Seven ways seed systems help the world’s poor

Seed systems help get quality planting materials into the hands of the world’s poor. Photo courtesy of Helen Keller International

The food supply needs to grow by a 100 percent in the developing world by the year 2050 to meet the demands of booming population growth. Mounting pressures due to climate change including droughts, flooding and an increase in pests and disease hit the world’s poor the hardest. An effective seed system can help mitigate the impact of such pressures by helping smallholder farmers access quality materials that increase crop yields and are responsive to the challenges they face in their fields.

  1. Clean material leads to more bountiful crops
    Vegetatively propagated crops, such as sweetpotato, can be kept by many farmers season after season. However, with repeated planting, viruses begin to accumulate resulting in significantly lower yields. Such practices could lead to the abandonment of the crop if those yields get too low.Poor farmers do not need to rely on deteriorated planting materials saved from previous seasons when an effective seed system is in place. The availability of quality disease-free planting materials helps enhance smallholder farmer yields and ensures sufficient food for household consumption.  In Rwanda, quality planting material led to doubling and even tripling of orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) yields in some cases.
  2. Responsive to farmer challenges
    Farmers continously face new challenges, whether it is the effects of climate change, disease, or pest infestation. A functioning quality seed system is responsive to the traits farmers are seeking based on their particular needs. Such a system will let farmers know when new affordable varieties are available.
    Ideally, these new varieties would not only have climate-smart traits; they would be disease resistant and micro-nutrient content rich without compromising the taste people seek. Ultimately providing farmers with clean varieties suited to the unique productivity challenges they face can lead to an increase in crop yields and income.
  3. Consumer benefits
    While a consumer may be a bit removed from a seed system they gain from a greater varietal availability on the market. If a seed system is functioning properly the consumer benefits from the quality and traits that the seed system is providing growers. An increase in yields from a spike in farmers using quality materials results in a surge of the available market supply, which can result in lowering prices paid by the consumer.
  4. Improved incomes for smallholder farmers
    We’ve seen that access to quality seeds can result in significant yield increases. In Rwanda, for example, some farmers saw their sweetpotato harvests grow by 200 to 300 percent. That means farmers with limited farm size may have a surplus to sell. By helping to develop value chains and make them more accessible to smallholder farmers, their collective surplus can feed into an existing market system. In the case of Rwanda, OFSP farmers began selling to a biscuit manufacturer.A healthy seed system helps smallholder farmers participate in such opportunities by providing them with the materials needed to increase their productivity and improve the overall quality of the product they provide.
  5. Improved nutrition
    A seed system alone doesn’t improve overall nutrition, but it can influence it when there is a focus on creating varieties with high micronutrient content. Improved nutrition through seed systems is possible when a country emphasizes the development of nutritious varieties as part of their mandate.Smallholder farmers prioritize household consumption over sales making it essential to get the highest nutritional value possible from the foods they grow.  One surefire way of increasing the nutritional content of a family’s diet is through the bio-fortification of the foods they commonly eat such as sweetpotato, maize, and even beans. This was the case with the biofortified OFSP. 
  6. Climate change adaptation
    With the pressures of climate change, we have to intensify our breeding efforts and focus on breeding for the emerging constraints. CIP has made a large investment in drought tolerant and heat tolerant varieties with the expectation that the incidence of viruses and the number of vectors such as aphids and white flies may increase. But our new method of accelerated breeding means that new, more adapted varieties get out in 4 years instead of 7 to 8.As new varieties with adaptive traits are developed an efficient seed system is essential to get those materials to farmers. Partnerships with government, the private sector and NGO’s are also vital.  CIP has worked with the Agricultural Research Institute of Mozambique (IIAM) to develop over 20 climate smart OFSP varieties. Over 150,000 drought-affected families received planting materials. Today, more than 80 percent of those households produce and consume nutritious OFSP.
  7. Post-disaster recovery
    Strong seed systems help agricultural economies devastated by natural disasters or conflict revive more quickly – this can prevent much of the suffering endured by post-catastrophe farm communities and the urban populations that depend on them for supplies of affordable food.  A strong seed system helps well-developed networks of suppliers go quickly to scale and help revive the food economy.We have seen in many instances that in the absence of a quality system, emergency organizations and governments just buy anything they can find. They’ll purchase vines of whatever sweetpotato is available and distribute it to households in need. This can become a source of possible disease transmission in areas that were previously unaffected. The subsequent overall yields would be lower than would have been with an effective seed system.