Agyauli is a small village of some 2,700 households in the Terai plains area of Nawalparasi in Nepal. The small land-locked country in the Himalayas is among the world’s poorest countries, with 31% of its 28 million people living below the poverty line. Climate change is only exacerbating poverty levels.
When farmers in Agyauli analysed the data they’d collected over five years, they realised much to their consternation that two local fine grain aromatic varieties of rice, jhinuwa and ghiupuri, had almost disappeared.
It was then farmers decided to organise themselves to conserve local biodiversity. They formed a village development committee, which today has 700 farmers as members. Among its many activities, the committee set up a fund to provide farmers with low-interest loans if they grow one or two local crop varieties.
Today, these efforts have paid off: the community has given the two rice varieties a new lease of life and these are now commonly grown. Villagers also preserve crops by pooling seeds into a community seed bank. Their bank holds 70 types of local seed varieties, which includes 24 crop species, and is still growing.
This is what community seed banks around the world are doing — offering storage facilities for good quality seeds and facilitating seed exchange.
Storing the seeds of local crop varieties is a very old practice in Nepal, said Dinanath Bhandari, programme coordinator for climate change and disaster risk resilience at the international NGO Practical Action. But these practices have taken greater significance in the context of climate change and the introduction of genetically modified crops.
“Local varieties have some important strengths and have come through generations to overcome environmental adversities. Therefore, conservation and promotion of locally available seeds and crops is a good adaptation strategy,” added Bhandari.
Local crop varieties have a better nutritional value and are more drought-resistant, said Pitambar Shreshta, programme officer at the Local Initiatives for Biodiversity Research and Development. “These traits are not only valuable for the current changing environment but also for future food security”.
With aberrations in weather patterns due to climate change, forecasting rainfall has become extremely difficult. In countries where agriculture is the backbone of the economy, anticipatory steps need to be taken to safeguard water, food and energy. Setting up seed banks is one way of out-smarting climate change.
“Local varieties are disease tolerant and do not require use of chemicals or pesticides, unlike genetically modified ones,” pointed out Uttar Kumar Sigdel, a farmer from Agyauli. He acknowledged that the yield may be low, but “these crops need less water which is an added advantage in our area increasingly becoming prone to drought and erratic precipitation”. The village sold seven tonnes of seed varieties in the last five years and this year the target is 20 tonnes.
With over 500 million family farms in the world, the United Nations has declared 2014 as the International year of family farming recognising its importance for sustainable food production aimed at achieving food security. Community seed banks are becoming a significant part of this.
Aguali would not have been able to set up their seed bank had it not been for the Local Initiatives for Biodiversity Research and Development (LI-BIRD), an NGO that encourages smallholder farmers to overcome loss of agricultural biodiversity brought about by climate change.
The NGO helps communities to form biodiversity conservation and development committees and provides training. To date, LI-BIRD has supported 15 community seed banks in eight districts of Nepal, including the high hills as well as the flat land. Nearly 11,000 farming households are engaged in the revival and conservation of local seeds, with around 1,195 local crops and varieties being conserved. In all there are 115 active seed banks across the country supported by other organisations.
But convincing farmers to change has not been easy. They met with a lot of resistance in the beginning, said Shreshta. “Farmers’ ignorance about the value of maintaining local varieties and lack of research and development on local crop diversity have led to the disappearance of many local seed varieties,” he said.
Other factors that have led to the near-extinction of seeds, said Shreshta, include “government extension services, private seed companies and civil society organisations which promote improved varieties and lure the farmers with promise of higher yields and other benefits. In contrast, there are very few organisations promoting local crop diversity or showing farmers how to improve their current yields.”
While there is nothing wrong with farmers using improved varieties, he said: “introduction of new varieties should not completely replace local crop diversity.”
Speaking at the side-lines of a recent conference on community-based adaptation in Kathmandu, Dr A. Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), explained how aggressive marketing by multinational companies of seeds that depend on specific pesticides and fertilisers is threatening biodiversity and could make communities more vulnerable to climate disasters.
“All efforts must be made to protect traditional varieties of seeds. These seeds are familiar to community farmers and have been tested in the field themselves. This forms one of the key elements of traditional knowledge for the community, a tradition which is under threat,” he said.
The conference, hosted by the International Institute for Environment and Development, highlighted the price Nepal is paying for global carbon emissions, a country that contributes almost nothing to the problem of climate change, but is among the least equipped to cope with its impacts.
According to Dr Pervaiz Amir, a Pakistani economist with expertise on smallholder agriculture and climate change, seed banks are “primarily aimed at creating security against mega disasters like earthquakes, disease, or nuclear war etc. Maintaining seeds in a secure location ensures we have gene pool preserved for later use.”
Climate change is accelerating biodiversity loss, including loss of seed varieties, said Amir. However, he added, “the stored specimen has to be planted as it may begin to lose viability.”