Aid agencies responded with donations of seed of bean varieties (at left) that supposedly produced more than traditional Rwandan varieties. But these imported bean types were not bred for local soils, pest and disease conditions, rainfall and local market demands. Result: although short-term food needs were met, some of the "high yielding" seed produced 30% less than traditional varieties, creating the risk of future food shortages and a vicious cycle in bean production, as seed gleaned from the new harvest was used again in subsequent sowing.
The Rwandan case illustrates the challenge of ensuring what FAO calls "seed security" when disaster strikes agriculture in developing countries. "Today, an estimated 1,500 million people live in farm families that are still largely self-provisioning in terms of seed," says Umberto Menini, chief of AG's Seed and Plant Genetic Resources Service (AGPS). "Typically, they save a portion of seed from each year's harvest to use for planting the following season. Production on these farms rests on a genetic base that is effective and time-tested, but one that can be extremely precarious in times of war, civil strife and natural disaster.
"Almost overnight, farmers lose their self-reliance in seed and planting materials with long-term impact on food production, incomes and the sustainability of the farming system itself."
over, the disaster continues. Says Menini: "Food aid, combined with importation of often poorly adapted seed varieties, can lower yields and keep them low for years. While addressing the immediate crisis, these practices can exacerbate hunger, undermine food security and increase costs of donor assistance well into the future."
"Access at all times". The solution is seed security, defined as access by farming households to adequate quantities of quality seeds and plant materials of adapted crop varieties at all times. "Access" implies that the source of these seeds should be within an acceptable distance, and supplies delivered in a timely manner and at affordable prices. "At all times" refers to the availability of appropriate seed stocks in time for each and every growing season, and in rapid response to natural or man-made calamities.
Developing seed security policies and strategies is a key part of FAO's Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The plan, adopted in June 1996, seeks specifically to "assist farmers in disaster situations in restoring agricultural systems" by addressing the question of how humanitarian aid can be used to build sustainable farming systems and increase self-reliance.
Historically, aid agencies have provided large quantities of seed to farmers during disasters. Almost inevitably, this seed was bred for - and primarily intended for use by - farmers in Europe or North America. For many donors, seed is seed - one variety fits all. Yet the genebanks of international agricultural research centres have built up over the past 25 years large stocks of local farmer varieties collected from all over the world. Plant breeders have used these collections, which represent the natural biological diversity of crops, as the raw material for fashioning new crop varieties.
FAO's call for "seed security" comes as the incidence of natural and man-made disasters hits record levels. The United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs says the number of disasters requiring emergency assistance has more than doubled since the 1980s, while the frequency of war and civil strife has been on the rise during this decade (23 countries are either in current state of war and civil strife, or have been, during the 1990s).
Meanwhile, an estimated that 800 million people in developing countries lack sufficient food and are undernourished. More than 30 million people depend entirely on food aid to avoid starvation resulting from natural and man-made disasters, and almost half the population of the Greater Horn of Africa is considered to be "food insecure".
But they could also be used to restore appropriate, indigenous planting materials following disasters. In effect, the seeds are returned to the farmers who "donated" them in the first place. "Only a small quantity of seed is usually placed in long-term cold storage in genebanks," said Menini. "But it could be planted and grown to produce larger quantities of seed which can then be reintroduced in the country of origin. When integrated with more traditional relief activities, this lays the foundation for agricultural sustainability. It also serves to maintain good faith with the farming communities of developing countries."
Repaying a large debt. It demonstrates that those who provided seed for use in breeding improved varieties and building European and North American agriculture can return that seed back when they really need it. "Every major commercial crop grown in developed countries today originated in what are now termed developing countries," Menini explained. "Restoration of seed would be one small way to repay what is by any measure a very large debt."
There are other sources of quality seeds of adapted crop varieties for use during disasters. For example, indigenous landraces and farmers' varieties lost during calamities can also be found in the informal or formal seed supply systems outside or even inside the affected area or country. Properly multiplied, these stocks could be returned to reconstitute locally adapted planting material.
Given the recent international consensus on the need to conserve biodiversity, and to share benefits arising from its development and use, FAO believes seed restoration programmes could become a striking example of cooperation among nations. While helping promote sustainability, such programmes would also serve to reduce medium and long-term food assistance needs, paying for themselves many times over.
Several UN agencies, the CGIAR and many NGOs have recently gained experience in restoring locally adapted seed and planting materials following emergencies in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Cambodia. Unfortunately, Menini notes, these efforts are generally ad hoc and voluntary: "There is no standing capacity to respond appropriately to such disasters, no clear delineation of responsibilities, no coordinating mechanism to bring the various agencies and organizations together for planning and implementation of emergency seed supply efforts."
Components of seed security. An international workshop on "seed security for food security", organized by AGPS in Florence, Italy in November 1997, agreed on three basic components of an effective seed security strategy: protection and conservation of crop genetic diversity, strengthened seed supply systems, and sound national and regional seed policies.
Protection and conservation of crop genetic diversity entails action to conserve locally adapted varieties and genetic resources at the farm and local community level, as well as in national and regional gene banks, and expanding stocks of the main varieties of regional food crops to ensure rapid seed multiplication and exchange during disasters. Also important are early warning systems to monitor changes in the status of genetic diversity in locally and regionally adapted crop genetic resources.
Robust seed supply systems depend on national and regional seed policies plus government and international support. Practical measures to strengthen seed supply systems include empowering on-farm and community seed production - after disaster, farmers and their communities are frequently the lynch-pins in re-establishing local seed supply and seed distribution systems. There is also need for appropriate seed multiplication technology, including low cost, rapid biotechnology-based multiplication methods, strategic cost-effective seed reserves of the important food crops, and "sensible standards" to ensure production of high quality seed.
Sound national and regional seed policies are essential. Among measures recommended by FAO are national plant improvement programmes with focus on locally adapted varieties and land races, a system to facilitate crop variety evaluation, registration and release, and informal, on-farm seed production and rural community distribution systems. At regional level, policies should facilitate movement and exchange of seed across borders. This calls for regional seed security networks with databases on varieties grown within the region, harmonization of seed standards and regulations, and uniform regulations to encourage fair and equitable trade.
Finally, the workshop called for establishment of a global Seed Security Consultative Group which, under the aegis of FAO, would provide policy and technical advice for seed security, particularly in disaster-prone countries and regions. AG's Seed and Plant Genetic Resources Service is now conducting a series of regional technical meetings on seed policy and programmes in subSaharan Africa, Asia and Latin America, to culminate in a Global Seed Congress scheduled for the year 2000.
Published October 1998