Richard James inquired what kind of maize and bean seed he should get to help Honduran people replant. Several people have asked similar questions after hurricane Mitch. These are agonizing questions that we do not feel qualified to answer well. We do have some ideas however. Here is our reply. We would welcome your insights.
First, make sure there is actually a lack of seed in the countries involved. Certainly not all maize and beans in Honduras were destroyed. It would make great sense to import maize and beans to eat and use the existing stores for seed. There is no way to know in advance whether a new introduced variety will encounter an unexpected disease or insect, handle different weather patterns, be overly sensitive to the shorter daylengths if it is a northern variety, etc. If you work in the area affected, you probably already have a feel for whether seed might still be obtained locally.
If seed must be imported, the next best approach would be to go to the nearest neighboring country that did not lose its bean and maize seed to the hurricane. In this case we’d be talking about Costa Rica, southern Mexico, etc.
Keep in mind that the leading international research center for maize (CIMMYT) is in Mexico . This center has many years of research and production experience testing and developing maize varieties for the Americas and other countries. Though the International Centers probably would not have large amounts of seed, they would probably be able to recommend varieties that have already been tested in or close to your region and commercial sources for that seed. They would likely be aware of cultural preferences also, such as seed color or texture of the meal.
Similarly, the International Center responsible for beans (Phaseolus spp) is CIAT in Colombia. Central Americans are famous for having very precise expectations of their beans, including color. You can find a list of the 15 International Centers in our book Amaranth to Zai Holes on p. 40. You can also ask us to mail or e-mail you the addresses or you can look them up on the web at www.cgiar.org/centers.htm.
Another possibility is to look for someone who has earlier imported seed of the desired species from outside the region and knows from that experience that it does well in the area.
For vegetable seed, it is likewise important to find someone who has had experience with different varieties. Here in southern Florida we find that the variety sometimes makes all the difference in the world. ‘Poinsette’ cucumber is so disease-resistant that we have a chance of production (home garden standards only) even in the summer. Most other cucumbers would fail for sure. We have found that 'Contender’ green beans are much more problem-free than most other varieties. During a disaster is a poor time to have people doing large-scale experiments. It would be invaluable to find someone with variety-specific knowledge. When agencies have called for advice, saying only that they were told to get vegetable seed, I really start to worry. If a donor does not have enough local contacts to be able to discern even what species of vegetables have already been shown to thrive in the area, let alone what varieties, then I really doubt if they should be importing seed. It could do a lot of damage to unsuspecting farmers and gardeners who assume the seed they are given will both grow and produce and that the product is something they will like.
If you want to be really prepared for a future disaster, do several variety trials with seed that you know can be imported in quantity. Then, if disaster strikes, you will know what can be safely distributed to farmers.
Price, M.L. 1999. Where to Get Seed After a Disaster. ECHO Development Notes no. 64