In a majority of countries in the Global South, farmers’ seeds constitute more than 80% of the total seeds used for agricultural production and substantially contribute to local food security. Farmers’ seeds are also locally produced and provide cost-effective and easy access to locally preferred and adapted seeds for small-holder farmers. These farmer-saved seeds are rich in diversity and provide a strong basis for resilience in the face of climate change.
The recognition of and investment in farmers’ seeds and farmers’ seed systems is key to sustaining and supporting food production and food security for family-farmers and the communities they feed.
Yet, despite their incredible potential, by and large, farmer-saved seeds tend to not meet the set criteria of distinctiveness, uniformity and stability required for seed registration and certification. Small-holder farmers don’t necessarily use the same seed selection and maintenance practices. They sometimes also intentionally keep some variation in the seed to minimize the risk of crop failure to uncertain weather conditions or disease and insect pest incidence. You can think of this as an insurance policy.
Although they play a central role in farming practices around the world, farmer-saved seeds are often limited to informal seed systems, outside the purview of national seed policy and laws. The consequences of this two-tier system are two-fold. First: it often means that farmers’ varieties are neglected and underutilized. Second: seed policy and laws can also restricts the use, and exchange of these seeds among farmers.
Evidence from a few countries suggests that policy provisions and legal mechanisms can be adjusted or established to allow registration and certification of farmers’ seed varieties for commercialization, and might provide avenues to address the first of these issues. But allowing farmers to register and certify their farm-saved seed is not enough. These processes are lengthy and strenuous.
Support mechanisms to help farmers gather the data needed for registration and certification must be in place to achieve results. This requires cooperation not only between farmers and governments, but also with Civil Society Organizations working with farming communities. A recent case where two farmer-developed local varieties of broad leaf mustard used as a leafy vegetable were formally registered by a local Community Seed bank in Nepal is an encouraging example of such collaboration. Similar examples of successful registration of farmer-breed seeds of maize and beans have been reported by USC Canada’s SoS Program partner, FIPAH, in Honduras.
While headway being made on this front provide interesting avenues for the commercialization of farmer-saved seeds, it is important to also ensure that farmers maintain the right to use, share and exchange seeds outside commercial markets. Creating policy and legal options for farmers’ seeds will require both evidence-based lobbying and working closely with national seed authorities and governments.