Power to chooseCommunity seeds banks should be established across the country to help farmers retain control over their seeds
Of late, it seems as though youths across the country are worried about Nepal’s sovereignty. However, the issue of seed sovereignty in a country where a vast majority of people rely on agriculture continues to remain neglected. Therefore, even as Nepal’s sovereignty might be currently under threat due to our myopic politicians; it is about time we paid attention to seed sovereignty too.
Two-thirds of the population of Nepal depends on agriculture as its primary source of livelihood. Farmers are supposed to be the ultimate owners of seeds. But the seed sovereignty of a Nepali farmer is in peril due to our faulty agriculture policy. Thousands of our valuable seeds continue to end up in the hands of handful multinational companies with headquarters in Western countries. They, along with
their regional agents in India and Nepal, control our agriculture-based economy— controlling seeds is tantamount to controlling agriculture.
The good news is that an army of development workers and activists who promote heirloom seeds among farmers are currently supporting an innovative campaign to tackle this problem. If all goes well, community seed banks are likely to be the next most successful community-driven approach after the internationally recognised community forests of Nepal.
Global seed politics
Different landraces—wild or cultivated—are important because of various traits stored in their genome which are important for breeding. Therefore, sophisticated gene banks have been established by several countries around the world. These are, however, controlled by international non-government organisations and multinational companies. As a result, they are more accessible to commercial seed companies but less to farming communities. For this reason, seed activists, farmers’ organisations and government agencies have come up with a novel concept of community seed banks.
The notion of community gene banks or seed banks began about 30 years ago. Now, with over 100 community seed banks, Nepal is one of the leading countries in this sector along with Brazil and India. Countries like Bhutan, Burkina Faso, China, Guatemala and Uganda have also followed suit. In Nepal, organisations such as Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research, and Development, Biodiverversity International, farmers’ cooperatives, organic movement activists have been tirelessly working to conserve heirloom seeds.
Meanwhile, across the developed world, agricultural policies are increasingly being guided by powerful companies. Western companies, it seems, are hellbent on establishing their monopoly on seeds. According to the ETC group, three agrichemical firms—Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta—alone control 53 percent of the global commercial seed market. Under the guise of being crusaders of food security such companies aim to strengthen their hold on seeds by marketing terminatorseeds to farmers—these sterile seeds make farmers dependent on Western seed companies.
Farmers in rich countries including the US, England and China have already started to take over the seed market by controlling seed rights. This is against nature and also disrespects the long history of seed conservation done by common farmers across the world. And under pressure from powerful Western countries, even the UN has seemingly failed to work for poor farmers. Green activists such as Vandana Shiva and others have challenged this monopoly and are helping poor farmers regain their seed sovereignty through community seed banks.
Genetic diversity plays a significant role in improving food security and livelihood. Farmers have been maintaining, conserving and developing a wide array of crops since humans began farming millions of years ago. Nepal is ranked 25th in terms of species’ richness at the global level and 11th in Asia. Among 10 biodiversity hotspot countries of Asia, Nepal occupies the 5th, 9th, and 10th positions respectively with regards to species diversity of birds, mammals, and angiospermic flowering plants. Over 400 species of agricultural and horticultural crops and about 200 species of vegetables have been recorded in the country. The survival of all floral and faunal diversity requires concerted efforts by local communities who are custodians of agrobiodiversity.
Setting up seed banks in villages and creating awareness among local farmers would, therefore, would not only help in conserving agrobiodiversity but also in overcoming food security problems. The different characteristics present in various cultivars prove useful in the fight against adverse conditions such as drought, insect and pathogen attacks. The conservation of indigenous cultivars would certainly benefit the international movement of climate change adaptation and resilience. It would also help develop climate-smart villages.
Community seed banks
Ever since modern farming started in Nepal, the seed policies of our
government have been controlled by donor agencies. Some senior government officers at the Ministry of Agriculture admit that local varieties of seeds play a vital role in ensuring the food security of subsistence farmers. They also accept that such varieties are vanishing at a fast rate. Though there are reports that the Ministry of Agriculture is planning to promote the notion of community seed banks, a lot can be done through state institutions such as district agriculture development offices in all the 75 districts and their relationship with one another and the farmers.
But under the influence of donors, instead of promoting indigenous varieties, the government is introducing different crop varieties recommended by the International Rice Research Institute and other organisations. Recently, the USAID launched a project, Adoption of Stress Tolerant Rice Varieties, in Nepal and Cambodia to improve declining rice productivity.
Regardless, the government of Nepal should act intelligently and help its farmers gain control over the seeds they possess. If farmers are able to secure their rights over seeds, Nepal can address its food insufficiecy problems. Towards that end, along with other ways to help farmers regain seed rights, community seed banks should be promoted in every village in the country.
Subedi is assistant professor at the Agriculture and Forestry University, Rampur, Chitwan