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[KATHMANDU] Uncertainty hangs over a proposed partnership between US and Nepalese scientists to promote hybrid maize in the Himalayan country, after the project sparked local concerns over the potential loss of traditional local varieties and weak biotechnology regulation.

The pilot project of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Nepal's Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives and US agricultural corporation Monsanto — announced earlier this year (13 September) on USAID's website — aims to train 20,000 farmers on hybrid maize production practices, and facilitate links between producers and end-users.

But concerns have been expressed by civil society organisations, as well as some government officials, and now neither USAID nor the ministry will confirm whether the project is going ahead.

Nepal imports half of the estimated 270,000 tonnes of maize it uses a year, at a cost of about 200 million Nepalese rupees (US$2.5 million).

Hybrid seeds are formed under controlled pollination conditions between two plants selected for specific traits such as high yield or pest resistance. The first generation of hybrid seeds has higher yields than the locally available varieties, but farmers need to obtain new seeds from suppliers each year if they are to maintain these high yields.

Members of civil society organisations expressed concerns at a meeting this month (15 November) that foreign hybrid maize seed could replace local varieties, increase Nepal's dependence on imported seed and pave the way for the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops later because of weak biotechnology regulation.

But Monsanto's Nepal representative, Kiran Dahal, told SciDev.Net: "The farmers are already using hybrid seed; we are just trying to support them".

Monsanto has been importing conventionally bred seeds into Nepal for the past 15 years, including 100 metric tonnes of hybrid seeds in 2010, he said. He added that the partnership was pending the Nepalese government's approval.

But government officials declined to comment on when this might happen or what the final deal will look like.

Hari Dahal, a spokesperson for the ministry, said it was unlikely the agreement would be signed in its current form.

"Mass importation of hybrid seed goes against our obligations under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture," he told SciDev.Net. "If the partnership seeks to improve our own hybrid seeds, then an agreement is possible."  

A senior ministry official told SciDev.Net on the condition of anonymity: "If we import hybrid seed our local varieties will disappear. The rights of the farmers will be in the hands of private companies."

Nepal's agriculture policy, announced in 2004, encourages the production and use of hybrid seed varieties; and their distribution after testing, certification and registration.* Since 1960, Nepal approved 25 maize varieties, hybrid and non-hybrid, of which 16 are local. The nine foreign maize varieties include three Monsanto varieties listed in the pilot project.

*Updated on 2 December to clarify Nepal's agriculture policy