Small farmers in the developing world rely on a diversity of crops and varieties to surive in a dynamic and changing world. Farming systems are not static as drought, pest and disease, declining soil fertility, changing market preferences and fragmentation of land holding all effect rural populations. Farmers depend on traditional landraces and modern varieties which sometimes replace or complement traditional landraces, adding to crop diversity.
Throughout the developing world, modern varieties are entering the agricultural system, where they coexist with local landraces that have been there for many years, thereby increasing agro-biodiversity. However, many modern improved varieties do not satisfy the needs of small farmers, especially regarding qualitative properties, and have therefore been dropped from the system. As a result, the local farming community continues to rely on local landraces that have preferred qualitative properties for food production and security.
Many small rural farmers who have to struggle to make a living in marginal areas are custodians of important agricultural crop diversity. This makes them knowledgeable partners in its management. Crop and variety diversity, coupled with local knowledge of biodiversity management, have been one of the strategies used by smallholder farmers to stabilize production. However, other stakeholders in agriculture often do not know about the diversity of agricultural crops in village settings, and even farmers living in the same rural community may not be well-informed on the wealth of different crop diversity that exists and is available to them.
Seed diversity fairs help to fill this knowledge gap at the community level. Unlike more formal agricultural fairs, which farmers attend as passive spectators of others' materials and technology, a seed diversity fair gives farmers the opportunity of meeting to discuss and demonstrate not only their own seeds, but also their local practices and knowledge that are linked to specific seed varieties, storage, processing and use. Many smallholder farmers continue to rely on their own farm-saved seeds for future crops. At seed diversity fairs, they are able to show and exchange small quantities of these seeds, some of which will be unknown or long-forgotten varieties for other farmers. Through this, farmers can diversify their production with varieties that are well adapted to local conditions. Seed diversity fairs can therefore be an appropriate approach to improving food security in rural settings.
An advantage of small-scale, local seed fairs is that smallholder farmers can participate easily. Travel costs are minimal, and it is easier for women - who are the key people concerning neglected and collected crops - to take part. Another advantage of local seed fairs is that the seeds displayed are easily accessible; seed fairs rely on local resources rather than on those from outside the community. This also means that follow-up between farmers is easier. Having exchanged seed varieties, farmers can discuss their experiences, and further exchange and communication can be strengthened, including through the formation of local networks.
This document reports on four community seed diversity fairs that were held in the United Republic of Tanzania: two in the central zone, at Dabalo and Misughaa villages, covering Dodoma and Singida regions, respectively; and two in the southern highlands, at Shinji and Malinzanga villages, covering Ileje and Iringa districts, respectively.
In order to make these seed fairs affordable for the rural communities, they were organized on a small scale at the village level, with farmers from the village displaying the diversity of their crops. Based on the wealth of local crop varieties available in the villages, the seed fairs focused on improved and local crop diversity in the three categories of staple, neglected and collected crops. Hybrid seeds were also exhibited, but these were not the main focus of the seed fairs because they are not important crops in the semi-arid climatic conditions of the areas concerned; during the planning session it had been decided that farmers should display what they actually grow in their fields.
The specific objectives of the seed fairs were to:
raise awareness of local crop diversity among different stakeholders at the rural community level who lack the knowledge of seeds and diversity that other farmers have;
strengthen linkages among smallholder farmers, researchers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), policy-makers and other agricultural stakeholders;
educate the community (including the younger generation), researchers, extension staff and other organizations working with seeds on the importance of crop diversity and local knowledge in food security;
create an opportunity for farmers to buy, sell and barter seeds among themselves and with neighbours to encourage the conservation of crop diversity and the sharing of varieties among farmers for food security.