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Seed systems will play a key role in future food security 

As the world’s population grows, concerns over food security have become increasingly urgent. David Beasley, the World Food Programme leader, stated in a recent interview with Time magazine: “There’s no doubt we can produce enough food for the world’s population – humanity is strategic enough to achieve that. The question is whether – because of war and conflict and corruption and destabilization – we do.” 

Projections indicate that we are not on track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2 of Zero Hunger by 2030, a milestone that is threatened by climate and security crises that destabilize our food sources.

In response to these challenges, researchers are taking a critical look not just at how we produce food, but at the entire systems behind our food supplies. One such area of investigation is seed systems, which are crucial to the production of food crops. Ola Westengen, a crop scientist and food system expert, emphasizes that “whilst adapting crops to climate change and conserving their variation is essential for food security, these measures are meaningless if farmers do not have access to the seeds.”

Westengen leads a team of researchers from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) who recently reviewed the state of seed systems for small-holder farmers in low/middle-income countries. Their findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But what exactly are seed systems? In essence, they encompass the provision, management, and distribution of seeds. This includes the conservation of seed diversity and variety development, as well as their production and distribution, and the rules governing these activities. Seed systems play a vital role in making seeds available to farmers, ensuring that crops can be sown, harvested, and eventually reach our plates.

A well-functioning seed system would ideally ensure seed security for all farmers. However, the NMBU researchers argue that seed systems rarely function as effectively as they could. Seed systems can be disrupted by conflict and disasters, as well as by issues stemming from social inequality, lack of coordination, or inappropriate policies. These disruptions can have a significant impact on food security, particularly for small-holder farmers in low/middle-income countries who are often most vulnerable to these challenges.

The study sheds light on the current state of seed systems and highlights the need for a more comprehensive understanding of the complex factors that contribute to their effectiveness. By identifying the challenges facing seed systems, scientists and policymakers can work towards solutions that ensure seed security and ultimately contribute to global food security.

“There are recent innovations and investments by governments and donors to improve farmers’ access to diverse crop varieties and quality seeds,” explains study co-author Teshome Hunduma, a seed governance researcher. “For example, there are now more flexible policies and regulations that encourage diversity in the seed systems used by farmers, rather than pushing farmers to switch to commercial seed systems that focus on less diverse commodity crops – which is the norm.” 

Commodity crops are those grown in large volume and high intensity for the purpose of sale, as opposed to those grown by small-holder farmers for direct processing and consumption.   

“The study highlights emerging initiatives that are helping farmers to secure food supplies, such as participatory plant breeding,” says Teshome. 

Participatory plant breeding is the development and selection of new crop varieties where the farmers are in control. Farmers, who know the needs of their farms best, work with researchers and others to improve crops and develop plant varieties that are in line with their household needs and culture, and that are resilient to environmental and climate challenges.    

“Farmers prefer and need different types of seeds, based on diverse social, cultural and ecological conditions,” says study co-author Sarah Paule Dalle.       

“A seed system that only serves a segment of a farming society contributes to seed insecurity. For example, commercial seed systems deliver high-yielding varieties of quality hybrid seeds. Whilst wealthy farmers can afford such seeds, poor farmers can’t,” explains Teshome.    

“Similarly, whilst commercial seed systems that focus on commodity crops may benefit men who might primarily be interested in market value, such systems have little to offer women who want crops that provide household nutrition and meet their cultural preferences.”   

“This means poor farmers and women do not have the same access to seeds that meet their needs. The result is seed, and thus food, insecurity due to social and economic inequality.”     

Over the past few decades, political and economic factors have contributed to the globalization of food systems, including seed systems. As the researchers point out, “seeds have become big business.” 

The article cites studies which reveal that the four largest multinational companies in seed trade currently control approximately 60 percent of the global commercial seed market, worth around 50 billion USD. These large private actors hold considerable power, enabling them to shape markets as well as influence scientific research, innovation agendas, and policy frameworks.

However, the researchers argue that this concentration of power can lead to problems, particularly when private sector research and development tend to focus on the most profitable crops, such as maize and soy. As a result, crops that are primarily grown and consumed by subsistence farmers are often overlooked. 

Consequently, the potential of crop diversity, which serves as the foundation of agriculture, remains largely underutilized. Technologies that could help develop more robust crop varieties, and thus contribute to food security, are not fully explored or realized.

Crop diversity encompasses both the variety of crops themselves and the different varieties within a particular crop. The Global Crop Diversity Trust, one of the world’s foremost international organizations focused on crop diversity conservation, maintains that securing and making available the world’s crop diversity is crucial for future food and nutrition security.

Benjamin Kilian, a plant genetics expert at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, elaborates on the importance of crop diversity, stating, “Plant breeders and scientists use crop diversity to develop new, more resilient and productive varieties that consumers want to eat, that are nutritious and tasty, and that are adapted to local preferences, environments and challenges.” 

The Crop Trust collaborates with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences on the Biodiversity for Opportunities, Livelihoods and Development (BOLD) project, which serves as the basis for this study. Coordinated by Kilian, the BOLD project aims to support the conservation and utilization of crop diversity in order to strengthen global food and nutrition security. The project is built upon the Crop Wild Relatives project and receives funding from the Norwegian government.

Dalle expresses optimism about the potential for seed system development to benefit small-holder farmers: “We hope so, if we make the right moves to include small-holder farmers in seed system development.” He emphasizes that a well-functioning seed system should be resilient, capable of withstanding shocks such as droughts or pandemics, as well as breakdowns or disruptions caused by war and conflict.

Dalle further explains that in order to achieve this resiliency, seed systems should promote a diversity of seeds, encompassing both local varieties and those improved to better adapt to stressors. Additionally, the involvement of diverse groups of people, including farmer cooperatives/groups and both public and private companies, is essential to increase the choice of seeds and seed sources. He cites the example of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which “farmers’ own seed systems enabled access to seeds in developing countries when the activities of private companies and agro-dealers were restricted.”

“Our study highlights links between the crucial work of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the farmers on the frontline of adapting our food systems to climate change,” says Westengen. “It is an argument for co-designing seed system development in full cooperation with farmers and other actors in the seed system.” 

By collaborating with various stakeholders, efforts can be tailored to meet the needs of different groups of farmers in diverse agroecological contexts. Westengen emphasizes that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “If there is one natural law in biology, it is that diversity is key to future evolution. That also goes for seed systems – and food system development.”

As the world continues to grapple with the challenges of climate change, conflict, and social inequality, a thorough examination of seed systems and their role in food security is crucial. By understanding the intricacies of seed systems and working towards improvements, we can increase the chances of achieving the ambitious goal of Zero Hunger by 2030.

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