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Seeds of Survival Program

Seeds of Survival: Sustaining Life, Securing Livelihoods

SoS-image(SoS) is the approach USC uses to promote long-term food security for marginal farming communities in developing countries. It stresses the importance of using time-tested farmer knowledge and practices, limiting the need for external farming methods that are often incompatible with local growing conditions.

The first objective of SoS is to ensure a secure source of food and livelihood for small-scale farmers without losing the resource base essential for sustaining it. The second, and equally important goal is to promote crop diversity.

Four Key Assumptions of SoS

  • Farmers are knowledgeable producers who, for a host of reasons, are finding it hard to maintain the diversity and innovation at the heart of their food security.
  • Traditional local crop varieties are affordable, often nutritionally superior, and better adapted to challenging growing conditions than varieties not native to a region.
  • Farmers are local experts and play as important a role in enhancing productivity as agricultural scientists.
  • Conservation through use and plant selection is vital to the survival of our planet’s biodiversity.

History of Help
The SoS Program was launched in Ethiopia in 1989 to save threatened crop varieties from extinction – a real challenge given that it was a time of severe drought.

Working in collaboration with the Ethiopian Gene Bank, we designed a program that combined the work of scientists trying to improve local crops, with the traditional knowledge of local farmers. The result was farmers and scientists working in tandem to produce more reliable seeds and seed storage that could easily be used by small-scale farmers.

USC has continued to encourage collaboration between scientists and farmers, and in 1999, SoS was recognized with an award from the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC) for innovative programming in the area of food security. Since then, the model has continued to spread, evolving into a global program with partners in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Cuba, Ethiopia, Honduras, Mali, Nepal, Senegal, and Timor Leste.

Key Role of Women
Within the global South, women’s key role in feeding their families, indeed our planet, continues to be neglected and undervalued. Because women farmers tend to focus on minor crops – called “minor” because they have less commercial value – women’s farming largely remains invisible. When agricultural training comes to a village, often only men are invited.

The SoS program acknowledges women’s key agricultural role and is trying to reverse this trend, by valuing the contribution of women, both as farmers and as leaders. For minor crops feed families, and women are the primary custodians and protectors of our planet’s crop diversity, our agricultural biodiversity. Since agriculture began, women have domesticated this first precious link in the food chain, and in fact, most seeds are sown, selected, and conserved in women’s hands.

Program Components
In partnership with local NGOs, farmers’ groups, governments, and research institutes, the SoS program works with farming communities on seven key components:

  • Providing a space for dialogue between farmers, NGO workers, scientists, and government
  • Facilitating farmer-to-farmer exchanges for documentation and learning
  • Encouraging conservation and enhancement of local traditional crop varieties
  • Fostering the creation of small community seed banks
  • Promoting natural resource management systems that suit diverse production systems and conditions
  • Strengthening farmers’ ability to manage seed supply systems and to influence public policies
  • Fostering school arboretums to promote lessons of biodiversity.

Farmers as Experts
Knowledge-sharing is a key component of the program. We organize regular international meetings to encourage training and information sharing. Agricultural specialists discuss their SoS experience with other food security practitioners, searching for ways to improve existing practices and apply SoS concepts to local conditions. These gatherings help establish collaborative relationships between farmers and scientists.

To date, there have been 13 such workshops involving more than 350 agro-biodiversity practitioners (farmers, scientists, government and NGO staff). As a direct result, participants have established farm-based seed saving programs in at least 59 countries, helping spread biodiversity-based agricultural principles across the globe.

After more than 20 years, SoS is our most recognizable program. It’s credited with inspiring similar programs implemented by NGOs, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and national governments.