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Assessing seed systems in relief operations

Summary1 of published paper

Bags of wheat seed are returned to Concern by seed beneficiaries, Caliomamo, Angola

Existing guidelines on emergency seed provisioning contain very little practical advice on how to determine whether or not relief seed inputs are needed by farmers affected by conflict or natural disaster. An increasing number of studies show that some emergency seed interventions have very little impact, relative to their high costs. Furthermore, the rationale on which such projects are based is now coming under question. Contrary to assumptions, farmers seed systems are remarkably resilient, even in the face of severe disasters.

A recent article describes a method, Seed System Profiling (SSP), which can be used to compile information about the ways in which farmers manage the seed of various crops. When used in conjunction with an assessment framework, SSP allows for better understanding of the impact of a disaster on the seed system (see box 1).


Box 1

Questions to ask when developing a Seed System Profile

  • What crops and crop varieties are planted by farmers, and how are these used (for food, for sale, as forage, etc)?
  • What are the main features of the cropping system, i.e. in what ecologies are the crops planted, what is the cropping calendar for the different crops and crop types, and who is responsible for the various agricultural tasks?
  • For each crop, do farmers normally save the seed from the previous harvest? How is seed saved and what are the main constraints?
  • If seed is not saved, how do farmers normally acquire the seed for the different crops (where, through what means, from whom)


The paper describes how, in Somalia and Mozambique, seed assessments work from the premise that seed is needed following harvest failure. Data collected are merely used to calculate the quantities of seed required and how these should be targeted. Data on access to seed are not considered, even though there may be mechanisms through which seed can be acquired from local traders or other farmers.

How farmers use different crops and different varieties can provide important information relating not only to the availability of seed, but also to the understanding of the dynamics in cropping systems due to insecurity and changing market conditions associated with disasters. For those crops that are sold, planting material may be available to farmers in local markets, either as grain that can be used as seed or as seed/planting material. Farmers tend to take much greater care of the seed of crops that are not normally sold. Also, farmer seed specialists who are able to maintain the seed of different varieties of crops, even under very extreme crisis conditions, often exist within communities thus providing a source from which other farmers can acquire seed that they themselves may have lost.

An SSP can be used as a baseline to both predict and understand the impacts of disasters on seed systems. Variables necessary for assessing the need for seed system support following an emergency include, - the features of the crisis (type, timing, duration, scale and intensity) - socio-economic impact on local populations (displacement, changes in household composition) - functioning of local markets - the mobility of both farmers and traders (in relation to security and transport systems) - the assets available to farmers, including their ability to draw on existing social networks.

The ways in which these different types of information can be used are summarised in a step by step framework outlined in the paper. The SSP, together with the framework steps, can be used to identify the strengths and weaknesses of seed systems affected by disaster, and highlight appropriate interventions. Ideally, the SSP should be developed prior to a disaster, but can also be developed during the course of a protracted emergency or following an acute disaster.

The methodological approach described in this paper is presently being tested on a pilot scale and further refined in Mozambique, where conventional seeds-and-tools interventions, implemented for many years, are now being questioned by some agencies.

Show footnotes

1Longley C (2002). Do farmers need relief seed? A methodology for assessing seed systems. Disasters, 2002, 26(4); pp 343-355

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Reference this page

Assessing seed systems in relief operations. Field Exchange 19, July 2003. p8.



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