What’s in a seed?Community seed banks are an effective platform to maintain traditional crop varieties and improved seed management
Back in December 2013, hundreds of farmers from Bhaktapur took to the streets to protest against the government’s lukewarm response in delivering adequate compensation for the hybrid seed failure in their farms. Around 700 farmers from the district had incurred huge losses from the use of Chinese rice hybrid DY 69, as paddy grown in 361 hectares of land was destroyed by ‘neck blast’ and ‘bacterial leaf blight’ diseases. Bhaktapur’s crop failure due to the use of imported and unauthorised hybrid seeds, bought in the hope of a good harvest, was not a new phenomenon.
Farmers across the country have been facing multiple challenges over the years. Low productivity due to a host of reasons ranging from unmanaged and excessive use of unauthorised hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers, lack of knowledge about better agriculture practices compounded with adverse climatic patterns and lack of irrigation facilities have badly impacted the agriculture sector. Low productivity due to the use of local seed varieties and lack of knowledge about better farming practices led to greater attraction towards hybrid seeds that promised increased yields. In the last decade, the increasing popularity of hybrid seeds over the local landraces has created crop-related problems in many districts, particularly in the Tarai.
This is leading to a loss of crop genetic diversity including the disappearance of the local crop landraces that are more adaptable to the changing local climatic conditions, and most importantly, increasing the dependency on imported crop seeds, which in the long term is a threat to seed sovereignty. Loss of agricultural biodiversity is one of the persistent challenges faced by most farmers in the country.
Farmers in Rampur village of Dang district, like many other rural farming villages, also faced multiple challenges to sustain the farming profession. The loss of local rice varieties including Tilki, Simthado, Marsi and Ratoanadi continued unabated while the dependency on imported hybrid seeds grew. The farming situation in Shivagunj village in Jhapa was no different. The introduction of hybrid and improved seeds had an adverse impact on local genetic resources including local rice seeds like Kalonuniya landraces that were going extinct.
These problems led to the launch of the Community-based Biodiversity Management (CBM) Project in 2008 by the Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research, and Development in eight Tarai and mid-hill districts—Dang, Jhapa, Nawalparasi, Sindhuli, Doti, Jumla, Tanahun and Mustang—for sustainable conservation, management and utilisation of genetic resources to enhance the livelihoods of the farming community dependent on these resources.
In the past eight years, the programme has helped form farmers groups comprising different ethnic communities and genders to raise awareness on the importance of diverse crop species and varieties needed for a healthy and productive food system. In addition, the common forum has provided a platform to share knowledge and integrate traditional farming practices with scientific knowledge to promote, conserve and utilise biodiversity.
The farmers groups later became part of an umbrella organisation known as Biodiversity Conservation and Development Committees. In some districts like Dang, the committee is now upgraded to a Biodiversity Agriculture Cooperative Private Limited, which is helping to enhance the local seed supply, ensure farmers’ rights over their local genetic resources and earn income by selling the crop seeds grown by the farmers. Last year, the Agriculture Cooperative in Dang was successful in getting a project worth Rs10 million for commercial vegetable farming.
One of the key achievements of the programme over the years is the establishment of community-led seed banks at the village level to preserve the local seed biodiversity and to help farmers improve the productivity of local seeds by applying better agriculture practices and traditional knowledge. Under the community-seed bank approach, the farmers are allowed to produce seeds and sell them to local markets or to farmers from nearby districts.
Agyuali Community Seed Bank in Nawalparasi district is in the front line for its successful initiatives by local communities to conserve and protect local seed varieties. It provided seeds to farmers from some of the worst-hit districts by last year’s earthquakes. Out of the total 9.8 tonnes of rice seeds provided to 1,807 earthquake-affected households, 5.7 tonnes were from Agyauli alone. The programme helped farmers know more about different species and varieties of crops and the importance of their conservation for food security. The locals are now more aware and have understood the importance of local seeds. They say that they did not have an idea about earning money by selling seeds before, but now almost all the members of the cooperative that buys, distributes and manages seeds of diverse crop varieties are engaged in breeding seeds and selling them to earn income.
Farmers in Nepal are having a hard time to sustain agriculture under the prevailing tough conditions. Community-led initiatives like the establishment of community seed banks are an effective platform to maintain traditional crop varieties and improved seed management for future usage, especially for achieving food security. The government and concerned agencies should come forward to strengthen and institutionalise the community-led initiatives to sustain agriculture in the country.
Shahi covers environment-related issues for The Kathmandu Post