There is concern that the work of small farmers as custodians of diversity will be undone by the G8 New Alliance, writes Claire Provost
Inside the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity’s unassuming office complex in Addis Ababa, a series of vaults houses tens of thousands of seed samples tightly sealed into small envelopes and neatly catalogued in cold storage – a treasure trove of genetic diversity painstakingly assembled and set aside for future generations.
Founded in 1976, Ethiopia’s national seed bank is the oldest and largest of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. It is also part of a pioneering experiment to link scientists with small-scale farmers to collectively revive and conserve traditional, indigenous seeds in the face of drought and other threats.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops worldwide was lost over the course of the 20th century.
Melaku Worede, the former head of the seed bank, says recurrent droughts have put the country’s agricultural diversity at risk, a problem compounded by farmers in some areas abandoning their local varieties for new, high-yield, commercial seeds.
Hundreds of other respositories, including the famed Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway and the UK’s Millennium Seed Bank, have cropped up around the world to store and save samples of major crops and their wild relatives. But funding shortages and political upheaval have threatened collections in some countries. Other samples have been in storage for decades, and may be dead, prompting fears that seed banks are turning into seed museums or morgues.
In Ethiopia, scientists have taken a different approach, opening their doors and collections to farmers and spearheading new partnerships with rural communities.
Farmers’ knowledge has been discounted by too many for too long, says Melaku. “They are underestimated out of prejudice … but we have to give due credit, and farmers also have to be rewarded for being custodians of our natural wealth.”
Melaku was head of the seed bank in the 1980s, when drought and acute food crises threatened the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians. “I thought, what are we doing? We have one of the best facilities and yet cannot help. I thought then of doing more than just storing seeds.”
Melaku and his colleagues left the capital for rural areas where they found farmers eating the seeds they would have normally planted or saved. Alarmed, they gave out raw grain in exchange for the farmers’ seeds, to be returned after the drought.
Soon the scientists were launching rescue missions and expeditions to collect and conserve seeds. They also experimented with community banks that could house bigger volumes of seeds and keep them in farmers’ hands.
Just south of Addis Ababa, hundreds of dark, tightly sealed jars are filled with legume, pulse and cereal seeds and stored on tall wooden bookshelves at the Ejere community seed bank. After each harvest, local farmers deposit samples, and in exchange get access to the bank’s stores.
Regassa Feyissa, who worked with Melaku for several years, says community seed banks offer the chance to conserve genetic diversity at the level of local farmers, where seeds are dynamically and frequently exposed to changing environmental conditions rather than held in suspension at sub-zero temperatures, while serving as a grain reserve in times of crisis.
Outside the Ejere bank, Tadesse Reta is planting wooden stakes in the ground, labeling sections of tilled land with the names of crops planted. Tadesse, 47, a local farmer, says he is looking forward to the bank’s forthcoming “field day”, where up to 400 farmers are expected to inspect crops, and debate the merits of the various seed varieties.
This is how participatory plant breeding works, Regassa says. “There is no recipe for developing varieties. It depends on who wants what.”
It is also an interesting approach for scientists, he adds. Unlike formal research, which looks for seed varieties that can work across different climates and soil types, farmers are constantly selecting for diversity, conserving a range of varieties and choosing them not just for their yields but also for their taste or because they are particularly resistant to disease or drought.
A new push to commercialise agriculture in Africa could, however, put the future of the continent’s diverse, indigenous seeds at risk.
Regassa says the “indiscriminate push of technology and inputs” by industrial farming schemes and their supporters has proved costly for farmers and needs to be challenged. “Seed security is more important than anything at this point, especially when the government is under all of these external pressures.”
In September 2013, the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (Comesa) ministers approved regulations that would require all seeds to be registered and deemed “uniform, stable and genetically distinct” before being traded and sold. Critics say this could, in effect, criminalise farmers’ traditional practices of saving and exchanging their seeds, while allowing corporations and those who can afford the registration process to capture the market.
Private investment in seeds is one of the stated indicators of success for the G8’s landmark agriculture and poverty plan in Ethiopia. Under the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, Ethiopia is to change its seed law and policies to increase and incentivise private investment in the development, multiplication and distribution of seeds.
This could spell disaster for small farmers, says Million Belay, co-ordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. “It clearly puts seed production and distribution in the hands of companies … Yes, agriculture needs investment, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to bring greater control over farmers’ lives.”