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The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience

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Commentary:Adapting to the Complexity of Seed Systems

Jean-Louis Pham is a Plant Geneticist with IRD (Institut de recherche pour le développement), a French interdisciplinary research organization focused on rural issues in Africa, the Mediterranean, Latin America and Asia. Pham has a wealth of field experience in West Africa and the Philippines and is the author of dozens of peer reviewed research papers. He is currently the Chair of Agrobiodiversity Programs at Agropolis Fondation, a French consortium of research institutions dedicated to agricultural development.

Community based seed systems are diverse and complex entities. There is a diversity of seed systems because of the diversity of eco-geographical and economical conditions, of the crop reproductive biology, of cultural factors, etc. Between yam seed systems in Benin1 and the rice seed systems in the Philippines2, the differences are huge, even though one can reasonably attempt to describe them with a single theoretical framework.

Factors of complexity within seed systems are numerous, but a few can be mentioned:

  • Diversity of stakeholder categories (farmers, seed sellers, breeding companies, research institutes, etc.)
  • Diversity of functions, expectations and behaviours of these usually heterogeneous categories of actors (innovators/followers, network nodes/network branches, experimented/newcomers, Indigenous/non-Indigenous, local/multinational, etc.)
  • Changes over time in these roles, expectations and behaviours

The results from this diversity and complexity mean that the ways to sustain, protect and strengthen CBSS will have to be diverse, tailored and adaptive.

In a sense, there are no “best” ways to protect and strengthen CBSS; there are ways which are appropriate—or not—depending on situations.

A research study we conducted on rice diversity in the Cagayan Valley proposed solutions to sustain rice agrobiodiversity. Local seed systems were identified from a thorough diagnosis conducted on the reasons why farmers were discarding local, long-duration varieties or were not growing local varieties after climatic catastrophes. Only this diagnosis was able to suggest interventions.

We then took the possible interventions and placed them in two categories.

  1. Make diversity a viable option for farmers.
    • Develop market niches for long-duration landraces (particularly, those threatened by short duration “modern” varieties).
    • Develop cropping methods to allow two cultivation cycles, including one with long duration landraces.
    • Improve local landraces.
  2. Strengthen farmers’ access to diversity.
    • Develop seed storage facilities at the household level.
    • Set up links between farmers and gene banks.

The lack of knowledge of seed systems is a bottleneck for actions aimed at supporting CBSS. In order to address this, it is helpful to carry out an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of targeted seed systems as well as threats to seed diversity. However, baseline data on crop diversity are often not available, which makes difficult to assess the effect of interventions.

“More generally, we have little knowledge on how to monitor the efficiency of seed systems. To do so, we would need to define what services are expected. Do we seek to measure food safety, diversity preservation, evolutionary services, community empowerment? That would lead to the identification of realistically measurable indicators and the timescale that should be used to measure these indicators.”

More generally, we have little knowledge on how to monitor the efficiency of seed systems. To do so, we would need to define what services are expected from each specific CBSS. Do we seek to measure food safety, diversity preservation, evolutionary services, community empowerment? That would lead to the identification of realistically measurable indicators and the timescale that should be used to measure these indicators.

New information technologies make it possible to gather data on crop distribution and seed exchanges through crowdsourcing. This should be explored.

We have even less knowledge about what makes seed systems resilient or makes them collapse without possible restoration. Where are the tipping points? For example, what level of erosion of local knowledge or social exchanges can be tolerated without endangering a seed exchange network? This kind of research should be supported, and should involve the active participation of farmers.

“For centuries farmers have had the practice of discarding some crop varieties and introducing new varieties from other communities, however seeds from breeding companies or national research systems are now the main sources of new varieties.”

Another important intervention is to promote the coexistence and interactions between seed systems. CBSS cannot be closed systems. For centuries farmers have had the practice of discarding some crop varieties and introducing new varieties from other communities, however seeds from breeding companies or national research systems are now the main sources of new varieties.

The challenge now is to promote the coexistence of CBSS with commercial seed systems. What are the benefits for CBSS and what can be expected from this coexistence? What seed policies are needed to facilitate the conditions for coexistence?

The role of international seed policy

The role of international bodies such as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture should not be underestimated in order to address local issues at the global level. There is a need to support the activities of the treaty, particularly through the support of research that could strengthen the scientific basis of initiatives led by it. The development of appropriate seed policies could also be encouraged at rather high levels in regional fora and organizations (i.e., CORAAF and CEDEAO in West and Central Africa).

Endnotes
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1. N. Scarcelli, Tostain S., Vigouroux Y., Agbangla C., Daïnou O., Pham J.-L., (2006) Farmers’ use of wild relatives and sexual reproduction in a vegetatively propagated crop. The case of yam in Benin. Molecular Ecology. 15:2421-2432.

2. N. Scarcelli,, Tostain S, Baco MN, Agbangla C, Daïnou O, Vigouroux Y, Pham JL, (2008) Does agriculture conflict with in situ conservation? A case study on the use of wild relatives by yam farmers in Benin. In: Maxted N, Ford-Lloyd BV, Kell SP, Iriondo JM, Dulloo ME et Turok J (eds) Crop Wild Relative Conservation and Use. CAB International, U.K., pp331-339

3. SR Morin, M Calibo, M Garcia-Belen, JL Pham and F Palis, (2002) Natural Hazards and Genetic Diversity in Rice. Agriculture and Human Values 19:133-149.

4. Pham, J.L., Morin S.R. Morin, L.S. Sebastian, G.A. Abrigo, M.A. Calibo, S.M. Quilloy, L. Hipolito and M.T. Jackson (2002) Rice, farmers and genebanks: a case study in the Cagayan Valley, Philippines. In: J. Engels, Ramathan Rao, AHD Brown and MT Jackson (eds). Managing Plant genetic diversity. CABI-IPGRI. 149-160.

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