Stages of Early Generation Seed Systems
Unpacking a USAID and BMGF partnership project on early generation seed systems by studying ten seed systems across the world, this post was written by Veronica Mulhall on behalf of Context Global Development.
It all begins at the seed
It is before dawn, and the dirt shifts under her boots as she preps the soil. In many ways, today is like many before it. This is the land that her father farmed, and his father before him. And, just like them, today she will lay seed. This year, she is planting a new variety of potato. It should have a higher yield, and when she tends its growth, she will be reminded that the seed was derived from generations as well. Its success is hers; with each improved variety, her farm improves and her family and community thrive.
The genetics and quality of planted seed establish the upper bound of a farmer’s yield. With quality seed from improved varieties, agricultural productivity is possible. Tracing seed back to the seed system from which the farmer purchased it provides the opportunity to learn from successes and failures – and carry these learnings into improved seed systems for many.
Studying seed systems
In informal seed systems, smallholder farmers plant seed obtained either directly from their own harvest; through exchange and barter among friends, neighbors, and relatives; or through local grain markets. These seeds are generally of unknown quality.
By contrast, the formal seed system (as illustrated in Figure 1) is a deliberately constructed and bounded system, which involves a chain of activities leading to specific products (Louwaars, 1994). Key steps in the formal seed system include varietal development; early generation seed (EGS) production (comprising breeder and foundation seed); and commercial seed production, marketing, and distribution to agro-dealers and farmers.
In theory, seed of demanded varieties is multiplied from small quantities of breeder and foundation seed before being sold to private seed companies for commercial seed production, marketing, and distribution to agro-dealers and farmers. However, in practice, the multiplication of breeder and foundation seed is too frequently a missing link that constrains access to quality seed.
The production of early generation seed for public varieties is often not a moneymaker because the volumes are low and field production costs are high. Public sector institutions that attempt to meet EGS demand unilaterally are often stymied by not only the lack of monetary incentives but by limited infrastructure and finite human and financial capital. Meanwhile, commercial seed producers that make up the private sector often do not see a profit incentive for moving upstream into EGS production, which is more capital intensive than later-stage seed multiplication.
Ultimately, the public sector is responsible for delivering the essential services for an EGS system to exist, but it’s clear that the health and success of an EGS system is greatly influenced by the level of private sector involvement.
When public and private sector actors work in collaboration, they both benefit from the result: a more productive and mature EGS system. Public breeding programs develop the improved varieties that farmers rely on, while private breeders’ success is measured by the commercial adoption of their varieties. This symbiotic relationship promotes a strong feedback loop between stakeholders who have a mutual interest in increasing the profitability of a crop.
Figure 2 below categorizes the maturity of seed systems according to their level of stakeholder collaboration, as emerging, expanding, and mature:
Emerging early generation seed systems
These systems rely on the public sector to fund and produce early generation seed. Demand for early generation seed exists, but significant supply bottlenecks constrain growth.
Expanding early generation seed system
These systems similarly require the public sector to fund and manage EGS production, but quality seed production is done on a commercial basis. The EGS system supplies some demand, but supply bottlenecks and/or demand constraints continue to impede growth.
Mature early generation seed systems
These systems benefit from both public and private sector support for EGS production, and the cost of producing foundation seed is mostly covered by seed sales. The seed system feeds a well-established commodity value chain, and demand is high for the trait packages offered by improved varieties.
In taking a closer look at emerging, expanding, and mature EGS systems, there is an evident transition from the high need for the public sector in an emerging system, toward more public-private partnerships in an expanding system, which ultimately paves the way for greater participation from the private sector in a mature system.