June is Seed Systems Month
This month we are highlighting seed systems. USAID’s Feed the Future programs and partners have been striving to create quality seeds of improved crop varieties in order to deliver higher yields to smallholder farmers. But while progress is being made, we––as a community concerned about the promise of better seeds––have not seen the impacts that were anticipated.
Seed systems are complex. New crop varieties take years to develop. They must meet national performance trials to demonstrate they are distinct, uniform, and stable before they can be released. Once released, they must often be certified for quality standards and truthfully labeled. Seeds take generations to bulk up to the point that there are sufficient volumes to sell. They have to be commercialized, then their use must be scaled up. As the African Seed Access Index's investigations documents, this chain of events can break down because of adverse conditions (drought, pests, etc.), poor handling, or other constraints that frequently arise.
Despite such difficulties, we do see significant recent progress––which makes this a good time to report on seed system progress. Thanks to AGRA, there are now over 100 African seed companies that produce seeds for inspection. Among the important seed system developments have been reforms in several countries to allow private seed inspectors to be certified. Zambia has led the way followed by Kenya, and in Asia, Nepal. Ghana, Mozambique, and Rwanda are now laying the foundations for private seed inspections within their regulatory frameworks. Government seed inspectors are now becoming certifiers and auditors of private inspectors. There is a paucity of seed inspectors in all of these countries, and the amount of training to be done is formidable. A number of seed companies have joined together privately to financially and otherwise support such training.
A second development is that government regulators are improving their varietal release systems. KALRO in Kenya now has systems in place to license new varieties and collect royalties from seed companies (as in the example of potatoes) through the support of Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Development.
A third development has been the completion of a series of country and crop studies on global best practices for public private partnerships for the production of early generation seeds with a synthesis of lessons learned, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For the first time we have a compendium of the institutional arrangements used in seed systems around the world that intermediate the transfer of research materials to seed companies and seed cooperatives.
A final development is a move toward digitization through the establishment of online regional seed catalogs in COMESA and SADC and the development of seed traceability system by Seed Assure. In conjunction with these catalogs are new commercial platforms for mobile field inspections that link plots of land to seeds lots to export documents for customs clearance that should advance harmonized seed trade.
There are partners that stand ready to provide support: Catholic Relief Services through USAID support, AGRA, and the Seed Systems Group. You will hear from each of them this month.