Thursday, January 26, 2012

Climate Smart Seeds

Since civilization farmers, fishers, pastoralists and forest dwellers have been managing genetic diversity by selecting plants and animals to meet environmental conditions and food needs. Such abundant body of priceless knowledge is transferred from one generation to the next. Today we are the beneficiaries of such traditional knowledge on crops, cultivation, storage, processing, cuisine and associated gastronomy.

 Do we really appreciate the tireless efforts of our ancestors?

Unfortunately the monocultures of crops world over has resulted in the monoculture of mind. Large acreage of one crop variety is grown for years and all efforts are put in to encounter the associated problems of monoculture like, loss of fertility of soils, pests and disease outbreaks and reduction in the nutritional value of food.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of United Nations estimates, about three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops have been lost over the last century. An equally important task is to maintain biodiversity on farms, where it can evolve and adapt to changing climatic conditions. As custodians of the world's biodiversity, farmers can develop and maintain native plants and trees and reproduce indigenous animals, ensuring their survival.

Most of the developing countries are blessed with a rich bio-diversity and wide range of agro-ecological zones with great genetic wealth providing opportunities for cultivating a variety of crops and rearing a wide range of livestock. The farmers of poor countries depend on the use of genetic biodiversity for their income and living. Experience and knowledge gained over many generations have made possible the development and conservation of thousands of agricultural crop varieties which otherwise would have been lost forever. Despite the efforts of farmers, there has been a dramatic reduction of biodiversity.

About 10,000 species have been used in food and fodder production world over since the beginning of agriculture. Today just 150 crops feed most human beings and just 12 crops provide 80% of food calories (wheat, rice, maize and potato alone provide 60%).

Low productivity and profitability are the root causes of poverty among farming communities wherein the poor quality seeds and planting materials make the situation still worse. However, large number of poor-farmers all over the world depend on the biodiversity for their livelihood.

Seed is the basic and the most important input in agricultural development. The pace of progress in crop production will, therefore, largely depend upon the pace with which good quality seeds and planting materials are multiplied and easily available to farmers. The time has come now for the farmers to rediscover the ancient wisdom of seed sharing and conservation and be least dependant on the seed companies. The control of seeds should not be in the hands of few organizations who would dictate terms on farmer’s sovereignty. 

How to utilize biodiversity to diversify incomes/livelihoods?

In the present era of changing climate one needs to make smart choices for the selection of cultivars which can adapt to climate change. The hybrid seeds which are bred to yield under ideal conditions of weather, water and fertilizers/pesticides are not a viable solution. Hybrid seeds may be an option for the intensive synthetic agro-chemical based subsidised agriculture but not for poor small famers of the world who contribute more than 75% of the global food requirements.

At present repeated sowing has become a norm due to irregular weather patterns which in fact is a common trend seen nowadays in many regions. This translates into repeated seed purchases by farmers which pushes them into the vicious cycle of debt resulting in a sequel of socio-economic issues.

Moot questions

How can farmers adapt themselves in the changing weather patterns and be least dependant on the expensive seeds?

Is seed production a complex process which farmers cannot comprehend?
Obviously NO.

Farmers can produce their own seeds with basic training on simple practices of seed production like pollination patterns, isolation, seed harvesting and threshing, drying, cleaning, grading, seed treatment and packaging. Seed production on farm is easy by using the time-tested open pollinated seeds. They are also called as heirloom seeds or native seeds or traditional seeds.

Misconceptions of Open Pollinated (OP) seeds

Many people are superstitious about OP seeds and believe that they are low yielding and may not be in a position to feed the hungry mouths. As the dictum “Seeing is believing”, please see the following photographs to falsify the prophets of doom.
Turnips weighing 3 kilograms each
Radish weighing 8 and 6 kilograms

Brinjal or egg plant weighing 1.5  Kilograms
Heirloom Tomatoes 

                          Pumpkin weighing 305 kilograms  
Courtesy: Kokopelli Foundation

Benefits of open pollinated seeds
Open pollinated or traditional/native varieties breed "true to type" and adapt well to low input farming using organic practices. The advantages of open pollinated seeds are many:

i. They  are climate smart approaches for adaptation

ii.  It insures seeds for the small  scale farmers for their next season.

iii. Traditional varieties are not   
  adapted to industrial chemical farming but to small scale farming which rely on crop rotation, crop diversification and systematic varietals mix up of crops from different genetic makeup.

iv.  They are characterized by polygenic resistance to pest and diseases as they are genetically diverse (multi gene resistance) and ensures the farmer against pest outbreak, crop losses, biotic and abiotic stresses.

v. They contain more micro nutrients which combat malnutrition and micro nutrient deficiency in the diet of rural/poor people. They are suited to home gardening which is at the forefront of the struggle against malnutrition and can provide approximately half of the nutritional requirement for the marginalized population.

vi.  Open-pollinated seeds when produced on-farm, or mutually shared, has  
  minimal cost implication on cost of production while conventional and commercial seeds (such as hybrids) can cost the farmers about 30% of their total investment for cultivating a crop.

Seed production is not a rocket technology. Any farmer who has the experience of cultivation of a crop with some basic training on pollination patters of crops can produce their own seeds.

However, development organizations can facilitate the process by building capacities in seed production, selection, breeding and conservation of seeds. In addition there is a need to create awareness highlighting the synergies between genetic resources, nutrition, health, cooking and conservation.  

"The Happiest People On This Planet Are 
Not Those Who Live On Their Own Terms

But Are Those Who Change Their Terms 
For The Ones Whom They Love "