‘It is great that sustainable food systems are now set to be discussed at the highest level of the UN. After all, this is a matter of urgency. Countries across the world have resolved to meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, and our food systems play a key role in achieving these goals.’
‘We only have another nine growing seasons left to achieve the goal of a fair distribution of seed,’ explains Ola Westengen, researcher at Noragric, NMBU.
'From farm to table'
This phrase encapsulates what a food system is: It covers food production, processing, distribution, sales and consumption, as well as the impact the system has on the environment and social conditions. Seed systems are a fundamental component of the world’s food systems, and without them, food security would quickly come under threat. According to the UN’s own definition, seed security is when farmers have access to quality seed of their preferred type in both good and bad seasons.
Formal and informal seed systems
It is vital that farmers have access to good seed adapted to the local conditions, but also to climate change, which we are now seeing the full impact of. Securing access to a diverse range of good seed is essential to adapt to climate change. Seed systems are fundamental to sustainable food systems,’ the researcher explains.
Farmers can get hold of seed in numerous ways: In what is known as a formal seed system, farmers buy certified seed and registered varieties that have been developed through scientific breeding programmes. Such formal seed systems receive most support from the authorities and companies across the world.
‘It has a lot to do with power and interests. Seed is big business in a lot of countries, which impacts development.
However, farmer seed systems prevail in most developing countries, where farmers produce their own seed or swap or sell it on the local market, with this system constituting 80-90% of all planted seed. In some more commercial crops like maize, the two systems exist side by side, and seed can move between the two. However, the informal system is the only way very many farmers in the world can get hold of seed. Women and poor people in particular depend on these farmer seed systems. And this is the basis for the researcher's, and Norway’s, recommendation to the UN:
‘Farmer seed systems are vital to global food and nutrition security and they deserve more attention and support. For many farmers in developing countries, seed from the purely formal systems are too expensive and difficult to get hold of,’ says Westengen.
‘We must give our support to the systems people actually use.’
Westengen goes to on explain that we need formal seed systems too.
‘As a researcher, I have great faith in science and plant breeding. We need the scientific and technological developments that take place in the formal seed systems. They are invaluable for generating new varieties with properties adapted to new conditions. Working on seed security is about improving access to the best possible seed, be it local or bred varieties.’
This is not an either/or situation between a model with a seed market dominated by large multinational seed companies on the one hand and an informal model of local varieties on the other,’ Westengen explains. The Norwegian model actually serves as a good example of how things can be done.
The Norwegian seed model
‘Nobody else farms the land further north than us. We’re of no interest to large businesses. There is no commercial market for breeding seed for the northernmost areas,’ explains Jon Atle Repstad, Seed Product Manager at Felleskjøpet Agri.
This means that Norway had to find its own solution. And the solution was a cooperative owned by 44,000 Norwegian farmers. In the Norwegian model, the State has joined forces with the two biggest seed companies, Felleskjøpet and Strandunikorn, to form a breeding company.
‘The two biggest competitors join forces with the State to run a development company, which certainly takes some explaining when I speak to people from other countries,’ chuckles Repstad.
However, without this cooperation, where commercial actors cooperate with the State, farmers and researchers, we would not have had access to new genetics or been able to breed new varieties in Norway,’ explains Repstad.
Farmer seed systems are of fundamental importance to large parts of the world. At the UN Food Systems Summit this autumn, researcher Ola Westengen and others will reach a wide audience and garner a lot of support when they present their, and Norway’s, case.