Network analysis of organic seed systems: a systems-level analysis for resilience

Progress report for GW20-216

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2020: $24,997.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2022
Host Institution Award ID: G236-21-W7902
Grant Recipient: University of California, Davis
Region: Western
State: California
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Mark Lubell
University of California, Davis
Major Professor:
Liza Wood
University of California, Davis
Jared Zystro
Organic Seed Alliance
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Project Information

Summary:

The conventional seed system in the US is ill-fitted to meet the goals of sustainable agriculture, as it disempowers stakeholders outside of the dominant firms, limits diversity, and perpetuates the use of chemical inputs. The organic seed sector, on the other hand, is a fledging system with potential to bolster sustainable production. However, seed systems are complex networks that rely on coordination of information and resources across multiple stakeholders and scales, and we have a limited systems-level understanding. To address this gap, our project asks:

Q1: How do organic seed stakeholders define resilience for the system, and what are the needs and priorities of each sector?

Q2: What are the structures of two co-occurring networks (knowledge and supply chain) in the organic seed system?

Q3: What can the network structure tell us about resilience of the seed system and management interventions?

To answer these questions, our team surveyed over 500 seed stakeholders -- organic seed producers, companies, researchers, and organizations. These surveys were used to inform the State of Organic Seed Report (2022) and were presented at Organic Seed Growers Conference (2022). Academic manuscripts describing these results are in preparation, and a summary of the conclusions will be shared in this grant's final report.

Project Objectives:

Objective 1: Survey 500+ stakeholders in the organic seed value chain (seed producers, seed companies, seed-related organizations, and Principle Investigators of breeding projects) to define a “resilient” seed system, identify needs and priorities in their respective sector, and inform measures for social network analysis (Completed: Summer 2020-Summer 2022).

Objective 2: Analyze survey results to create a mental model of how stakeholders in the organic seed value chain define “resilience” for the seed system, and develop two types of networks related to the organic seed value chain – knowledge networks and supply chain networks (In progress, expected completion December 2022)

Objective 3: Present preliminary network analysis results with seed system stakeholders at the National Organic Seed Growers Conference (2022) to seek stakeholder input on desired management tools and future interventions (Completed: February 2022).

Objective 4: Publish and present the final report and accompanying resources in coordination with Organic Seed Alliance via the State of Organic Seed Report (2022) (Completed: March 2022).

Objective 5: Publish results in academic journals for agri-environmental governance (In progress, expected completion December 2022).

Timeline:

Wood Gantt Chart

Project period: August 1, 2020 - March 31, 2022

Gantt chart attached. Duplicated from the Gantt chart, the general outline includes:

Task Start Date End Date Team
O1: Survey development 1-Aug-20 31-Aug-20 Wood, Zystro, Lubell, Sutton, Peña, Rasgorshek
O1: Survey administration 1-Sep-20 15-Nov-20 Wood & Zystro
O2: Preliminary survey analysis 16-Nov-20 31-Jan-21 Wood & Lubell
O2: Ongoing survey analysis 1-Feb-21 30-Sep-21 Wood
O3: Participatory review sessions 1-Feb-21 31-Aug-21 Wood, Zystro, Sutton, Peña, Rasgorshek
O4: State of Organic Seed (SOS) draft 1-Oct-21 30-Nov-21 Wood & Zystro
     O4: Submit SOS Report   1-Dec-21 Wood & Zystro
O4: Preparation of final presentations 1-Dec-21 28-Feb-22 Wood & Zystro
     O4: Summit & Conference presentations   Feb & March 22 Wood & Zystro
O4: Preparation of academic manuscript 1-Dec-21 15-Mar-22 Wood, Zystro & Lubell
     O4: Submit manuscipt draft   31-Mar-22 Wood, Zystro & Lubell

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Brijette Peña - Producer
  • Beth Rasgorshek - Producer
  • Karl Sutton - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

Survey development, population identification, and distribution

  • Survey development: The main collaborators on the grant co-developed survey questions relevant to the objectives outlined in the project proposal. Four parallel surveys were developed for seed producers, seed companies, seed academic researchers, and seed organizations. A small 'pilot' group of seed producers and seed researchers helped us refine questions to ensure that they were suited to the population. Questions were formatted in Qualtrics Survey software.
  • Population identification: Seed producers were identified through the National Organic Program database as those who listed seed as either a certified crop or product. The list of producers was refined to eliminate oil seeds (e.g. linseed oil) and edible seeds (e.g. sesame seeds). Seed companies were identified through expert review and list development through partners in Organic Seed Alliance. Seed researchers (academic and organizations) were identified through collecting the Principal Investigators on federal organic seed and agriculture-related grants between 2015-2020. After a first round of surveys with these groups, we used a snowball sampling method from the network questions to identify others relevant to the network, and used that for a second wave of surveys.
  • Survey distribution: Survey was distributed online through a four-wave practice, where the survey was open for 2 months, with email reminders every 2 weeks. Surveys were distributed between November 15 2020-Jan 15 2021 (producers), Jan 15 - Mar 15 2021 (companies), Sept 9 - Nov 9 2021 (academic and organization researchers), and July 20 - Sept 20 2022 (snowball sample).

Survey data cleaning and analysis

  • Survey data has been cleaned using R Software
  • Summarized for the first wave of surveys is available on the interactive data platform: https://organicseed.shinyapps.io/SOSData/  
  • Summarized data for both waves of surveys will be available on a second interactive data platform, forthcoming
Research results and discussion:

Survey responses:

  • Out of those we surveyed, we have responses from 87 seed producers, 39 companies, and 51 researchers for a combined response rate of 31% (177/563) from regions across the US. Details of survey response rates are in Table 1.

Table 1. Number of seed stakeholders in the population databases and survey responses

Scale

Seed producers

Seed companies

Seed researchers

Sample response (%)

Population with email (%)

Population

Sample response (%)

Population

Sample response (%)

Population

Total

87 (21%)

396 (43%)

912

39a (43%)

90

51 (66%)

77

West

49 (20%)

236 (55%)

424

16 (34%)

47

12 (57%)

21

South

8 (27%)

30 (50%)

60

1 (25%)

4

14 (70%)

20

Northeast

8 (21%)

39 (51%)

76

7 (50%)

14

7 (78%)

9

North Central

11 (16%)

68 (21%)

322

8 (38%)

21

16 (70%)

23

Outside US

8 (35%)

23 (77%)

30

2 (50%)

4

2 (50%)

4

a) 5 companies are classified as “national” and do not get counted within any region

Preliminary results and discussion:

  • Q1: How do organic seed stakeholders define resilience for the system, and what are the needs and priorities of each sector?

The “resilient seed system” definitions provided by seed producers and companies had multiple themes, including the role of the community, the multiple scales at which the system works, and the system's ideal tendencies in the face of stress. First, the theme of community emphasized having stakeholders who are informed and knowledgeable about seed production; including a diversity of people — professionally, geographically, and demographically; and that these communities must be cooperative and work together. Second, a resilient system was often described as operating at the regional level, and as such required a decentralized network populated by multiple stakeholders at multiple scales. Third, in the face of stressors the seed system should be flexible and adaptable to challenges, efficient and maintain functionality (i.e., keep producing seed), build in redundancy, and allow for evolution over time. As one producer defined it, "A resilient seed system is one that can succeed in the face of challenges of climate, political, and market force impacts. It utilizes the decentralized network of growers, provides widespread education and communication among all participants, and fosters cooperation and sharing for the benefit of all." Together, seed producers identify that a resilient seed system should strike the balance of having diverse, decentralized regional seed networks while maintaining enough connectedness to support efficient flows of information and resources across the country. 

  • Q2: What are the structures of three co-occurring networks (knowledge, supply chain, germplasm) in the organic seed system?

How is the seed system network structured? When asked about their organic seed connections – those who they exchange seed with, get information from, and work with along the supply chain – survey respondents named a whole range of stakeholders, including other seed producers, processors and retailers, organizations, university researchers, and government agencies. These connections help us understand key steps in the life cycle of seed: how genetic material is transferred, how information is diffused to support the stakeholders in the system, and how the supply chain is coordinated.

At the national level, the seed producer network is diverse and moderately decentralized. The 349 stakeholders identified in the network make over 800 connections, signaling the interdependence of those in the seed system. On average, any one stakeholder has less than four degrees of separation from anyone else in the network. In each region, however, the structure and composition vary. The Western region is the largest network (243 stakeholders) and is relatively decentralized across the states. Multiple sources of seed, information, and supply chain connections are made across the West, representing redundancy in the system. On the other end of the spectrum, the Southern network is the smallest (61 stakeholders) and most centralized, with only two organizations taking a central role for a wide range of connections. In the middle, the Northeast and North Central regions are medium-sized (with 93 and 121 stakeholders, respectively), each with a handful of stakeholders at the center of their networks.

Network diversity can be thought of geographically (connecting within or between regions) and professionally (connecting with others in similar or diverse roles). Seed stakeholders from the smaller regions, the South, Northeast, and North Central, often reach out to stakeholders outside their region (about 65% of the time) especially to others in the West. This frequency of reaching out is much higher compared to stakeholders in the West, who largely seek out support from others inside their region. This is likely because resources are limited within the smaller networked regions, prompting producers to look to the West for different resources like seed, information, and supply chain connections. In both the Southern and Western regions, seed producers connect with stakeholders from a more diverse set of expertise and professions. Instead of producers only working with producers, they are more likely to work with organizations, universities, and governments. Diverse connections of stakeholders in both of these regions account for 61% of their networks, while diverse connections account for only 43% of connections in the Northeast and 55% in North Central.

How is germplasm sourced? The current seed exchange network shows that breeders and producers don't all get seeds from one central place, rather, they strike a balance between regional and national exchange. This is true to their definitions of a resilient seed system, which requires that seed be "stewarded by a bunch of people in different places so that the genetics can be retained and improved upon over time." Seed producers tend to connect with others in their geographic community to exchange and acquire genetic material. While most resources tend to be regional and don't overlap between regions, the USDA's National Genetic Resources Program is one of the most popular resources across all the regions, indicating the important role of this centralized, publicly funded source of germplasm.

How is information and research shared? Of the different types of connections considered in this research, the seed system's information network is the most centralized at the national scale. The bulk of information connections – that is, the people or groups that stakeholders go to for information and collaborate with on projects – are to specialized groups (70%), such as non-profit organizations, universities, farming cooperatives, and government agencies. Because knowledge often requires expertise and new perspectives, one producer shared, "I think it's important we step out of everyday sources" for information. The remaining 30% of information connections are to other producers, which survey responses suggest are an invaluable source of knowledge: "You just can't beat bouncing ideas/problems off other growers who are in a similar situation." In this way, seed producers and companies support one another through mutual learning.

How are supply chain relationships organized? Supply chain connections are the least common kind of connection that seed stakeholders make in their networks, involve the lowest crossover between regions, and the lowest diversity of professions. This reflects a decentralized, regionally-based supply chain network. Supply chains are fundamental to a resilient seed system, one in which "the public and farmers have the ability, infrastructure, and systems in place to supply the needs of gardeners and farmers in a given area." While these strong regional ties keep business operations within a shared geography, this also indicates that smaller regional networks like the South and North Central might be limited. For instance, when prompted to share about their supply chain collaborations, a producer from the North Central region commented "I am pretty isolated out here!" This matches what we heard from seed producers regarding their challenges sourcing seed cleaning and harvesting equipment. In the South, the costs and equipment for seed cleaning and harvest rise to the top of the challenges list, which may be a consequence of the limited supply chain network in this region.

Participation Summary
87 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
4 Other educational activities: Surveys with producers, companies, organizations, and university researchers

Participation Summary:

87 Farmers participated
90 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

The following have been our key educational and communication materials:

Outreach in progress includes drafting of two journal manuscripts about the seed stakeholder network, preparation for the International Sustainability Transitions Conference, as well as development of an online application for survey respondents to go and see themselves in the network and receive recommendations about informational resources and folks with their needed expertise.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.