Seeding the future
31 December 2013
The use of modern seeds stands to erode the genetic diversity of local seed varieties in Nepal
Not far down the list was entry number eight – sathi – the coarse rice native to Kachorwa village in Bara District along Nepal’s southern border. Locals said they couldn’t do without it. Leaves envelope the panicles that host its dark black grains, which means that instead of the golden droplets typically seen drooping and swaying on fields of mature rice, one would find thin strips of straw protecting each jewel from pecking birds. Drought- and pest- resistant, sathi is ideal for upland plains, can be harvested within a brief sixty days, and makes for an especially tasty rice pudding. Every farmer in the area either grows it, or barters to acquire it, in time to offer to goddess Chhati Maiya at the annual Chhat celebrations dedicated to the Hindu sun god, and celebrated across the Tarai plains of Nepal and many parts of India in late October.
Sathi is one of 88 varieties of local rice listed in the large, red registry of seeds stored in Kachorwa’s community seed bank (CSB). The number has multiplied since the bank’s moderate beginnings, which started with a dozen rice varieties. Each seed has a distinct characteristic related either to taste, aroma, adaptation, processing or some special quirk.
The seeds are stored in a small, minimally-lit room of a one-roomed cement building. Tufts of dried, un-milled paddy hang off of bamboo sticks running lengthwise across the walls, below which shelves of round earthen pots store more grains. Each item is labelled – even the few gourds hanging in the corner. In the centre are taller cylinders of a dried traditional mud-and-husk mixture painted with white handprints. Every year, these seeds are planted and replenished by members of the seed bank to sustain the richness of their reserves, and the knowledge that has developed around them. It is difficult to imagine how such a small space can hold enough seed to fill field after field with grain.Seed saversCollective seed saving emerged across the US, Australia, Canada and the UK in the 1970s in response to the global commercialisation of agriculture. Gardeners, farmers and researchers formed seed saver networks to conserve and exchange traditional seeds. These developed into physical structures where seeds could be stored and accessed by communities. Almost every country in the world now has some form of a community seed bank (CSB), with over a hundred each in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. Bhutan built one last year.
The first CSB in Nepal was established almost two decades ago in Dalchowki village, by a charitable organisation headquartered in Ottawa called USC Canada that supports biodiversity and food sovereignty in several countries across the southern continents. The bank sits just south of Kathmandu in Lalitpur, accessible only via a dirt road carved round the sides of hills by a bulldozer, then abandoned. In 2003, the Pokhara-based non-governmental organisation Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research, and Development (LI-BIRD), with support from the autonomous government organisation Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC), established the bank in Bara district. LI-BIRD has since planted over a dozen such seed magnets in the hills and plains of the country. In 2009, the Department of Agriculture (DoA) joined in by setting up seven banks, and Oxfam Nepal has supported almost a hundred in the mid-western districts of Dailekh and Dadeldhura.
Storing seed is neither new, nor is it the exception in Nepal. For centuries, farmers have maintained spring, summer and winter harvests by relying on seed stocks saved from the previous year and informally exchanged with their neighbours. Of a total 76,574 metric tonnes of paddy demanded last year, only about ten percent was purchased from what is commonly referred to as the formal sector – the sale of modern seeds by private and public distributors. Its counterpart, the informal sector, meets the majority of demand for cereal seeds in a country where 76 percent of households depend on agriculture, and where agriculture contributes 35 percent to the national gross domestic product.
But newer policies and initiatives aimed at increasing access to improved seeds have led to shifts away from traditional agricultural practices and the gradual disappearance of local seeds. This has created the urgent need for institutions like community seed banks that conserve local biodiversity, not just for the sake of conservation, but for the immediate and long-term food security of farmers.UpgradesHardinath 1, as the number in its name suggests, is also an immensely popular rice breed among the farmers of Kachorwa. It matures vigorously, to become a tall plant with volumes of fine white grains, in just 120 days of springtime heat on well-irrigated and fertilised land. Its yield potential is 4.03 metric tonnes per hectare, compared to a national average of less than three, and its leaves and neck can withstand even the pestilent fungus called Blast. Hardinath 1 can be found conquering the plains and valleys of the Tarai, spreading further up along river basins into the hills
Hardinath 1 was developed by breeders at NARC and released for production, distribution and sale in 2004. It is one of almost eighty varieties of rice that the National Seed Board has formally ‘released’ (if bred in public sector research institutes) or ‘registered’ (if developed by private international companies then tested locally) since 1966. Only formally approved seeds can be legally commercialised.
It is these approved, improved varieties like Hardinath 1 that the government and most donor agencies are betting on for the future of Nepal’s agriculture. “Our average national corn yield is 2.5 metric tonnes, compared to 6 to 7 in China and 10 in the United States. We cannot make such a quantum jump by depending on local varieties,” justifies Suroj Pokhrel, programme director at the Crop Development Directorate, in his office in Kathmandu, between regular interruptions for his signature or his time. Despite their many virtues, local seeds have much lower yield potentials than improved ones.
The general global trajectory for seed modernisation is from highly diverse, lower-yielding populations to more uniform, higher-yielding selections. First there were only local varieties, which are sometimes called ‘landraces’, that birds, insects and the wind would randomly pollinate; farmers then selected and saved the seeds of a few prime candidates for future cultivation.
Breeders later introduced increasing control to the reproductive process, either through selective open-pollination or purified in-breeding to develop improved varieties. Eventually they discovered that crossing two separate in-bred lines to form hybrids injected a surge of vigour into the immediate offspring. Further technical advances allowed for genes representing desirable traits, like drought-resistance, to be directly inserted into plants – now technically classified as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In essence, the process was completely stripped of its randomness.
Nepal is on a similar trajectory, but moving at a much slower pace. Agriculture research in Nepal goes back to the establishment of the Department of Agriculture in the early 1920s; a national Rice Improvement Programme was founded in the early 1970s, and in 1988, a Seed Act formalised certification for seeds that were distinct, uniform and stable. The majority of seeds introduced to Nepal since the 1988 Act have been improved varieties, only a handful of which are of local origin. The national research system – NARC – has released only a few hybrids, Srijana tomato being the sole competitive breed. One hybrid maize – Gaurab – could not be commercially produced, and another – Rampur hybrid 2, or RML2 – is still contending with the lengthy approval process. An increasing number of hybrids developed by foreign (mostly Indian) companies have been registered through the system. GMOs are practically banned in the country, except for research purposes, but can technically be introduced with an approved biosafety report, the guidelines for which the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation is drafting.Right to chooseOrganisations like the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) under the global CGIAR Consortium prioritise modernisation of the seed system through technology development and testing, and encourage paving the way for markets. Justifiably so, says Medha Devare, knowledge management specialist at CIMMYT’s South Asia Regional Office in Kathmandu. “There is a huge food security problem that is not going to be served by sowing large plots of land with low-yielding local seed.”
It’s a very straightforward argument made in a very matter-of-fact manner. The majority of farming households in Nepal own and till less than half a hectare of land, not nearly enough to grow sufficient food to feed their families for the whole year, especially not given the production potentials of local varieties. “Given limited land resources and climate change, the yields have to increase,” states Devare. Hybrids offer the possibility of these higher levels of production, even though they are more expensive, need to be purchased every year and require more fertiliser inputs. “Assuming sufficient water availability and locally-adapted, well-tested varieties, the yields can be high enough that even with the cost of the inputs including the seed it is profitable to go to hybrids,” she discloses with confidence, referencing a colleague’s in-house research conducted on maize crops in Nepal. Farmers can then sell these surplus crops in the market and make a profit. “Without a market-based approach to food security, it is difficult to sustain change and improve farmers’ circumstances.”
However, many farmers in remote, inaccessible areas yet to be penetrated by the market have no option but to use local seeds. They need to be given the choice to try out improved varieties, insists Devare. “In any democracy, people have a right to choose – provide farmers with the smartest management and varietal choices based on good research, and let them make the choices.” And there is growing proof that when farmers are given that choice, they prefer improved seeds over landraces, she points out.
Some southern farmers even risk it with unregistered hybrids that enter through Nepal’s open-border with India – a practice that is widely known about.(Un)avoidable sacrificeSona Lal Prasad, farmer and former president of a seed cooperative in Maheshpur village near Kachorwa, has fond memories of Kariya Khera. Khera had these coarse black grains that would transform into a magical red when cooked. He liked the way the rice tasted and the way each pouch seeped with oils. It had similar religious significance to sathi, but the grains were sold for less in the market. And though a good source of straw for cow-feed, the yields were low and severely affected by lodging, a problem that causes the stems to bend over before harvest.
Kariya Khera is one of many local landraces that more popular types like Hardinath 1 have replaced and driven to endangerment or even extinction, leaving behind only fleeting memories of their existence. Kachorwa had forsaken Khera, until the seed bank brought it back from a farmer’s field in the adjacent district of Rautahat. Now Khera sits as entry number 43 in the bank’s large red registry book.
“One of the most important reasons for the loss of seeds, and thereby the loss of genetic diversity, is the replacement of genetically diverse farmers’ varieties (traditional varieties) with modern varieties (improved varieties),” states a 2011 report on CSBs by The Development Fund, a non-governmental environment and development organisation based in Oslo. The more farmers are introduced to modern varieties, the less landraces they grow and retain, which results in rapid erosion of genetic diversity.
This phenomenon is also taking place in Nepal with its still-strong informal seed sector, chiefly in areas accessible to markets and government and donor support, points out Pitambar Shrestha, project officer at LI-BIRD and an early advocate for community seed banks in Nepal. “We declare that Nepal is rich in genetic resources at international forums, but our own projects and initiatives have led to huge losses,” he maintains. “Farmers are being told that they should use improved seeds from all sides – radio, television, newspaper – but only few voices tell them that they should also conserve local seeds.” According to his crude estimates: “From an estimated 2000 varieties of rice thirty years ago, we now only have 200-300 varieties left.” And the loss has been particularly dramatic in the Tarai, in places like Kachorwa.
On the three-hour drive to Kachorwa from the nearest city of Birgunj on the Indo-Nepal border, chief of the National Agriculture Genetic Resources Centre (NAGRC) Madan Bhatta points to the rows of corn marching by our window. “This is all hybrid maize from multinational companies.” An experienced rice breeder with bright-orange hennaed hair, Bhatta enjoys lecturing in an articulate and repetitive manner. He indicates a crop of sugarcane and asks me what it is. “Maize?” I ask, causing a loud chuckle that spreads to Bhatta’s three other colleagues in the car. Still humouring himself over my ignorance, Bhatta notices some oversized brinjal. “These could be genetically modified. They are too big. Local brinjal are much tarter.”
The loss of local seeds to potent newer strains is an unavoidable sacrifice, asserts Krishna Joshi, consultant at CIMMYT. “Commercialisation and industrialisation cannot protect hundreds of different types of landraces. I think no country in the world can protect that process.” Countries face a difficult choice in envisioning their agricultural future: “Do you want to be a subsistent, highly-diverse country full of biodiversity, or do you want to be modern, industrialised, but still using useful genes?”
But LI-BIRD’s Shrestha disagrees with the simple logic espoused by many government and donor representatives. The two are not mutually exclusive, nor can Nepal afford to treat them as such. “What they have not realised is that there are also local solutions to addressing food deficit,” he says, thinking of the seed bank in Bara. The challenging realities of Nepal’s geography would not allow for an approach that singularly focuses on increasing production with modern seeds. And Shrestha worries about the long-term implications of losing seeds.
- A significant lossPrinted on a ten rupee stamp are the crimson kernels of Jumli Marsi, the only crop in Nepal to be commemorated this way. It grows at record cold temperatures and heights, between 2500 to 3050 metres above sea-level, in the mid-western hills of Jumla district. But Jumli offers a lean yield of less than 2 tonnes per hectare and suffers from that familiar fungal plague – Blast.
To address these shortcomings, NARC released two improved rice varieties suited to the temperate climates of Jumla – Chandannath 1 and Chandannath 3. After tasting them, farmers returned to Jumli Marsi, refined to suit their palettes by centuries of cultivation. “The beauty of Jumli Marsi is that it takes time to digest,” says Bal Krishna Joshi, scientist and rice breeder, smiling in his office at the national gene bank in Kathmandu. Within an hour of eating Chandannath 1 and 3 you feel hungry again, but Jumli’s high nutrient content satiates you until daybreak.
Seeds fulfil many needs for farmers that the production-driven market and research system has not fully captured. And sometimes even the promise of higher yields from improved varieties is broken, for various reasons. Maybe the seeds didn’t adapt well to the local environment or succumbed to a pest. Seeds are like children, explains Bhatta, “If you rear a newly-born child from the United States in Kathmandu, it may get sick and have difficulty adapting.” Or perhaps the farmers could not access the fertiliser, water, pesticides and labour required to secure higher yields. “This was mostly a problem for poor farmers,” Joshi points out. And those who had consumed their stock of landraces – because many seeds, like rice, are also sources of nutrition – did not have anywhere to turn. Not every community is as lucky as those in Jumla, where Jumli Marsi stuck around while farmers experimented with modern varieties.
There may also be un-investigated environmental risks caused by the shift to more homogenous improved varieties. Nearing the end of my meeting at the Crop Development Directorate, Pokhrel reveals that he is more of an expert on honeybees than on crops, pointing to a thick, hardbound collection filled with his published work. Apparently even honeybees are partial to landraces. Based on Pokhrel’s research on a 200 metre row of maize, honeybees prioritised pollination of local landraces over improved varieties that are openly pollinated, or hybrids.
The story of Jumli Marsi also reveals the difficulties of catering to the many climatic niches stretched across Nepal’s terrain. “Our farmers grow crops from 60 to 3050 metres above sea level,” says Shrestha. “Our agriculture research has not been able to address such a diverse system, and will not be able to do so in the future either.” Take a plot in north-western Kaski District, for instance, that may need 20 different varieties of rice in one season alone. Only a handful of formal seeds will suit that farm’s microclimate, and whether they ever reach their target soil-type is another challenge altogether.
Not only are there enough landraces to fill every farmer’s pockets, but the diverse ancestry represented in each landrace increases its resilience to changes in climate, reveals Joshi at the gene bank. Over time, a population can orient itself to the changed environment through a process of natural selection. Having a diverse gene pool is like knowing a lot of languages; it eases expression in many scenarios, whether with a Bhojpuri-speaking villager in Kachorwa or a Nepali-speaker from Jumla’s Sinja valley. “The diversity of modern varieties is almost zero,” explains Joshi, which is why, “if you look at Nepal’s history of agriculture development, most climate-related problems faced by farmers are associated with modern varieties.” Landraces contribute to a more localised approach to climate resilience, as opposed to the generalised approach floating around many international research institutes, continues Joshi.
Heterogeneous landrace populations are like goldmines for breeders who extract and blend desirable characteristics into an improved variety. “Many landraces are used to release one good seed.” Even those varieties facing extinction because farmers see no direct benefit in growing them could have value for future seed development. This reasoning, and apocalyptic fears of natural disasters robbing regions of their biological material, is behind major global investment in gene banks that can preserve seeds in solid vaults at freezing temperatures for hundreds of years. Many international facilities have come to Nepal on exploratory missions, looking to preserve both wild and cultivated rice. Among others, the International Rice Genebank at the CGIAR International Rice Research Institute’s (IRRI) headquarters in the Philippines houses over 2500 of Nepal’s rice varieties. A state-of-the-art gene bank built in Kathmandu in 2010 has characterised, dried and frozen almost 9000 seeds.Unequal attentionBhatti and Silhat are a pair of outcasts often found in strips of sunken peripheral land. They have coarse grains, low yields, average straw production, but one rare, irreplaceable trait – the ability to survive on fields inundated by deep pools of water. Monsoonal flooding is common across the Tarai, and can cause significant losses to farmers.
Modern varieties could not withstand these harsh waterlogged conditions until recently, when NARC developed two submergence-tolerant higher-yielding varieties – Mahsuri-Sub 1 and Swarna-Sub 1 – with support from the Stress Tolerant Rice for Africa and Asia project, a partnership between IRRI and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Released in 2011, farmers in Bara have already started testing these varieties out.
The gap between the policies and programmes to support local seed conservation is striking, especially given how essential landraces are and will continue to be for farmers in Nepal, and the observed effect of prioritising modern varieties over seed diversity.
The gap between the policies and programmes to support local seed conservation is striking, especially given how essential landraces are and will continue to be for farmers in Nepal, and the observed effect of prioritising modern varieties over seed diversity.
For example, Feed the Future, the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) hunger and food security initiative, is being implemented in 19 countries across the globe, including Nepal. Launched in 2010, it focuses on increasing agricultural productivity and incomes as well as improving nutrition and hygiene. The estimated total budget for Nepal is USD 60 million. But does it have any local seed conservation or agro-biodiversity components? I ask this question in an interview with four USAID professionals at the busy canteen in their Kathmandu office. “No,” says economic specialist Anita Mahat-Rana, but USAID addresses biodiversity conservation in its other portfolios. Tahalia Barrett, Deputy director of the Social Environmental Economic Growth Development office, follows up, “to the extent that this is a priority for the government we try to comply, and we are just not clear on whether this, as you mentioned, is a priority for the government”.
A few days later, I pose the point in the form of a question to LI-BIRD’s Pitambar Shrestha. “There is minimal focus on local seeds from the donor sector, and one could even say none at all from the government,” he responds. Even the government-established CSBs really only promote the production of modern varieties by farmers.
In 1993, when the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force, Nepal signed on. Then the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (IT PGRFA) was approved in 2001, and Nepal ratified it in 2007. Both legally binding treaties focus on the conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits of biological resources; the CBD covers all biological diversity, and the IT PGRFA focuses more specifically on plants and food security. The latter also recognises the right of farmers “to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed/propagating material.”
In 2009, the Nepal government endorsed a National Agro-biodiversity Policy that highlights the importance of conservation for food security, and considers many of Nepal’s international commitments mentioned above. But the policy is yet to be implemented, says Shrestha. And Nepal has yet to fulfil its signatory obligations by passing related national legislation, according to Kamalesh Adhikari, author of a report on farmers’ rights in Nepal and currently writing his PhD thesis on seed bank governance at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Adhikari elaborates over the phone on how farmers’ rights are being encroached on in the current seed registration process. “If you look at our existing laws, selling unregistered seeds is against the law. So in a strictly legal sense all those seed transactions in the informal sector are in fact illegal.” Use of the word ‘informal’ then just becomes a “softer word for illegal”, even though farmers have engaged in seed exchange for generations before the ‘formal’ sector came along.
Farmers can theoretically register their local seeds in the formal sector, but it is practically impossible for them to do so without external support. Registering and releasing seeds can take years, and demands technical knowledge and money – resources that farmers simply do not have.
In this environment, community seed banks are the only institutions in the country that target local seed conservation, and incorporate them within a broader interpretation of food security. They have begun to revive the use of local seeds and have created a passage for the introduction of landraces into the formal seed system.Banking backKachorwa-4 tastes like a native, but looks like a newcomer. Ten years ago, NARC’s National Rice Research Centre and the Bara seed bank collaborated in an effort to find the perfect union between the improved variety called Hardinath 1 and the local Dudhisaro. Of the four potential strands that came out of the cross – 4, 5, 11 and 17 – farmers in Kachorwa selected number 4. It had inherited the high yields, short stems, early-maturing and anti-lodging traits of one parent, and the flavour, drought- and pest-resistance of the other.
The newborn is yet to be formally registered, but for the last four years Bara’s bank has sold two tonnes of Kachorwa-4 seeds to local farmers every year, at a rate of NPR 35 per kilo. NPR 30 goes to the farmer that produced the seed and NPR 5 to the bank. Farmers have also started producing Hardinath 1 and selling it for NPR 35 a kilo, much cheaper than the NPR 50 it sells for in the market.
“I have benefited a lot from this,” Rup Narayan Yadav, former president of the Agriculture Development Conservation Society (ADCS), under which the bank was established, tells me at NARC’s research centre in Birgunj. Dressed in a white cotton dhoti, beige kurta, and woollen orange hat, he drove three hours by motorbike to get here. The extra income Yadav makes from seed production funds his daughter’s Doctor of Pharmacy degree from a university in Pakistan. The seed bank also offers farmers in and around Kachorwa access to local seeds with unique traits like the pariah-pair Bhatti and Silhat. At least five farmers a year come asking for them to rejuvenate land abandoned years ago because of flooding, recounts Yadav.
And for less popular seeds, ADCS has designed a sustainable means of conserving them. Five years ago it set up a separate cooperative that provides loans at low interest rates to its nearly 400 members. The catch is that for every loan, farmers have to grow one or two landraces, returning one-and-a-half times the amount of seed taken from the bank. Kumari Krishna of Kachorwa’s Ward 2 has twice requested a loan of NPR 10,000 to invest in cloth to sell for a profit. Her friends have been similarly entrepreneurial with businesses in bangles, jewellery, vegetables and livestock.
Yadav also mentions in passing that with their pooled financial resources, the cooperative is planning to invest in a dairy business. The social cohesion that develops around a bank opens many new opportunities for farmers, explains Adhikari who is researching this often overlooked dimension. Seed banks “enhance social relationships, build community trust, contribute to local governance and community institution-building, and strengthen farmer-to-farmer networks.” In March 2013, almost 40 farmers representing seed banks across the country gathered in Kachorwa to share their experiences and formalise linkages.
Developments in recent years reveal a gradual recognition on the part of the government of the importance of landrace conservation for long-term food security. Bhatta’s team from Kathmandu had driven all the way to Kachorwa – a day’s worth of travel – to start the process of funnelling seeds from the community seed bank to the national gene bank. The government-run CSB’s have also begun to take their conservation mandate seriously, and a new seed regulation published last year introduced a simpler mechanism of landrace registration which enables farmers to legally sell their seeds, but not to brand or commercialise them.Two-seeded approachPokhreli Jethoburo, an elderly man from Pokhara, introduced the first traditional rice variety into the formal registration and release system. Nepal’s premium rice, Jethoburo is persuasively aromatic and expands to three times its milled size when cooked. Ideal for making pulao or biryani, LI-BIRD invested eight years in commercialising this veteran of Nepal’s western hills, which received the stamp of approval in 2006. Following these steps, Lalka Basmati, another fragrant, fine-grained rice cooked during weddings, and a native of Kachorwa, was registered in 2010.
Lalka and Jethoburo fit comfortably among the higher-yielding improved varieties listed in the National Seed Board’s annually-published notice. They offer a glimpse into an agricultural future where traditional and modern races are seen as inseparable partners in ensuring farmers’ seed and food security.
Kamalesh suggests the government take this oath to support simultaneous processes of increasing production and maintaining diversity: “I will try to increase improved seed consumption in Nepal, but at the same time I will ensure adequate safety nets for the registration or the protection of local genetic resources, and if there is a need, I will those kinds of local genetic resources for research and breeding.”
Of course no one denies that local seeds have value: neither Devare in CIMMYT – “preserving landraces is an excellent thing” – nor the government’s Pokhrel – “we should not let local landraces disappear” – but maybe it is time they saw that recognition through into practice.~ Smriti Mallapaty is an environment and science journalist based in Kathmandu.~ The bronze medal for the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation UNCA Global Prize 2013 was awarded to Smriti Mallapaty for her writings on climate change including this article published in Himal Southasian’s third quarterly issue: Online-istan.