environmental conditions be well known. This makes plant breeding to be a specialised discipline of science in agricultural technology.
Seeds development and production in Nigeria have evolved over the last 30 years in terms of seed science and commercial seed production capabilities. However, the efforts are far below expectation in terms of meeting the agricultural seed needs of the country. Consequently, the government of Nigeria had to massively import rice seeds in 2012, while vegetable seeds are currently being imported through the informal channels. The development and performance of the seed sector is constrained by many factors. Some of the factors are weak technical capacity, poor market mechanisms, inefficient enforcement of seed law, information asymmetry, insufficient capital investment and low utilisation of innovations among others. In spite of these challenges, some institutions are investing human and material resources to develop seeds for various crops and ecologies to meet Nigerian seeds requirements. It is within this premise that the efforts of Ahmadu Bello University Zaria in seed technology has to be recognised.
Ahmadu Bello University Zaria is one of the first generation universities in Nigeria. It was established in 1962 by the government of the then northern region of Nigeria to impart knowledge and learning to men and women of all races without distinction on the grounds of race, religious or political beliefs. The founding fathers expected the university to aspire to the highest international ideals of scholarship and to provide learning of a standard required and expected of a university of the highest standing while reflecting the needs, the traditions, and the social and intellectual heritage of the society in which it is located. The university was taken over by the federal government of Nigeria in 1975 and has since then assumed a national mandate although its ties with the 19 states created out of the former northern region remain very strong.
In the over 40 years of its existence, the ABU has grown to become the largest, and the most influential and diverse university in Nigeria. It consists over 100 academic departments, 12 faculties, and 12 research institutes and specialised centres. The university offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses in diverse fields of Agriculture, Public and Business Administration, Engineering, Environmental Design, Education, Biological and Physical Sciences, Medical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the Humanities, Law and Social Sciences. The university has two campuses; Samaru and Kongo covering an estimated area of 7,000 hectares of land. Another unique feature of the university, as opposed to other institutions of its type in Nigeria, is that it has both staff and students from all nooks and cranny of Nigeria, neighbouring countries and few other countries across the continents. The university alumni cut across the social classes from former Nigerian president, vice president, serving and former governors/deputy governors of virtually all the 36 states plus the federal capital territory, Abuja down to hundreds of local government councils nationwide.
Two prominent units of the university; Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) and Department of Plant Science are jointly and concertedly working to develop new or improved quality of existing seeds for the nine strategic crops in Nigerian Ecological zones. The ecological zones in Nigeria are extremely diverse with average annual rainfall of less than 700 mm for some areas and over 4000 mm for others. Despite the challenge poses by this diversity, ABU has been assiduously recording successes in the development of seeds for the nation and the West African sub region. The underneath of this feat is the calibre of the manpower possessed by the university. ABU has eminent professors charged with the responsibilities of breeding the nine strategic seeds to achieve the mandates of IAR as a research Institute and the university as a citadel of learning and community development agency.
In this vein, IAR was saddled with statutory function of genetic improvement of nine different crops. The efforts of the institute led to the development and release of many improved varieties of these crops. The crop varieties were developed to meet the demands of different categories of producers, ranging from students, to farmers, industrialists and scientists. The IAR mandate crops are Maize, Sorghum, Groundnut, Cowpea, Cotton, Sunflower, Castor, Jatropa and Artimesia, respectively. A research team was assigned for each crop with clear mandate to improve the existing varieties against environmental constraints, prevalent pests and diseases known for the crops. On continuous basis, the research team consisting of Professors, Associate Professors, Senior Lecturers down to postgraduate students work together to achieve success.
Some of the recorded successes are:
- Maize; it is one the most stable food crops accepted by all the strata of the Nigerian society. This is why over 30 commercially grown varieties were developed and released by IAR in the last 10 years. All kinds of maize varieties were developed, prominent among them are drought tolerance and early maturing varieties such as SAMMAZ 13, SAMMAZ 18, SAMMAZ 19, ZAMMAZ 21 and many others. Some of the good qualities of these early maturing varieties are tolerant to striga and hermonthica infestation; resistant to streak, low soil nitrogen tolerance and ability to mature from 60 days to 95 days depending on the particular variety. The other category of maize varieties developed by IAR were SAMMAZ 14, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24 and 25. These varieties have maturity period ranging from 100 to 120 days. They are high yielding varieties, striga resistance and adaptable to Nigerian Savanna, hermonthica prone zones. Their yields range from five to eight tons per hectare compared with national average of two tons per hectare obtained by most maize farmers using traditional local seed varieties (Continue next week).