Shawn McGuire
Keywords:  Participatory approaches.
Correct citation: McGuire, S.(2000), "Review of 'Farmers' seed production: New approaches and practises." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 43, p. 23.

Connie Almekinders and Niels Louwaars (2000), Farmers' seed production: New approaches and practices. Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd. [103-105 Southhampton Row, London WC1B 4HH, UK] ISBN 1 85339 466; 291 p.; Price: £14,95; about US$ 22.

Seed is the most important input in agriculture. Its physical and genetic quality can affect production, positively or negatively, for many seasons into the future. In many situations, formal, large-scale seed supply has been unable to meet farmers’ needs, due to market-failure, a focus confined to only a few crops, or because it supplies inappropriate varieties. This, along with concerns for farmer participation and local knowledge, partly explains the growing interest in supporting small-scale farmers’ seed production. Most of the current technical literature and practice in these areas are hardly relevant to the challenges faced by small-scale, low-input farmers dealing with variable environments in their seed production, storage and supply. Many formal practices are unaffordable for small-scale farmers or, like formal certification, are inapplicable for most situations. This book takes local systems as a starting point, seeking to enhance the strengths of these systems with appropriate knowledge and practices drawn from formal breeding and seed production technology. Thus, the book is a very welcome contribution, bridging a gap in the literature.

Almekinders and Louwaars aim their work at those farmers’ groups and organizations that are able to link farmers with technology development. It is not meant as a blueprint, but as a guide that examines technical issues that might apply to this context, and that seeks to stimulate analysis and local experimentation to support farmers’ seed production.
The opening section describes and analyses local seed systems and gives a brief introduction to related topics ranging from crop reproduction to genetic resource conservation to policy issues, such as intellectual property rights, explaining how they relate to a formal seed industry context. The section closes with some suggestions for policy changes to support local seed systems, though I suspect that such support may only come with a more fundamental policy shift towards supporting small-scale farmers.

The next section presents a very useful discussion of technical aspects in seed production, with concise overviews of the basics of seed quality and the agronomy of seed production. Different seed selection techniques are described and related to different goals and breeding systems. Chapters on seed storage and seed quality testing emphasize simple adaptation of formal methods, with attention to storage conditions and to seed health. The reference tables, the attention to appropriate methods, and the frank discussions of chemical treatments are all practical, and they show considerable respect for local practices for seed storage and treatment. Unfortunately, the examples of local practices that are given are scattered throughout the book. A listing and a broader discussion in one place could have greatly strengthened this section, drawing readers’ attention to similar practices in their own areas, or spurring them to promote these low-cost and often effective techniques.

The authors introduce an array of techniques and considerations for analysing farmers’ seed systems, and for identifying ways to support these systems, such as experimentation with varietal improvement. The discussion of several case studies in this context is helpful and it makes the previously discussed methodological options more concrete for readers. The final section, which contains brief but practical descriptions of the general agronomy and seed production considerations for more than 20 crops, a glossary, guide to further reading, and list of contacts, increases the book’s value as a reference work.

Overall, this book takes a highly-informed, balanced view between formal and farmer knowledge, challenging assumptions commonly held in both camps, for example that farmers’ varieties are always better-adapted to local conditions, or mass selection by farmers is always ‘simple’. The challenge in writing a book like this for practitioners is in deciding upon the scope and depth of presentation: deciding what knowledge gaps to fill, and how to make the book useful for practitioners. The authors wisely avoid prescribing any fixed models for action, and encourage experimentation and reflection in applying work to a particular crop, environmental, social, and policy context. However, by trying to cover so much, they may have done too little for some topics. Practitioners may have benefited from a more detailed exploration of some areas, especially seed selection, where there is an array of technical and social methodological options to consider. Likewise, in my experience, practitioners who analyse farmers’ seed systems are not challenged as much by research methods as by research interpretation, for which they must integrate social and biological information, and consider the implications of different interventions for supporting seed systems. Drawing from their extensive experience, the authors could have placed more emphasis on how to bridge seed system analysis and the choice among different approaches to support local seed production, perhaps using case studies to illuminate this. However, these are only minor concerns; the authors have done an excellent job in linking a wide range of issues to farmers’ seed production. This book should be of considerable practical use, and stimulate valuable new work in this important area.

Shawn McGuire

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