Seed Diversity Critical in Building Farm Resilience to Climate Change
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported in 2010 that 75% of the world’s crop diversity had already been lost. Meanwhile, commercial ‘high yielding’ varieties are proving less effective with climate change, resulting in greater farmer vulnerability. In fact, the advent of industrial farming with its push for commercial seeds has been responsible for a great loss in agricultural biodiversity.
On the other hand, for thousands of years, generations of farmers across the globe have been observing, selecting, nurturing, breeding and saving seed. Farmers have creatively cultivated ever more crop varieties to deal with many different challenges of soils, climates, nutrition, flavour, storage, pests and diseases. Women, in particular, play a critical role in their communities as the custodians of seeds.
The two articles below focus on the issue of seed diversity and its importance in ensuring farms are resilient to the impacts of climate change. By growing and saving dozens of seed varieties, farmers have traditionally spread risk and guaranteed a harvest. By ensuring genetic diversity, farmers also increase the likelihood that a portion of seeds will germinate under difficult conditions. Their in-depth knowledge and understanding of crops, seed selection and local conditions has meant that they have created a wide range of germplasm, from which they can further breed and adapt new resilient varieties.
With best wishes
Seeds for Life
Michael Farrelly, Programme Coordinator, Tanzania Organic Agriculture Movement
Acknowledgement: This article was first published in Farmers World (January 2014), by Agriculture Non State Actors Forum (ANSAF), Tanzania. It is based on a report, Seeds for Life: Scaling Up Agro-Biodiversity, published by Gaia Foundation, Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and African Biodiversity Network (http://www.gaiafoundation.org/seeds-for-life-scaling-up-agrobiodiversity-new-report)
Over 200 years ago, the first president of the United States of America, George Washington said: “It is miserable for a farmer to be obliged to buy his seeds. To exchange seeds may in some cases be useful, but to buy them after the first year is disreputable.” His words indicate that farmers at that time were generally self-sufficient, only buying enough seeds to get started. But all that has changed. Nowadays 98% of American farmers buy their seeds every year from commercial seed companies.
According to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), 90% of Tanzanian farmers get their seeds for planting from the farmer-saved seed system. They do so by keeping seeds from their harvest or exchanging and buying seeds from other farmers in the village. Only 10% of them get their seeds from the commercial ‘formal’ seed system.
Guardians of biodiversity
For thousands of years, generations of farmers across the globe have been observing, selecting, nurturing, breeding and saving seed so that with every generation agricultural diversity has increased. Farmers have creatively cultivated ever more crop varieties to deal with many different challenges of soils, climates, nutrition, flavour, storage, pests and diseases. Across Africa women have always played a valued role in their communities as the custodians of seeds.
The last century has seen a dramatic decrease in global seed diversity, as corporations have moved aggressively into the agrochemical and seed industry. The companies are seeking to create new customers from the world’s billions of farmers, to the point where now three corporations control over half of the worlds’ commercial seed market. Farmers’ rights to save, breed, exchange and sell seed have diminished as many countries’ laws have favoured corporations and criminalised farmers’ traditional activities.
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report published in 2010 estimates that 75% of the world’s crop diversity has already been lost. The erosion of agricultural biodiversity continues. Across much of the industrialised world traditional seed diversity and related knowledge are no longer passed on, as farmers are encouraged or pressured to purchase seeds.
The shift from indigenous local crops grown for nutritional content, to just a few staple crops grown for yield has contributed to a loss of nutrients in diets and to global malnutrition. Low prices for crops in the global marketplace mean that many farmers find themselves in debt to pay for seed and chemical inputs. Across Africa, many farmers have been forced to sell their land and to become labourers on large plantations of feed, fuel and fibre cash crops.
In spite of these pressures, and the myth that large-scale industrial agriculture is more efficient, small-scale farmers currently feed 70% of the world’s population, using only 30% of the land, according to ETC report published in 2009.
Resilience to Climate Change
By growing and saving dozens of seed varieties, farmers have traditionally spread their risk and guaranteed a harvest – even if they faced late or early rains, droughts, floods, pests and diseases. Additionally, by ensuring genetic diversity, farmers also increase the likelihood that a portion of seeds will germinate under difficult conditions. Their in-depth knowledge and understanding of crops, seed selection and local conditions has meant that they have created a wide range of germplasm, from which they can further breed and adapt new resilient and nutritious varieties.
But as the impacts of climate change hit farming, the problems with industrial agriculture are becoming clear. Farmers are increasingly finding that their supposedly high-yielding crops no longer perform as well in the face of unpredictable rains and temperatures, floods and droughts. Meanwhile, extensive use of fertiliser undermines natural health, water-holding capacity and resilience of soil to climate change. In addition, the industrial food system is estimated to contribute half of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
Without their traditional seed diversity, farmers are losing the tools and resilience to deal with these challenges. Farmers, communities and the entire global food system are thus highly vulnerable to climate change due to the erosion of the world’s agricultural biodiversity.
Corporations can only develop seed by breeding from a common heritage of varieties that have been developed and freely shared by farmers for generations. Far from being the inventors of the seed, the corporations are profiting from farmers’ ingenuity, while undermining those to whom they are indebted.
To ensure that farmers and our food systems have the capacity to adapt to climate change, we urgently need strategies and policies that support them to revive their seed diversity and related knowledge.
Seed, Spirituality and Religion
All religions and spiritualities, including Christianity, recognise humanity’s role as guardians of biodiversity and God’s creation. Seed is at the heart of nature’s biodiversity, and symbolises the capacity of life to regenerate itself. Seed is often at the heart of community rituals performed to bring rains and healing to the land and territory, as well as thanksgiving after a good harvest. It is our responsibility to protect these seeds from extinction, and to revive their bountiful diversity. We must recognise and give thanks to previous generations of farmers for enhancing and passing on their seed heritage and knowledge, and value the knowledge and skills of the world’s small-scale farmers today.
Recommendations for Policy and Practice
In our advocacy and actions for a resilient food system and for food sovereignty, we should:
ท Reform our food system towards supporting small-scale farming, agro ecology, seed diversity and local markets.
ท Rejectthe introduction of more restrictive intellectual property standards.
ท Reject patents on seeds and living organisms.
ท Rejecttechnologies that impact negatively on biodiversity and the lives and livelihoods of farmers and consumers.
ท Nationalisethe African Model Law on Farmers’ Rights, which ensures farmers’ continued access to and control over their plant genetic diversity.
ท Promoteparticipatory plant breeding in collaboration with farmers, to further enhance seed diversity and meet their different needs.
ท Support networks of farmers and seed savers, and processes for them to share seed, knowledge and experiences.
ท Support community seed banks that ensure local seed supply.
ท Celebrate and support communities’ seed diversity and seed saving with seed festivals and fairs.
Urgent action is needed to ensure that farmers can grow resilient crops and nutritious food for us all, in the face of climate change and other challenges. Farmers’ complex farming knowledge and their right to save, adapt, exchange and sell seed must be recognised and protected in policy and practice. Otherwise who will feed us in the future?
India's Rice Warrior Battles to Build Living Seed Bank as Climate Chaos Looms
conservationist Debal Deb grapples with 'mindless Indian elite' to
reintroduce genetically diverse, drought-tolerant varieties
Back then, says the rice conservationist Debal Deb, India may have had more than 100,000 landraces, or local varieties. "Today there could be just 6,000, with fewer being grown every year. Every community had its own varieties. The rest are no longer cultivated and the knowledge of how to grow them will have been lost."
Deb, a plant scientist turned farmer, is on a mission not just to reintroduce the lost varieties but to improve agriculture for an age of climate change and scarcity. He is cultivating 920 rice varieties on just 2.5 acres in a forested area of the Niyamgiri hills, where the indigenous people last year managed to drive out the giant mining company Vedanta.
His seed bank, Vrihi, the Sanskrit word for rice, is growing fast as people bring rare seed to him. He grows it and then distributes it in 1kg packets. "Farmers take the seeds on condition they bring some back," he says. "They must return 2kg as proof they have cultivated it. Most give 1kg to other farmers so the cycle continues. In three years in Orissa, 2,000 farmers have received the seeds and 350 varieties have been distributed."
These are not just "heritage" varieties grown for the sake of growing them, he says, they are vital for food security, culture and biodiversity. Landraces perform better in marginal environmental conditions than modern cultivars produced by selective breeding. Knowledge and availability of landraces will become increasingly important, he says, as climate change shifts rainfall patterns and makes extreme temperatures a more regular occurrence, and as modern agriculture comes to rely on ever fewer varieties and so becomes susceptible to large crop losses.
Deb's search for rice varieties began nearly 20 years ago in remote areas of West Bengal largely populated by indigenous people. These marginal areas, often dismissed as backward by urban and political elites, were home to many landraces, because farmers were mostly too poor to buy the agrochemicals needed to grow modern rice varieties.
The genetic variety and the quality of what they grew amazed him. "The landraces have been developed by unknown farmers over centuries. They are all based on careful observation of their properties. One of the main problems for marginal farmers is drought.”
"We have developed two varieties of drought-tolerant seeds. In addition, we have six varieties of salt-tolerant rice which we have reintroduced into the Sunderbans. They were the only varieties to survive when cyclone Aila struck the region in May 2009.
Deb, who was a Fulbright scholar and who has done post-doctoral ecology work at the University of California at Berkeley, is not impressed by GM science or hybrid rice growing. "Companies are spending billions on 'gene mining', or seeking specific genes. Yet after 60 years they still do not have one which can withstand a drought or flooding or sea water. But all of these characteristics are available in the landraces. I have varieties of rice that can grow and live for months in 12ft-deep water. There are varieties with amazing medicinal properties. The tribals know about certain dark-grained rice that give high levels of antioxidants and can prevent cancers."
He prefers a living seed bank where varieties are grown every year. "The Indian seed bank has 65,000 varieties, but 90% of them are dead and will not germinate … They are useful for big companies because the genes are still good, but they are useless on a farm. I have a living seed bank.
"High-yielding crop varieties have resulted in the loss of numerous landraces possessing important genes. With the rapid disappearance of folk varieties, farmers have become entirely dependent on commercial seed suppliers for their crop. Seeds used to be a precious gift to relatives and friends. Because crop seeds were traditionally to be belong to the community, there was no scope for commercial appropriation," he says.
Deb accuses large seed companies of trying to steal landraces. "They seem very interested in one, a three-grain rice. We have the last variety. We also have the last double grain rices. I was offered 15,000 rupees [$240] for just a handful. I just kicked the man out. Another man tried to steal some and a third tried bribes. One company man disguised himself as a farmer. I kicked him out, too."
He now keeps the rice seeds locked in a safe house, and the varieties are identified only by a number. "If they got hold of, say, three-grain rice, they would make millions. Would they share the benefits with the community who developed it? I doubt it. They would patent it. Once it became a proprietorial variety no one else would be allowed to save it. You would have to buy it each year.
"The collective knowledge about rice growing and diversity is still there but only in places which have not been industrialised. In a natural forest you can still find people who know hundreds of medicinal plants. But in a monocultural forest, people simply do not know the uses of plants. The diversity is lost. The collective memory is becoming eroded. People are being educated to think that anything traditional is bad."
He blames India's green revolution for the loss of genetic diversity and biodiversity. The development in the 1960s and 70s of new high-yield varieties of grain which needed synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and more water is popularly said to have ended famines, but for Deb it was an ecological and cultural disaster for which we are paying now.
He trains farmers and battles what he calls "developmentality", a mental "virus" of the modern world which he says has produced a collective mindlessness in India's elite and led to the crisis in rural India. He calls for a zero-growth economy and a new appreciation of how indigenous societies around the world have interacted with nature.
"I have nothing. I live by a bit of teaching. I have no institution behind me and I am limited only by the small amount of land that I have and the little money I have for research. My goal is to set up a living seed bank in every state in India and to train scientists as para-conservationists, so we can propagate and document all the landraces."