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"Preparedness for, and effective and sustainable response to, food and agricultural emergencies"is one of the strategic objectives of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). In recent years, there has been an increasing incidence of emergency situations stemming from natural disasters, such as droughts and floods, as well as from civil wars and ethnic conflicts. This trend has been reflected within FAO, where the value of emergency and early rehabilitation programmes has increased progressively from US$51 million in 1996-97 to US$349 million in 2002-03.

Within the agriculture sector, seed is, of course, a farmer's most essential input and the provision of seeds to strengthen the recovery of agricultural production systems following disaster situations has become an important activity of many agencies working in relief and rehabilitation. The basic rationale for a seed focus has been that, in emergency situations, affected farming and displaced households have lost their seed and, hence, their capacity for food production. By supplying good quality seed of appropriate varieties, they can resume and increase agricultural production, thereby reducing or eliminating dependence on food aid.

The experience of the last decade is challenging this conventional seed relief paradigm, within FAO and beyond. Farmer seed systems, the basis of seed security, are often much more resilient than was previously assumed. Experience has also revealed that many seed shortages are not short-term acute events but are recurrent chronic situations that require a more long-term approach, particularly in countries affected by periodic natural shocks and in post-conflict transition situations. Moreover, there is an increasing commitment to link relief with rehabilitation and development in order to contribute to food and livelihood security in a sustainable way.

Beyond food, seeds and planting material are recognized as the physical embodiment of plant genetic resources. The central importance of the seed sector in the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) is reflected in the FAO Global Plan of Action (GPA). Within the GPA, specific recommendations relating to seed relief are contained in priority activities numbers 3 ("Assisting farmers in disaster situations to restore agricultural systems") and 13 ("Supporting seed production and distribution"). With the entry into force of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (29 June 2004), implementation of the GPA, including these two priority activities, has acquired renewed impetus.

In 2002, FAO carried out an evaluation of its strategic objective A.3: "Preparedness for, and effective and sustainable response to, food and emergencies," which was endorsed by the Organization's governing body, the FAO Council. Among the primary recommendations related to seed relief, the report advised FAO:

a) to give more attention to assessing the needs of vulnerable farmers, especially in disaster-prone regions. With respect to seeds and planting material, this would imply a greater understanding of the full range of seed systems farmers use;

b) to consider a wider range of emergency response options, such as seed vouchers and fairs; and

c) to make more use of evaluation in agricultural relief projects.

Also in 2002, FAO set up a new Emergency Operations and Rehabilitation Division (TCE) in order to respond more effectively to its expanded emergency and rehabilitation portfolio. FAO has moved to increase the role of its technical divisions, including the Seed and Plant Genetic Resources Service (AGPS), in designing relief interventions. TCE has been working with AGPS, the Agricultural Sector in Economic Development Service (ESAE) and other relevant services, particularly with a view to improving the assessment, evaluation and testing of approaches for more targeted and sustainable relief.

Within FAO, other specific activities are underway to strengthen seed system-related responses.The Organization is integrating seed system analysis into its emergency needs assessment guidelines and is simultaneously developing good practice guidance for seed distribution and support to local seed systems. Its seed-related emergency response has also evolved in two fundamental ways over the last five years: FAO has complemented its direct implementation role in emergencies with the role of coordination among partners (including non-governmental organizations [NGOs]), while also shifting its response emphasis from one of importing seed to encouraging local procurement of seed and planting materials for subsequent in-country distribution.

Developments outside FAO mutually reinforce such changes and several partner organizations have carried out a number of important seed relief-related activities in recent years. For example:

It was therefore considered an opportune time to convene a stakeholders' workshop on Effective and Sustainable Seed Relief Activities to bring together stakeholders working to improve the quality of emergency response. Held at FAO headquarters in Rome from 26 to 28 May 2003, the workshop included 70 participants from a wide range of organizations and countries, focusing on the African continent. Financial support was provided by the Governments of Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and the United States of America, as well as from FAO's core budget.

In preparation for the workshop, an informal FAO Seed Discussion Group was formed, comprising relevant staff of various FAO units as well as a consultant expert from CIAT. Discussions in this group identified some critical issues impeding (or enhancing) current seed relief practice. Additionally, a background paper was prepared by CIAT and FAO to provide an overview and analysis of relevant issues. ICRISAT, CRS, FAO field staff and national staff of ministries of agriculture contributed case studies that were presented at the workshop. These papers are included in this report.

Issues raised in the various presentations were discussed in plenary and in working groups. Issues put forward related particularly to (i) needs assessment, (ii) choice of interventions and (iii) monitoring and evaluation, with the results of these discussions reflected in the "Discussion" section of this report. On the basis of the presentations and deliberations, draft conclusions, recommendations and a set of guiding principles for seed relief were prepared, discussed and adopted in a final plenary session. These main outputs are presented in the Executive summary. The agenda for the meeting and the list of participants are provided in Annexes 1 and 2 respectively.

Overall, the workshop aimed to broaden understanding and raise awareness of the varied issues shaping emergency seed relief. It also sought to promote a shared commitment towards advancing more precise response approaches, grounded in a common set of principles for better practice. The conclusions and recommendations herein are made available to encourage stakeholders to take the next vital steps to improve further the effectiveness and sustainability of seed relief.

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