A new biodegradable tag that can be applied directly to seeds could help sidestep the pervasive problem of counterfeit seed in the region, saving millions of farmers the agony of losses emanating from fakes.
It is hoped that this new technology which uses minuscule dots of trackable silk-based labels each containing a unique code that cannot be duplicated, is the solution to a growing problem of counterfeit seeds.
Sub-par seeds lead to lower crop yields, reduced profits for farmers and generally impact food security.
According to the World Bank, as much as half of all seeds sold in some African countries are fake, a significant factor for crop yields that average less than one-fifth of the potential in the case of maize and less than one-third for rice.
Just last year, farmers in one of Kenya’s agricultural regions in the Rift Valley woke to fields speckled with stunted maize plants infested with pests and diseases; a spectacle the farmers blamed on fake seeds.
Estimates from Uganda’s National Bureau of Standards show that 30 percent of the seeds on the Ugandan market are fake.
In January, Uganda destroyed 90 tonnes of substandard and counterfeit agricultural products, including seeds, fertilisers and herbicides seized in enforcement operations.
Seed companies have had to constantly device multiple strategies to limit the circulation of counterfeit seed mostly through improved seed packages, but the efforts seem not to be working, according to a study released in 2019 by non-profit Access to Seeds. The study indicates that trade in illegal seeds is rising by an average five percent every year in Eastern and Southern Africa.
According to Access to Seeds, about 60 percent of companies in the EA region have implemented measures to address counterfeit seed including deploying seed inspectors, use of tamper-proof packaging, tracking labels and shiny hard-to-fake stickers.
‘Impossible to duplicate’
But none of these have been fool proof. Now researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say with the new biodegradable tag technology, such problems could become history.
“There has been less attention to the problem of counterfeiting in the area of agriculture, even though the consequences can be severe. And this is where we’re trying to provide the solution,” the researchers said in a paper in the journal Science Advances last week.
Benedetto Marelli, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, explained that the key to the new system is creating a randomly-produced physical object in this case embedded in the silk label, whose exact composition is virtually impossible to duplicate.
Silk proteins are harmless to the environment and classified as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.
“The idea is to give seeds in a bag or every bag a unique signature,” said graduate student Saurav Maji.
The resulting unique patterns can be read by an ordinary phone camera and processed for authenticity.
“It is something that farmers can literally read with their phone," Marelli said.