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Maize for sale at Cotacachi's agroecological market in Ecuador. November 2022.

New ways to protect food crops from climate change and other disruptions

Success in adapting our food to climate change and other stresses is dependent on more involvement from the smallholder farmers on the front line.

“There’s no doubt we can produce enough food for the world’s population - humanity is strategic enough to achieve that. The question is whether - because of war and conflict and corruption and destabilisation - we do,” World Food Programme leader David Beasley said in an interview with Time magazine earlier this year.

Indeed, projections show that we are not on track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2 of Zero Hunger by 2030.

As climate and security crises continue to destabilise our food sources, researchers are taking a critical look not just at how we produce food - but at the entire systems behind our food supplies. In this case, the systems behind the seeds that produce our food crops.

“Whilst adapting crops to climate change and conserving their variation is essential for food security, these measures are meaningless if farmers do not have access to the seeds,” Ola Westengen says.

He is a crop scientist and food system expert. Westengen leads the team of researchers from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) who recently reviewed the state of seed systems for smallholder farmers in low/middle income countries.

Ola Westengern is an associate professor at Noragric.

What are seed systems?

Seed systems are the provision, management and distribution of seeds. They cover the entire seed chain, from the conservation of their diversity and variety development, to their production and distribution, and the rules that govern these activities.

In short, they are the structures that make seeds available to farmers so that crops can be sown, harvested and end up on our plates.

Whilst a well-functioning seed system will ensure seed security for all farmers, the researchers say that, in practice, it is rarely the case that seed systems function as well as they might.

Seed systems can be disrupted by conflict and disasters, as well as by problems stemming from social inequality, lack of coordination or inappropriate policies.

Teshome Hunduma is a postdoctoral research fellow at NMBU's Department of International Environment and Development Studies.

What does this study tell us that we don’t already know?

“There are recent innovations and investments by governments and donors to improve farmers’ access to diverse crop varieties and quality seeds,” Teshome Hunduma says.

He is a seed governance researcher and co-author of the new study.

“For example, there are now more flexible policies and regulations that encourage diversity in the seed systems used by farmers, rather than pushing farmers to switch to commercial seed systems that focus on less diverse commodity crops - which is the norm,” he says.

Commodity crops are those grown in large volume and high intensity for the purpose of sale, as opposed to those grown by small-holder farmers for direct processing and consumption.

“The study highlights emerging initiatives that are helping farmers to secure food supplies, such as participatory plant breeding,” Teshome says.

Participatory plant breeding is the development and selection of new crop varieties where the farmers are in control. Farmers, who know the needs of their farms best, work with researchers and others to improve crops and develop plant varieties that are in line with their household needs and culture, and that are resilient to environmental and climate challenges.

“Farmers prefer and need different types of seeds, based on diverse social, cultural and ecological conditions,” ethnobotanist and co-author Sarah Paule Dalle adds.

Social inequality

“A seed system that only serves a segment of a farming society contributes to seed insecurity,” Teshome says. “For example, commercial seed systems deliver high-yielding varieties of quality hybrid seeds. Whilst wealthy farmers can afford such seeds, poor farmers can’t. Similarly, whilst commercial seed systems that focus on commodity crops may benefit men who might primarily be interested in market value, such systems have little to offer women who want crops that provide household nutrition and meet their cultural preferences.”

He explains that this means poor farmers and women do not have the same access to seeds that meet their needs. The result is seed, and thus food, insecurity due to social and economic inequality.

Political-economic factors have driven the globalisation of food systems over the last decades, which also includes seed systems.

The researchers all agree that seeds have become big business.

According to studies quoted in the article, the four largest multinational companies in seed trade today control about 60 per cent of the roughly 50 billion USD global commercial seed market. The large private actors have the power not only to shape markets, but also to influence science and innovation agendas and policy frameworks.

According to the researchers, this can be problematic when private sector research and development typically focuses on the most profitable crops, such as maize and soy. Crops grown and consumed by subsistence farmers are thus largely neglected, and the potential of crop diversity - the foundation of agriculture - remains largely untapped.

Technology that could help develop more robust varieties remains hypothetical.

How does the ownership of crop diversity threaten food supplies?

The term crop diversity refers both to different crops and different varieties of a crop. According to the Global Crop Diversity Trust (one of the world’s primary international organisations on crop diversity conservation), securing and making available the world’s crop diversity is essential for future food and nutrition security.

“Plant breeders and scientists use crop diversity to develop new, more resilient and productive varieties that consumers want to eat, that are nutritious and tasty, and that are adapted to local preferences, environments and challenges,” Benjamin Kilian says.

He is a plant genetics expert at the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

The Crop Trust, together with NMBU, implements the major project from which this study emerged: Biodiversity for Opportunities, Livelihoods and Development (BOLD).

Coordinated by Kilian, the project supports the conservation and use of crop diversity to strengthen food and nutrition security on a global scale. It builds on the Crop Wild Relatives project and is funded by the Norwegian government.

“In the BOLD project, researchers work with genebanks, plant breeders and others in the seed value chain to co-develop seed systems that are both resilient to climate stresses and inclusive of smallholder farmers on the frontline of adaptation,” Westengen says.

Sarah Paule Dalle is a researcher on the BOLD project.

There is no one-size-fits-all

Will access to seeds in the vulnerable areas that you are studying be improved in time to make a difference?

“We hope so, if we make the right moves to include smallholder farmers in seed system development,” Dalle says. “A well-functioning seed system should also be resilient. That is, it should withstand shocks such as drought or pandemics and breakdowns or disruptions such as war and conflict.”

“To do this, the system should promote a diversity of seeds, both local varieties and those improved to better adapt to stresses. It should also involve diverse groups of people such as farmer cooperatives/groups, and both public and private companies to increase the choice of seeds and seed sources. During lockdowns in the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, farmers’ own seed systems enabled access to seeds in developing countries when the activities of private companies and agro-dealers were restricted,” Dalle says.

Westengen summarises: “Our study highlights links between the crucial work of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the farmers on the frontline of adapting our food systems to climate change. It is an argument for co-designing seed system development in full cooperation with farmers and other actors in the seed system. This way, efforts can meet the needs of various groups of farmers in different agroecological contexts. There is no one-size-fits-all; if there is one natural law in biology, it is that diversity is key to future evolution. That also goes for seed systems - and food system development.”


Westengen et al. Navigating toward resilient and inclusive seed systems, PNAS, 2023. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2218777120

The BOLD project

BOLD (Biodiversity for Opportunities, Livelihoods, and Development) is a major 10-year project to strengthen food and nutrition security worldwide by supporting the conservation and use of crop diversity.

The project works with national genebanks, pre-breeding and seed system partners globally.

Funded by the government of Norway, BOLD is led by the Crop Trust in partnership with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the International Plant Treaty.

The Crop Trust

The Crop Trust is an international organisation working to conserve crop diversity and thus protect global food and nutrition security.

At the core of Crop Trust is an endowment fund dedicated to providing guaranteed long-term financial support to key genebanks worldwide.

The Crop Trust supports the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and coordinates large-scale projects worldwide to secure crop diversity and make it available for use. T

he Crop Trust is recognised as an essential element of the funding strategy of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

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