Seeds of changeCommunity Seed Banks are not only helping farmers in times of dire need, they are also preserving local seed varieties endangered by the influx of hybrid seeds
When the magnitude-7.8 earthquake hit the country last April, over 90 percent of the mud houses in remote quake-affected villages were flattened. The livelihoods of the many local subsistence farmers in the hilly districts were severely affected as the food grains and seeds that were stored inside their houses, ready for planting during the upcoming monsoon season were buried under the debris and ruins of their damaged homes.
In the aftermath of the devastating Gorkha Earthquake, local Community Seed Banks (CSBs) set up in various districts to store and promote local seed varieties came as a blessing. Agyuali Community Seed Bank in Nawalparasi district, one of the successful initiatives undertaken by local communities to conserve and protect local seed varieties of different cereal, legumes and vegetables crops, provided seeds to farmers from some of the most worst-hit districts like Gorkha, Tanahun, and Lamjung. Out of total 9.8 tonnes of rice seeds provided to 1807 earthquake-affected households, 5.7 tonnes were from Agyauli alone.
“We donated Sabitri and Ram Dhan rice varieties to the affected families, along with food grains as a part of the relief packages,” said Bhagwati Mahato, 45, founder and former chairperson of the Agyauli CSB.
Like most farmers, Mahato, a resident of the Agyauli village, used hybrid seeds of rice, maize and seasonal vegetables, among others, bought from the local markets. “Everyone was using hybrid seeds as it was easily available in the market. They (sellers) told us that the yield was high from these hybrid seeds,” she said. Every year, with the promise of another bumper harvest, the farmers were lured to the hybrid seeds, most of which were untested and unauthorised for use by the authorities. This trend, that has been three decades in the making, not just dominated the local market but also entirely displaced local seeds in many rural settings where traditional seed storage was once practiced.
Mahato, represents the Tharu ethnic community that have been engaged in farming for ages, and have practiced the culture of storing local and indigenous rice, wheat and mustard seeds in their deheri—a traditional storage vessel made from a mixture of clay, ash, straw and plantfibre, among other natural materials.
“But with the entry of the hybrids, many farmers stopped storing seeds and that led to the slow disappearance of many local varieties, like the aromatic rice Jhinuwa and Ghiupuri,” said Mahato.
In 2010, the local communities were introduced to the CSB approach by the Local Initiatives for Biodiversity Research and Development (LI-BIRD), a non-governmental organisation working towards setting up CSB—a local institution managed by farmers to promote conservation and use of a plant’s genetic resources for food and agriculture, to ensure farmer’s rights on seed and food sovereignty by increasing access of the farming communities to quality seeds and planting material at an affordable price and on a timely manner.
The locals were trained for three days on the importance of the practice of storing and conserving local seed varieties that were adaptable to the local environment and had other important qualities like being drought and pest-resistant.
“The training was a turning point for us. It prompted us to rethink and revive our old practice of storing local and indigenous seeds. We started collecting whatever we had stored in store, mostly just rice seeds,” said Draupadi Basnet, 43, an active member of the Agyauli CSB that was established in 2011 to preserve the local seed varieties that were fast disappearing.
A farmers’ committee, named Agriculture Development and Conservation Farmers’ Committee, was also formed to operate the seed bank that now has 38 farmers’ groups as members, covering 880 farm-dependent families.
The two-roomed concrete house built in the middle of the village, is now home to 64 varieties of 23 different crop species. From the local aromatic rice variety like Seto Anadi and Rato Anadi to improved rice varieties developed by the National Agriculture Research Council (NARC) like Sukkha-3, Hardinath-1, RR-20 and RR-22, among others, are now preserved at the seed bank. Both these local and improved varieties are adaptable to the local environment and are climate resilient crop varieties that are adaptable to the environment conditions like droughts, heavy rains and hailstone, unlike hybrid seeds.
Mina Kumari Mahato, 31, from Agyauli, says that being part of the community seed bank has really helped her five-member family. “We get very little rain during the rice plantation season. The hybrid seeds need rain and a large amount of fertilisers, but local seed varieties can grow with limited resources,” she said.
“The traits found in local varieties are not only valuable for the current changing environment due to climate change, but also for future food security” says Pitamber Shrestha, senior programme officer at the LI-BIRD, a pioneer organisation working with farmers to set up seed banks across the country with an aim to preserve biodiversity.
One of the successful examples of conserving local seed that was all but extinct was the preservation of the indigenous Pokhareli Jethobudo, an aromatic rice variety in Kaski district. This variety was also the first traditional seed variety that Nepali farmers obtained intellectual property rights for at the international level.
Shrestha points out that the need of promoting and developing seed banks became more apparent during the recent earthquake when the farming cycle was severely affected after many farmers were left without seeds to sow in their fields. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that the agricultural sector suffered a loss worth up to 10 billion rupees in livestock and crops while more than 32,000 metric tonnes of harvested crop were buried under the rubble after the quakes.
In an effort to maintain quality of seeds and to sustain CSBs, LI-BIRD has introduced various innovative ideas like the introduction of latest seed storage techniques like airtight pots, humidity strips and Purdue Improved Crop Storage bags.
Besides this, to help the model become more sustainable, it has developed mechanism that allows farmers to produce seeds and sell it to local markets or farmers from neighboring districts.
For instance, in 2014 the Agyauli CSB produced 26.73 metric tonnes of seeds of which 0.98 metric tonnes were sold. The production increased to 48.67 metric tonnes in 2015, of which 25.09 metric tonnes was distributed or sold.
In 2016, the community has produced 36.79 metric tonnes so far.
With farming modalities fast-evolving, it was only natural that Nepali farmers gravitated towards hybrid seeds in the past. But if the success charted by the many local seed banks in the country proves anything, it is that sometimes a step back can often amount to a giant leap forward. The Agyauli seed bank, and many others, stand testament.