NSP - What are seed systems

Introduction to seed systems

Plant genetic resources are the biological basis of food security and, directly or indirectly, support the livelihoods of every person on Earth. Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) consist of diversity of seeds and planting material of traditional varieties and modern cultivars, crop wild relatives and other wild plant species. These resources are used as food, feed for domestic animals, fibre, clothing, shelter and energy. The conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA is necessary to ensure crop production and meet growing environmental challenges and climate change. The erosion of these resources poses a severe threat to the world’s food security in the long term

Seed is one of the most crucial elements in the livelihoods of agricultural communities. It is the repository of the genetic potential of crop species and their varieties resulting from the continuous improvement and selection over time. The potential benefits of seed to crop productivity and food security can be enormous.  In addition, production increases brought about by the use of adapted varieties increases farmers’ income when market linkages exist. Food security is heavily dependent on the seed security of the farming community.

A sustainable seed system will ensure that high quality seeds of a wide range of varieties and crops are produced and fully available in time and affordable to farmers and other stakeholders. However, in many developing countries farmers have not yet been able to fully benefit from the advantages of using quality seed due to a combination of factors, including inefficient seed production, distribution and quality assurance systems, as well as bottlenecks caused by a lack of good seed policy on key issues such as access to credit for inputs. Furthermore, the pressure from the fluctuating food prices and climate change creates additional challenges.

Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) have been systematically collected and exchanged for some 500 years. Conservation focuses explicitly on maintaining the diversity of the full range of genetic variation within a particular species or taxa. Plant genetic resources can be conserved both in-situ and ex-situ.  The main reasons for conserving PGRFA are to ensure the future adaptability of cultivars and wild populations; to preserve data and traits that ensure sustainable agriculture; to promote the use of genetic resources in commerce and biotechnology; to conserve genetic diversity for cultural reasons.

Ex situ conservation entails conservation of biological diversity components outside their natural habitats. The main storage infrastructures for such conservation techniques are genebanks; millions of accessions are now stored in hundreds of genebanks around the world for conservation and utilisation purposes. In situ conservation means the maintenance and recovery of viable populations of species in their natural surroundings and, in the case of domesticates or cultivated species, in the surroundings where they have developed their distinctive properties. Common approaches for in situ conservation are Genetic reserve conservation and On-farm conservation.


Sustainable use of PGRFA

Plants are the primary basis for human sustenance, used directly for food, clothing and shelter, or indirectly in processed form and through animal feeding. Our crop plants have been raised over millennia, through evolutionary forces and human selection, from their wild ancestors.  The genetic diversity – the variation in the molecular building blocks that control expression of individual traits – is at the core of a crop’s ability to continually undergo these changes. The combination of current and historical genetic diversity underpins our potential to adapt crops to the changing needs of farmers and consumers. FAO strongly supports the sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. In the broadest sense, this encompasses the whole range of actions involved in the conservation, diversification, adaptation, improvement and delivery to farmers through seed systems. Plant breeding acts as bridge between the conservation in genebanks and the seed systems that deliver improved varieties to farmers.

Sustainable use of PGRFA takes into account the wider principles of ecologically, economically and socially sound approaches. These principles address the challenges of meeting basic food needs, generating income for the rural poor, and providing a foundation for protecting the environment. It can involve different technical solutions and actions, such as intensification of production; plant breeding; characterization, evaluation and number of core collections; genetic enhancement and base-broadening; diversification of crop production and broader diversity in crops; development and commercialization of under utilized crops and species; supporting seed production and distribution; and developing new markets for local varieties and "diversity rich'' products. Sustainable use of PGRFA also includes the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of PGRFA and agrobiodiversity management through appropriate strategies and participatory involvement of stakeholders.


Formal and local seed systems

To strengthen seed systems, we need to have a comprehensive understanding of them. Farmers, particularly small farmers, are involved in multiple kinds of seed systems, which help them produce and obtain the seed they need. These systems can be broadly divided into two types: a formal seed system and a local system. The local system is also sometimes called the "informal," "traditional," or "farmer" seed system. As we shall see below, the formal and local seed systems are not always as distinct or separated as the two labels may imply.

Formal and local seed systems

The formal seed system is the easier to characterize, as it is a deliberately constructed system that involves a chain of activities leading to clear products: certified seed of verified varieties (Louwaars, 1994). The chain usually starts with plant breeding and selection, resulting in different types of varieties, including hybrids, and promotes materials leading to formal variety release and maintenance. Guiding principles in the formal system are to maintain varietal identity and purity and to produce seed of optimal physical, physiological and sanitary quality. Certified seed marketing and distribution take place through a limited number of officially recognized seed outlets, usually for financial sale (Louwaars, 1994: 28). The central premise of the formal system is that there is a clear distinction between "seed" and "grain." This distinction is less clear in the local, farmer seed system.

A local seed system is basically what the formal system is not. Activities tend to be integrated and locally organized, and the local system embraces most of the other ways in which farmers themselves produce, disseminate, and access seed: directly from their own harvest; through exchange and barter among friends, neighbours, and relatives; and through local grain markets. Encompassing a wider range of seed system variations, what characterizes the local system most is its flexibility. Varieties may be landraces or mixed races and may be heterogeneous (modified through breeding and use). In addition, the seed is of variable quality (of different purity, and physical and physiological quality) (Almekinders and Louwaars, 1999). The same general steps or processes take place in the local system as in the formal sector (variety choice, variety testing, introduction, seed multiplication, selection, dissemination and storage) but they take place as integral parts of farmers' production systems rather than as discrete activities. While some farmers treat "seed" as special, there is not always necessarily a distinction between "seed" and "grain." The steps do not flow in a linear sequence and they are not monitored or controlled by government policies and regulations. Rather, they are guided by local technical knowledge and standards and by local social structures and norms (McGuire, 2001).

Despite, or perhaps because of, their variability and local specificity to needs and preferences, local channels (e.g. household stocks, markets and social exchange networks) provide most of the seed that most small farmers use. Common figures suggest that somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of the seed that farmer’s access comes from the local seed system (Danagro, 1988; Cooper, 1993; Rabobank, 1994; FAO, 1998), although this varies greatly by crop and region. (For example, the figure is much lower where hybrid maize is grown in southern Africa or, generally, where formal seed is subsidized.) In studies of seed systems, much has been made of the notion that small farmers, especially in vulnerable regions, strive at all costs to save their own seed, and that they get the bulk of what they sow from previous harvests. While this is broadly true, especially in remote or marginal areas, studies that actually quantify seed-source use find increasingly that, within the local seed system, local grain markets are also crucial in meeting seed needs, especially for poor farmers and in difficult times. Again, this varies greatly by crop (see summary of work in Uganda, Rwanda, South Kivu [Zaire] and select regions of Burundi in David and Sperling [1999]). For many farmers, local markets are the second-best bet (after home stocks) as they put on offer the same varieties that farmers routinely sow (Sperling and Loevinsohn, 1993). One study in southern Somalia demonstrates that where grain traders invest in obtaining good-quality "seed" (making a distinction from bulk grain), local markets can be a preferred source of replacement seed (Longley et al., 2001).


Seed availability, access and utilization

Seed availability

Availability is defined narrowly as whether or not seed of the target crops is present in the geographical area in question. Availability assessments need to be separated from issues of the quality of the seed or the desirability of the varieties. If seed that will grow and mature to harvest, but which is of otherwise low quality or of unwanted varieties, is available, this constraint would fall into the utilization diagnosis. Seed unavailability means just that there is little/no/insufficient seed to plant within a well-defined zone of action. As a basically geographically based parameter, it is independent of the socioeconomic status of farmers.


Seed access

Access is specific to farmers or farmer groups/communities. It largely depends on the assets of the farmer in question: whether or not the farmer has the cash (financial capital) or social networks (social capital) to access seed. (Arguably, land and physical assets may also be considered as determinants of access: if a farmer has sufficient land to guarantee self-sufficiency and adequate storage infrastructure, he/she is likely to have sufficient access under most conditions.) A diagnosis of a lack of access to seed indicates that traditional methods of obtaining seed have been disrupted and that alternative means are very difficult to employ. Access could be disrupted, for example, if social networks that facilitate seed exchange collapse, local grain markets cease to function adequately, or farmers lose so many assets that they can no longer afford to buy or barter for seed.


Seed utilization

The category of utilization comprises issues of seed quality, including physical, physiological and genetic or varietal characteristics.

Seed quality attributes

Physiological, physical and sanitary parameters:

• good germination and vigour
• low moisture content
• well-filled grain
• high physical purity, i.e. near absence of inert matter (stones, sand) and of broken seed
• absence of noxious weeds and low presence of other weeds
• absence of visible fungi/disease and living insects

Varietal or genetic parameters:

• must be adapted varieties
• varietal characteristics should be described and meet farmers' requirements. Typically, they should be of good yield potential under farmers' conditions and ideally would be pest/disease-resistant/tolerant
• may be a pure variety, or a population or mixture, depending on farmers' needs
• may be a traditional or newly introduced variety, depending on farmers' needs and capacity to "experiment" and the presence or absence of reliable mechanisms to deliver new varieties
• presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) must be declared; GMOs should only be provided after prior informed consent

Source: Seed relief discussion group synthesis.

In terms of the issues of physical, physiological, and sanitary seed quality, many implementers define quality according to the formal sector definition (see Chemonics, 1996) and thereby equate quality with certified seed (Remington et al., 2002). This tendency stems from the requirements of donors and procurement departments to show evidence of formal sector seed certification (and often to furnish a seed grower's certificate) when purchasing seed for aid distribution (Chemonics, 1996).

Seed might also be sourced from the local foodgrain markets, then cleaned and sorted. The quality of this seed can be highly variable, and relatively few studies have actually analysed farmer seed quality parameters (viz., Scheidegger and Buruchara, 1991; Tripp 1997a; KARI/CIAT, in prep.). Farmers and grain traders may, in some cases, exert considerable effort to distinguish between grain and seed, sorting in the field, in storage and again at sowing time (Longley et al., 2001; S. David, personal communication). Farmers' own standards and indicators, however, tend to be different from those of formal sector producers, suggesting that quality assessments may be relative.

Sustainable Crop Production Intensification

Core Themes