Backgrounder on seeds and seed breeding

| May 1, 2023

Download this story

Like this edition’s story from Benin, our Script of the week focuses on seeds.

The majority of human food starts as seeds, especially the seeds of cereal crops, legumes, nuts, vegetables, and fruit. Seeds are generally defined as embryonic plants developing inside a protective outer covering called a seed coat. Planting materials such as cuttings are also included in the broad definition of “seed,” as they are used to grow varieties of many plants.

More than 65% of Africans depend on rain-fed agriculture for labour and livelihoods. These farmers produce about 80% of the food consumed by African families. Many African farmers face a variety of challenges to feed their families and sell produce at local markets. They can only seed when they ready access to sufficient quantities of high quality seeds that are well-adapted to local cropping patterns and local soils and climate. Small-scale African farmers currently obtain less than 10% of their seeds from the formal seed sector, with the remainder coming from saved seeds, local markets, friends and neighbours, and other traditional seed systems.

Why is this subject important to listeners?

  • Almost all food crops begin as seeds. The quality and characteristics of the seed strongly influence the yield and qualities of the harvested crop.
  • Seeds can also be consumed as food in several forms, including spices, beverages, and cooking oils. Seeds and seed products are also fed to livestock.
  • It’s important to know how policy and legislation in different countries impacts on farmers’ ability to use, breed, and sell seeds. (See the section on Seed Laws and Global Seed Marketing.)
  • Everyone has a right to food and this begins from and is founded on seeds and seed diversity.

What are some key facts?

  • Seeds have been the basis of human communities and societies for all of recorded human history. They are the heart of healthy food systems and the basis of the food we consume.
  • The commercial seeds on the market today are the product of thousands of years of selection and breeding by farmers who have nurtured thousands of varieties, adapting them to changing conditions with each growing season. Some varieties are resistant to diseases or pests. Others are tolerant of weather extremes like drought or floods or early frosts. Some have better yields or better nutrition.
  • Though new varieties are continually being introduced, globally, we have lost a good proportion of farmers’ varieties (for definition, see below) over the last 100 years, and continue to lose older varieties.
  • This loss of biodiversity hampers efforts to ensure food security, adapt to climate change, reduce environmental degradation, protect nutritional security, reduce poverty, and ensure sustainable agriculture.

Is there misinformation about this subject that I should cover?

  • That hybrid seeds are genetically engineered.
  • That improved seeds are always a better choice than farmers’ or traditional or local seeds.
  • That GM seeds are sterile. There is no technology currently used in plant breeding that renders seeds sterile.