Sustaining local crop diversity
Farmers and other in situ custodians of local crop diversity play a critical role in the sustainable use of PGRFA for food, nutrition and economic security and provide a fundamental service to humanity. Appropriate infrastructures therefore need to be in place to support them in the continued cultivation of local crop varieties—varieties that are genetically diverse due to repeated cycles of selection, seed-saving and re-planting, which has resulted in their adaptation to local environmental conditions.
Local crop varieties—also known as landraces or farmers’ varieties—can be essential to the food, nutrition and economic security of many people—particularly smallholder farmers and farming communities in rural and marginal areas. The diversity in these varieties can provide insurance against crop failure and wide cropping windows, while the crop produce may be central to traditional local cuisine and specific dietary requirements. Furthermore, these diverse varieties are an important source of locally adapted genes for the improvement of other crops.
Despite the wide recognition of the importance of local crop varieties and the role of farmers and other crop maintainers in sustaining them, the enabling environment to advocate their continued cultivation has been eroded, partly due to the promotion and widespread adoption of high yielding uniform varieties. Many diverse local varieties have therefore been lost along with the knowledge associated with their cultivation and use.
While a supportive legal framework for the sale of seed and cultivation of local crop varieties is lacking in many countries, there are activities that can help to enhance their value and sustained use, as well as to support the creation of new diversity in situ. This may in turn serve to inform and influence the development of a more appropriate, supportive policy environment.
Strengthening seed systems
Strengthening seed systems
Farmers and other crop maintainers depend on access to sufficient quantities of good quality seeds of their varieties of choice and for them to be available when they need them. Seed systems—from production, through processing, storage, and distribution—are therefore central in efforts to sustain local crop diversity. The role of ‘informal’ seed systems is critical in many countries where as much as 80 or 90 percent of seed may be sourced through local exchange networks, as well as from markets and household stocks. Therefore, supporting farmers and local communities in developing and maintaining these seed systems is important to sustain diversity and ensure local food and nutrition security.
Community seed banks
Community seed banks (CSBs) have been established in many countries to safeguard local crop varieties and to secure the seed supply for local communities. CSBs are commonly established and managed by farming communities but may also involve collaboration with agro-NGOs or research institutes. In some countries, they may be associated with hobbyists or other communities, such as gardeners with an interest in heritage varieties. CSBs are important for local food security and empowerment of local communities, as well as for maintaining traditional knowledge and raising awareness of the value of local crop diversity.
Smallholder seed enterprises
Supporting farmers in the creation of smallholder seed enterprises (SSEs) can lead to the stable production of quality seeds of local crop varieties, as well as improved livelihoods through increased income and diversification of farmers’ activities. While the initial financial investment and technical support to establish SSEs can be significant, examples have shown that with the appropriate infrastructure, training, partnerships and long-term commitment in place, SSEs can become autonomous, efficient and profitable businesses.
Integrated Seed Sector Development
The Integrated Seed Sector Development (ISSD) approach aims at improved seed, food and economic security for smallholder farmers and rural households by enhancing access to quality seeds of new, improved or farmer preferred varieties. ISSD programmes recognize and integrate ‘informal’ , ‘formal’ and ‘intermediary’ seed systems, as well as the public and private sectors, and promote entrepreneurship, private sector development, and the creation of new or strengthened markets for seeds and local crop produce. In the ISSD approach, seed policies, interventions and practices are adapted, harmonized and enhanced to support a more collaborative, coordinated and dynamic seed sector.
The role of gene banks
Conventionally, the role of gene banks in dissemination of seeds and other plant material is to the plant breeding research and development community for the creation of improved varieties for distribution to farmers through seed companies or government schemes. However, gene banks can also play a role in facilitating access to seed by farmers. This may be through the reintroduction of populations to locations where they were previously grown or the introduction of varieties to new localities (for example, using the crowdsourcing approach), as a source of material for PPB programmes and community seed banks, or through emergency seed interventions.
Enhancing crop diversity for local needs
Enhancing crop diversity for local needs
While diverse locally adapted varieties contain traits of value in terms of tolerance to local environmental conditions and dietary needs and preferences, they may also contain traits that can reduce yield, such as susceptibility to diseases or lodging. Further, farmers increasingly need different varieties or greater diversity in their crops because existing varieties are no longer suitable due to changing environmental conditions or the expansion of agriculture into marginal areas. In some circumstances, farmers may welcome the opportunity to participate in crop improvement programmes in partnership with research institutes or private plant breeding companies, or to be involved in community initiatives for sharing and diversifying local varieties.
Participatory Plant Breeding
Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) is an approach that has been promoted and adopted in many countries and regions. Compared with a conventional plant breeding programme, in PPB, decisions are made jointly by the partners and the programme is decentralized, with most of the work taking place in farmers’ fields. PPB is distinct from Participatory Variety Selection (PVS) in that farmers are involved from the beginning of a programme and therefore in the decision-making process regarding the choice of target traits. In PVS, farmers are only involved in the last stage of a breeding programme in which on-farm testing of finished or nearly finished varieties is carried out.
A variation of PVS involving a crowdsourcing approach has been developed and successfully applied in a number of countries. It differs from other PVS approaches in that a number of farmers from a community or area are randomly assigned landrace varieties from a pool rather than choosing which varieties to evaluate. Farmers carry out blind trials and rank varieties for different aspects of performance, choosing which varieties to continue to grow on their land. The results can be analysed along with participant and household characteristics and environmental data to inform the suitability of varieties for other similar circumstances. This approach has demonstrated the potential value of diverse locally adapted varieties in managing risks related to climate change and has been effective in accelerating the dissemination of seeds suitable for farmers’ needs.
Evolutionary Plant Breeding
Evolutionary Plant Breeding (EPB) is an approach to the development of new crop varieties for low input and organic farming systems. It involves the creation of genetically diverse crop populations from seed with varied evolutionary backgrounds, and saving and re-sowing a subset of harvested seeds in each growing season. It has proven to be an effective way of providing crops that can rapidly adapt to the local environment, making it highly suited to farming systems characterized by variable or unpredictable conditions—one of the main challenges faced today due to the effects of climate change. EPB may be carried out independently on different farms or through participatory approach between farmers involving the exchange of seed. The seed produced using this approach may also be a valuable source of genetic diversity for conventional plant breeding.
Promoting local crop diversity
Promoting local crop diversity
The immense value of local crop diversity is not always fully understood or appreciated by the general public, policy-makers, local communities, and even by farmers and other crop maintainers. The promotion of local crop varieties by bolstering markets, increasing knowledge and raising awareness is therefore an important element in efforts to sustain their cultivation and use.
Developing the value chain – markets for local products
Farmers and other maintainers may abandon local crop varieties if there is no comparative advantage to them in cultivating them. Creating stable value chains for crop produce is one option that is widely considered to be central in efforts to promote their sustainable use. This can involve a range of stakeholders, including farmers and farmers’ cooperatives, local promotional associations and businesses, research and development organizations, food processing companies, and local government agencies. To enhance marketing options, value-adding measures include the development of new products from raw sources, the use of high quality processing methods and packaging, and registration through schemes such as geographic indications and traditional specialities. Products may be sold in local markets, grocery shops, supermarkets and via Internet-based outlets, as well as to restaurants.
Improving the knowledge base for local crop diversity
Inventories provide the baseline information needed to understand the local crop diversity that exists and the array of associated social, economic, geographic and environmental data. This knowledge is needed to develop appropriate strategies to support the continued cultivation of local varieties, to collect and conserve material ex situ, as well as to monitor change. As creators, innovators and custodians of crop diversity, farmers and other maintainers are central in efforts to create inventories. Their rights in terms of protection of knowledge, in the sharing of benefits arising from the use of plant genetic material, and in the decision-making process, must be honoured. The requirement to survey and inventory PGRFA is enshrined in Article 5 of the Treaty and the rights of farmers in Article 9.
Raising awareness of local crop diversity value
Increasing awareness of the value of local crops amongst farmers, communities, businesses, policy-makers and the public at large is an important ingredient in efforts to sustain crop diversity. Options include the establishment of farmers’ associations and networks through which information and planting materials can be shared, the organization of diversity fairs, and the use of media (radio, television, popular press and the Internet) to promote local diversity and highlight special events.