Seed security

Posted: 14 December 2007

Seed security is a major issue, according to FAO, which points out that 1.5 billion people live on family farms that are still largely dependent on their own sources of seed, saving a portion of what they grow each year to sow the following season.

Bangladesh: woman cleaning Chinese cabbage seed for next years crop. Credit: FAO

  • Seed selection is often a woman's job and can be a sophisticated process, involving choice of seeds from strong, productive crop varieties which may then be interplanted with other favoured varieties in the field to encourage cross-breeding.

  • Before the civil war in Rwanda, in 1994, farmers grew over 500 different varieties of bean. During the war harvests were lost, and so was the seed for the next season. Aid agencies provided imported beans, but many were not adapted to local conditions. Some of these so-called high-yielding seeds produced 30 per cent less than the traditional varieties.

  • FAO is now working to ensure that farmers' adapted varieties are stored in genebanks in sufficient quantities - and regenerated often enough - so that they can be given back to the people who first supplied them, in case of emergency. Other sources of quality seeds for adapted crop varieties can be found in the informal or formal seed supply systems near or even inside areas affected by disaster.

  • In the mid-1980s, 7,000 companies produced seeds. In the wake of seed and fertiliser developments in the 1960s, transnational corporations (TNCs) began to buy up small family seed companies. In 1998, there were around 1,500 seed companies in the world, with 24 of them accounting for about half the commercial seed market. Ten years later, and ten businesses dominate half the market. There is a danger that patents on seeds taken out by TNCs could jeopardise the independence of farmers.

  • Patenting, believes Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, will mean farmers become dependent on TNCs for their seeds, and that the companies will decide what is grown by farmers, leaving them with considerably less choice.