12 Jun, 2020

In the beginning was the seed

by Alessandro Balduzzi

A trans-boundary shock like coronavirus showed how suddenly globalisation can turn into an amplifier of local threats, while strong links between different areas of our planet can become the fastest way to spread a disease.

Up to now, the global food supply chain has not been severely affected yet. Still, a topic that is neglected by wider audience such as seed security and its contribution to food security plays a fundamental role in countries where calamitous food shocks are far from occurring rarely. 

First of all, what is seed security? According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), seed security can be defined as the ready access by rural households, particularly farmers and farming communities, to adequate quantities of quality seed and planting materials of crop varieties, adapted to their agri-ecological conditions and socioeconomic needs. 

Taken for granted in luckier contexts, the availability and access to seeds is particularly important to farmers in developing countries and sometimes also in developed areas which are nevertheless frequently subject to droughts, floods, or other kinds of natural and human calamities. When seed security is not guaranteed, food insecurity can arise. 

A first distinction to draw is between acute and chronic seed insecurity, which is mainly based on its duration. Acute seed insecurity is triggered by distinct, short-duration events often affecting a broad range of the population. For instance, it can be caused by the loss of a harvest or by high levels of infestation of stored seed stocks in environments which are identified as seed secure or semi-secure in normal times. 

On the other hand, chronic seed insecurity is not dependent on situations of acute stress or disasters. Still, the latter can worsen it. Chronic seed insecurity is mainly produced by different kinds of marginalization; economical (for example, because of poor labour and small plots of land), ecological (such as repeated drought or degraded land), political (like in insecure areas or on land where tenure arrangements are uncertain). 

As manifestations of this chronic seed insecurity, we can recall the continual shortage of adequate seed to plant, difficulties in acquiring seed off the farm due to lack of funds, the routine use of low-quality seed and unwanted varieties. The result is households with a built-in vulnerability to seed system calamities. 

Based on this first distinction, we can already deduce that at least some elements account as critical for seed security: availability, access, and quality. To sum up, seed has to be available, farmers need to be able to access it, and the seed quality must be sufficient to promote healthy seed system functioning.

Since different problems need different solutions, a variety of approaches exist to face seed insecurity. For instance, direct distribution of seed can be the suitable method to react to its acute (short-term) unavailability whereas to support development of seed production - including commercial enterprise - is more suitable to chronic (long-term) unavailability. 

When lack of access is due to the farmers’ poverty, appropriate short-term responses could include instead cash disbursement, seed fairs with vouchers or cash local procurement and distribution whereas poverty-reduction programs supporting the development of income-generating activities and agri-enterprises would have longer-term beneficial effects.

The link between seed security and food security is fairly easy to grasp. In farming communities, both are dependent on each other. Seeds are the foundation of food security here, the repository of the genetic potential of crop species and their varieties, resulting from improvement and selection over time. 

As to availability, a drop in crop production - that is a decreased degree of food security - can sometimes translate to less or no seed for the following season. Lack or difficulty of access caused by poverty can involve both food and seed insecurity. For instance, increases for the price of grain on the market would also raise the price for seed purchases, which means that farmers with weak entitlements to food would also have weak entitlements to seed. 

On the other hand, farmers who have weak access to seed can react by switching to lower-yielding varieties, lowering seeding rates or decreasing sown areas, which most probably affects production - that is food security - at least in the short-term.

And how can coronavirus impact seed security? Travel restrictions and disruptions to local markets may disrupt established supply chains and reduce seed availability, particularly with regard to other than indigenous vegetables. Furthermore, market disruptions may lead to an increase in the price of seeds as well as reduced incomes and reduced ability of farmers to purchase seeds, if not even preventing them from physically accessing markets to purchase seeds.

Accordingly, farmers may alter their crop choices and the size of their planted plots due to the uncertainty of the situation and/or due to seed access and availability. More of food crops and less of cash crops to increase production for greater self-sufficiency, less overall if they cannot access the labour and inputs they need or crops that have shorter growing periods and/or can be stored more easily. 

Coronavirus is just the last burden on seed security. And most probably, it is not the heaviest one - at least compared with climate change. Still, the current global health emergency must be a wake-up call for us to care more for seed security. Because at the end of the day, all we find in our plates originated from nothing more than a seed.