Agriculture begins with seed. Without seed, there can be no crops and no food production. When harvests fail or seed stocks are lost, seed insecurity ensues, which can reduce food security and livelihoods.
In most smallholder farming systems farmers save seed from the previous harvest to plant in the next season. They select seed from the best plants and then dry, clean and store the seed in a safe place. These traditional seed-saving practices and farmers’ sharing of seed are called the informal seed system, or the farmer/community-based seed system. They also add to their crop diversity with seed they obtain from social networks or purchase in local markets, from agro-dealers or seed companies. Complimenting this informal seed system is the formal seed system, which is made up of public and private seed companies that develop high-quality seed of new crop varieties.
The challenges of ensuring access of farmers to quality seed of appropriate and adapted varieties, whether through the formal seed system or the farmer-based informal seed system, has been a recurrent issue in the quality enhancement and quality assurance review stages of IFAD investment projects. The complexity and requirements of the seed sector are often underestimated in the design and during implementation of projects. It is important to treat seed not only as an agricultural input but also as a carrier of genetic material and source of diversity. Seed needs to be considered under three main components:
- the informal system, i.e. community-based seed supply, all within a policy and regulatory framework;
- the formal system, i.e. commercially-oriented seed supply;
- agricultural research.
Scope of the seed systems analysis
A first step in the process is to establish the overall scope for the analysis, which will help to focus information collection. Much of this information can be gathered from secondary sources, supplemented by primary data collection. Some guiding questions are:
- Geographic scope of the potential intervention: Is the potential intervention covering the entire country or one particular region? What are the major agroecological zones in the intervention area and what are their specific characteristics, i.e. soil type, elevation, slope, temperature regime and rainfall (quantity and distribution), and what is the probability of crop stress or failure due to drought, floods, etc.?
- Target group’s profile: What is the average landholding per household? What are the main farming systems, cropping systems, sources of community livelihoods and household incomes? Are farming households seed secure?
- Target group’s crops: What is the ranking of the main crops for food and/or for cash, especially from the perspective of women and youth? What percentage of the crop is sold and what are the requirements of the market? What are the related field activities for production of each crop and the respective gender roles, such as land preparation, planting, weeding, harvesting, drying and storage? Which crops are grown in marginal agroecologies? Which crops have a higher nutritional value for the household, especially from the women’s perspective? Are there important culinary characteristics of the food crops? Are crop residues used for animal feed, construction or income-generating activities? Which crops could be targeted in a seed project and why?