COVID-19 widens gap in food and seed security for smallholders in developing countries

By Erik Delaquis

COVID-19 has left vulnerable groups on the receiving end of social and economic impacts of the crisis, highlighting gaps in food and seed insecurity of smallholder farmers in developing countries. But impacts and mitigation strategies are not experienced evenly within communities. It will take careful analysis to make sure that seed initiatives reach the neediest during this crisis.

Country-imposed lockdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19 have increased food and seed insecurity for smallholder farmers. Given that this group often has low adaptive capacity and high vulnerability to disaster, they were already at a disadvantage to respond to a crisis like COVID-19, which hindered mobility and access to resources, markets, and capital.

Local and international policies that aim to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as quarantines on the basis of administrative boundaries, risk aggravating inequalities by producing outsized impacts on the poorest. They are at risk of not being in a position to secure equal benefits from relief projects and policies unless special consideration is paid to the social organization of the communities they live in. This is particularly acute when it comes to seed systems.

Erik Delaquis, lead author and research associate at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, explains that there is a great opportunity for organizations like CGIAR to bolster their genetic resources and breeding programs by recognizing that seed systems are highly complex, with both biological and social aspects. “It is critical during this ongoing crisis to help smallholders access seed of acceptable variety, quality and price,” Delaquis says.

The paper, published in the journal Food Chain, builds on experiences from Africa, Asia, and South America to highlight the importance of taking demographics and social factors into account to ensure that pandemic seed support doesn’t leave out the most vulnerable.

Unanticipated impacts on farming communities

At first glance, seed security may not appear to be the most immediate concern for smallholders. These farmers rely primarily on storing their own seeds or planting materials for the next season. However, due to a lack of access to resources, the extreme poor may be pushed into selling or eating their seeds to avert immediate hunger. This puts them in a tight spot, depending on obtaining seed that is costlier or of low quality for the next planting season, and perpetuating a cycle of social obligations that can further worsen their situation.

In addition to the social obligations, the rural poor are at risk of failing to meet their household food and cash needs due to insufficient harvests, reduced seasonal labor opportunities, and interrupted remittances. This results in weaker adaptive capacities and resilience to further disruptions. Delaquis hopes that this research serves as a reminder to policymakers that there might be unintended consequences for smallholders if a one-size-fits all approach is adopted in adapting seed systems to COVID-19.

The ‘new normal’ forces research and extension teams to think of innovative ways to help smallholder farmers maintain access to agricultural inputs. These interventions should take into account appropriate entry points and recognize social dynamics to ensure that farmers from all classes benefit – or risk putting some participants in an even worse situation than before.

Moving forward, understanding social differentiation in the communities where the Alliance and CGIAR work requires studying the social and economic aspects of seed systems functioning.  “Ongoing cassava program work is investigating these issues in Southeast Asia, taking a closer look at seed systems in several countries with a more explicit gender and farmer behavior perspective,” Delaquis says.  Meanwhile, current work includes analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on farming systems, and applying methods like experimental auctions and choice games to understand seed use decision-making.


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