Backgrounder on seeds and seed breeding

| February 23, 2019

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This week’s Farmer story from Mali focuses on the benefits of hybrid seeds. Our Script of the week is a backgrounder all about seeds.

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 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.

Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa face a variety of challenges related to seeds, for example, fake seeds, failing crops and reduced yields, and lack of access to diverse types of seeds or specific desired varieties. There is a lot of debate and a lot of misinformation about genetically-engineered seeds, and there is also a lot of misinformation about “improved” seeds, hybrid seeds, open-pollinated seeds, and farmers’ or traditional varieties. This backgrounder gives definitions for each of these kinds of seeds, and clears up some of the misinformation that is rampant in Africa and elsewhere about seeds—for example, that:

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