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Definition

A 'seed system' is "an interrelated set of components including breeding, management, replacement and distribution of seed." G. Thiele (World Development 27:83-99).

Two broad types are recognized: formal seed systems and local or informal seed systems. These are well described below in an excerpt from Louise Sperling and H. David Cooper's article, "Understanding seed systems and strengthening seed security." This article is available online .

The formal seed system is "a deliberately constructed system, which includes a chain of activities leading to clear products: certified seeds of verified varieties. The chain usually starts with plant breeding and selection, resulting in different types of varieties, including hybrids, and promotes materials leading to formal release and maintenance. Guiding principles in the formal system are to maintain varietal identity and purity and to produce seeds of optimal physical, physiological and sanitary quality. Certified seed marketing and distribution take place through a limited number of officially recognized seed outlets, usually for financial sale. The central premise of the formal systems is there is a clear distinction between 'seed' and 'grain.' This distinction is less clear in the local, farmer seed system.

A local seed system is basically what the formal seed system is not. Activities tend to be integrated and locally organized, and the local system embraces most of the other ways in which farmers themselves produce, disseminate, and access seed: directly from their own harvest; through exchange and barter among friends, neighbors and relatives; and through local grain markets. Encompassing a wider range of seed system variations, what characterizes the local seed system most is its flexibility. Varieties may be landraces or mixed races and may be heterogeneous (modified through breeding and use)…The same general steps or processes take place in the local systems as in the formal sector (variety choice, variety testing, introduction, seed multiplication, selection, dissemination, and storage) but they take place an integral parts of farmers' production systems rather than as discrete activities. While some farmers treat 'seed' specially, there is not always necessarily a distinction between 'seed' and 'grain'. The steps do not flow in a linear sequence, and they are not monitored or controlled by government policies and regulations. Rather, they are guided by local technical knowledge and standards and by local social structures and norms. Despite, or perhaps because, of their variability and local specificity to needs and preferences, local channels (e.g. household stocks, markets, social exchange networks) provide most of the seed that most small farmers use. Common figures suggest that somewhere between 80-90% of the seed farmers access comes from the local seed system.

(Seed systems) are complex and dynamic. One system is usually not necessarily better or more effective than the other; they meet different kinds of needs, sometimes for different environmental niches, and for different types of farmers. Moreover, there are no clear or absolute divides between the formal and local seed systems: seeds and varieties can flow between them; farmers draw upon one or the other, depending on need. Seed-related interventions, whether for 'relief', 'rehabilitation' or 'development' need to be based on an appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of each…we need to be proactive to develop productive strategies to integrate the strengths of the two."

Relevant literature

Available in PDF format
Scientific references: seed systems

Available on the Internet
CIAT seed system work

  • Website: CIAT-Africa
  • Description: CIAT-Africa has been one of the leaders in seed system research. The group gained much expertise in this area as a result of their involvement in seed aid and germplasm restoration programs aimed at helping African farmers recover from disasters (both natural and manmade). Details of their work can be accessed from this web page. Among the documents that are available as PDFs, listed on the right hand side of the page, see especially:
    • Sperling, L. and H. David Cooper. Understanding seed systems and strengthening seed security: a background paper. 2003.
    • Rubyogo, J.C, L. Sperling and T. Remington. 2004. Seed systems and seed relief: an annotated bibliography.
    • David, S. Farmer seed enterprises: a sustainable approach to seed delivery.

Website: CIAT Partnerships for Seed Systems

  • Website: CIAT
  • Description: This link takes you CIAT's bean improvement program on seed systems. This site summarizes a project to link major seed system partners, including government, non-governmental organizations, commercial seed companies and local community-based organizations based on their comparative advantages.

Small-scale seed producers handbooks
These are very practical and useful technical publications aimed at building the capacity of farmer seed enterprises to simultaneously supply local bean seed needs and improve farmer livelihoods by helping to generate income.

  • Volume 1: Producing Bean Seed (available in English, Portuguese, Kiswahili, Chichewa)
    • Website: Handbook 1
    • Description: This "was written for small-scale farmers who have no formal training or experience in bean seed production, and are interested in producing bean seed for sale. Researchers, extension agents or local NGOs are also a valuable source of assistance in understanding the topics covered in this handbook."
  • Volume 2: Business skills for Small-Scale Seed Producers (available in English, French, Portuguese, and 2 Ugandan languages)
    • Website: Handbook 2
    • Description: This handbook "was written for people who have no formal training or experience in seed production, oriented especially toward small-scale farmers, entrepreneurs, and community-based institutions, such as schools and churches, that are interested in producing seed of various crops for sale. Local NGOs or extension agents are also a valuable source of assistance in understanding the topics covered in this handbook. The handbook on business skills for seed producers does not focus on any one crop. In this context, "seed" also refers to vegetatively reproduced crops, forages, and trees."
  • Volume 3: Business skills for Small-Scale Seed Producers: A Trainer's Guide. (available in English and French).
    • Website: Handbook 3
    • Description: This handbook "is directed more specifically to guiding facilitators assisting farmers and community organizations to set up seed-production businesses. Both the agronomic and business aspects of setting up a successful seed-production business are discussed."

ICRISAT seed system work

  • Website: ICRISAT
  • Description: ICRISAT has also been a key player in seed system rehabilitation/improvement. They provide the full-text PDFs of several relevant publications at their website. See especially:
    • Reference: ICRISAT-Mozambique. Guidelines for planning local seed system interventions: improving the efficiency of seed distribution (English and Spanish)
    • Reference: Rohrbach, D. K. Mtenga, J. Kiriwaggulu, E. Monyo, F. Mwaisele, and H. Saadan. 2002. Comparative study of three community seed supply strategies in Tanzania. Follow this link for the html version.
    • Reference: Longley, C., C. Dominguez, and M. Devji. 2005. Agricultural input trade fairs and vouchers in Mozambique: experiences and lessons learned. ICRISAT/ODI Working paper.

CIP seed system work: Potato Seed Systems

  • Website: CIP
  • Description: Access articles related to CIP's potato seed systems work. Another good reference on potato seed systems is the article by Thiele listed in our seed system bibliography.

CIMMYT seed system-related workshop

  • Website: CIMMYT
  • Description: "Strengthening Seed Marketing Incentives in Southern Africa to Increase the Impact of Maize Breeding Research." This site provides the information coming out of a workshop on seed marketing in southern Africa, held in Lilongwe, Malawi on March 17, 2004. The site has downloadable baseline studies, background papers, reports and training materials for Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Formal seed system economics

  • Website: ICARDA seed unit
  • Reference: Kugbei, Sam. Seed Economics: Commercial Considerations for Enterprise Management in Developing Countries. ICARDA.
  • Description: A full text book but with each section has its own PDF. The four sections are: I. Overview of the seed system; II. Technical and institutional aspects; III. Financial, economic, social and environmental aspects; IV. Commercial aspects. Follow this path to access the document: link above > e-publications.

Aspects of African seed systems

  • Website: IDEAS
    • Reference: Maredia, M., J. Howard, and D. Boughton. 1999. Increasing seed system efficiency in Africa: concepts, strategies, and issues. Dept. of Agricultural Economics. Michigan State University.
    • Description: "The purpose of this paper is to provide a conceptual framework that can be used by agricultural leaders, administrators, policy makers, and seed program managers to (1) understand key factors affecting seed system development; and (2) compare organizational and institutional strategies for increasing seed system effectiveness. A literature review of recent studies on seed system development in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) was undertaken to achieve these objectives. The studies reviewed included published and unpublished reports, monographs, and case studies."
  • Website: World Bank
    • Reference: V. Venkatesan. 1994. Seed Systems in Sub-Saharan Africa: Issues and Options. Discussion Paper No. 266. Technical Department, Africa Region. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.
    • Description: This brief paper outlines the issues and options to improve seed systems in the developing world. It is available for reading online.
  • Website: AgREN
    • Reference: Longley, C., R. Jones, M. H. Ahmed, and P. Audi. 2001. Supporting local seed systems in southern Somalia: a developmental approach to agricultural rehabilitation in emergency situations. Agricultural Research and Extension Network Paper 115.
    • Description: Follow this path to access this document: link above > AgREN publications > Network papers 76-148.

Millet seed systems

  • Website: IFPRI (provides link for downloadable pdf file)
    • Reference: Nagarajan L and M. Smale. 2005. Local Seed Systems and Village-Level Determinants of Millet Crop Diversity in Marginal Environments of India. IFPRI Discussion Paper 135.
    • Description: This paper describes the characteristics of local millet seed markets in India, including seed transfer rates between farmers, and seed replacement ratios, and discusses the implications in relation to genetic diversity.

Relevant links

International Seed Trade Association

  • Website: ISTA
  • Description: Directory of (formal) seed organizations and associations

Website: International Plant Name Index (IPNI)

  • Website: IPNI
  • Description: "The International Plant Names Index (IPNI) is a database of the names and associated basic bibliographical details of all seed plants, ferns and fern allies. Its goal is to eliminate the need for repeated reference to primary sources for basic bibliographic information about plant names. The data are freely available and are gradually being standardized and checked. IPNI will be a dynamic resource, depending on direct contributions by all members of the botanical community. IPNI is the product of a collaboration between The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, The Harvard University Herbaria, and the Australian National Herbarium."

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