In many developing countries, limited availability, access, and affordability of quality propagation material for well-adapted varieties, species, breeds, and strains hinders our efforts to transform food systems toward greater productivity, inclusivity, and sustainability. But getting seed systems “right” is not easy because seed systems are complex and specific to crop, country, agroecological, and market context. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
In fact, a rich diversity of innovative approaches to seed systems development have emerged during the past decade, bringing together development practitioners, public administrators, seed entrepreneurs, and applied researchers to develop practical solutions. Considerable progress has been made with the participation of organizations and initiatives such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the Access to Seed Index, The African Seed Access Index, the Seed Systems Group, Wageningen UR, and CGIAR among many others.
Drawing on this rich body of work, a group of CGIAR researchers set out in 2020 to position seed systems development at the core of the unfolding One CGIAR strategy meant to shape a stronger, more relevant science agenda for today’s dynamic world.
The resulting Community of Excellence for Seed Systems Development (COE) encouraged CGIAR to place greater emphasis on seed systems by heightening their role not only in productivity growth, but also in advancing nutritious foods and diets; gender, youth, and social inclusion; and environmental sustainability. Indeed, seed systems are a primary instrument through which CGIAR and its partners will deliver on its five impact areas related to nutrition, poverty, gender, climate, and environment, and on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The COE has put forward a case for greater investment in seed systems by drawing attention to the need for greater demand orientation, stronger support to emerging private seed companies, more sensible seed regulation, and more effective engagement with national partners. The COE’s work has also highlighted the need for greater attention to key issues—social inclusion in seed system activities, local efforts to conserve biodiversity, and the political economy factors that hinder progress—that are too often overlooked or marginalized.
Highlights of the COE’s work are available on this page, with additional work published in a special issue of Outlook on Agriculture.
Seed systems development already has an important place in the CGIAR agenda. There are activities around specific crops, trees, forages, livestock, and fish; regions (e.g., sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, South Asia); and collaborations (e.g., partnerships with global crop-science and livestock breeding firms, financial service providers, genetic resource experts, and small domestic seed producers). But as a whole, CGIAR efforts were fragmented in the run-up to the launch of the One CGIAR strategy, indicating a real need for closer coordination, especially in support of public policy and regulation, commercialization pathways, and biodiversity conservation.
The CGIAR Community of Excellence for Seed Systems Development was a catalytic process to establish a community of experts and a forward-looking strategy that places seed systems development squarely on the One CGIAR research-for-development agenda. Behind this initiative is a vision that all developing-country farmers, and especially small-scale, resource-poor female and male farmers in those countries, shall have the opportunity to participate in and benefit from equitable, sustainable, and innovative seed systems that offer well-adapted and quality propagation material for crops, trees, forages, livestock, and fish.
The COE does not take a prescriptive approach to seed systems development, nor does it adhere to a single paradigm or model. The initiative recognizes the rich diversity in the reproductive biology of crops, trees, forages, livestock, and fish, and the heterogeneity found within the agro-ecological, socioeconomic, and policy contexts in which seed is developed, produced, exchanged, and used.
The expected long-term outcomes of this initiative are substantive improvements to nutrition, poverty reduction, gender equity and social inclusion, resilience to climate change, and environmental sustainability in focal countries and regions throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This will result from the development of more vibrant, sustainable, and inclusive food systems and of seed systems that ensure small-scale, resource-poor women and men farmers have timely access to quality seed of well-adapted, resilient, and affordable varieties. To achieve this, we need a more coherent and better coordinated evidence-based approach to seed systems development built on high-quality research and innovation closely integrated with communications, partnership, and capacity development.
The initiative is anchored in three programs that share a common interest in seed systems development: the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), the Integrated Seed Sector Development in Africa (ISSD Africa) project, and the Netherlands-CGIAR Seed Systems Development research program (NL-CGIAR SSD). Learn more and meet the members of the Technical Committee>>
We use the term “seed systems” as a generic phrase to describe any system in which propagation materials for crops, trees, forages, livestock, and fish are produced, conserved, exchanged, and used. We use the term “variety” to refer to crop varieties, tree and forage species, livestock breeds, and fish strains, along with the genotypic or phenotypic characteristics that distinguish them. We use the term “farmers” as a generic phrase that includes small-scale farmers, agricultural laborers, livestock keepers, fisher-people, and people who derive livelihoods from forestry and agroforestry.
For more information, please contact David Spielman, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Photos: Georgina Smith/CIAT; ILRI/Mann; Neil Palmer/CIAT; AVCD/Muthoni Njiru; CIAT/Neil Palmer