International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

Toolbox for Sustainable Use of PGRFA

Sustaining local crop diversity

Farmers and other custodians of in-situ and local crop diversity play a critical role in the sustainable use of PGRFA for food security, nutrition and economic development, and thereby provide a fundamental service to humanity. Appropriate infrastructures therefore need to be set in place to support them in the continued cultivation of local crop varieties – ones that are genetically diverse due to repeated cycles of selection, seed saving and replanting, 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 produced may be central to traditional local cuisine, customary practices and specific dietary requirements. Furthermore, such diverse varieties are an important source of locally adapted genes for the improvement of other crop varieties.

Despite wide recognition of the importance of local crop varieties and the role of farmers and other crop custodians in sustaining them, the enabling environment to enable and incentivise their continued cultivation has been eroded, partly due to the promotion and widespread adoption of high-yielding uniform varieties and hybrids. Many 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.

In browsing the Toolbox, under this thematic area, information resources are categorized into three broad areas and descriptions are provided: (1) strengthening seed systems; (2) enhancing crop diversity for local needs; and (3) promoting local diversity. In each of this category, information is further classified by subject categories.

Strengthening seed systems

Strengthening seed systems

Farmers and other crop custodians depend on access to sufficient quantities of good quality seeds of their varieties of choice, and for these to be available when they need them. Seed systems – from production, to processing, storage and distribution – are therefore central to efforts aimed at sustaining local crop diversity. The role of local seed systems is critical in many countries, where as much as 80 to 90 percent of seed may be sourced through informal exchange networks, as well as from markets and household stocks. Supporting farmers and local communities in developing and maintaining these seed systems is therefore critically 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 secure seed supply for local communities. CSBs are commonly established and managed by farming communities, but may also involve collaboration with agri-based-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 the 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 to achieve 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. As part of 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

Genebanks help safeguard the future by serving as repositories of genetic material and thereby play a critical role in conserving the biodiversity for crops and making available for use. In this regard, they fulfil this role by making the germplasm available for researchers, plant breeders and farmers for continuous use and, at the same time, ensuring that the genetic material for future food supply are conserved for the long term and in perpetuity. In facilitating access to seed by farmers, genebanks can also support the reintroduction of populations of crop varieties to locations where they were previously grown, or the introduction of varieties to new localities, as a source of material for Participatory Plant Breeding (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. In addition, 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 the case of PPB, decisions are jointly taken 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.

Crowdsourcing

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 developing 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. This has proved 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 a participatory approach among 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. 

Subject category

Resources

Number of records: 1251
This booklet explains how using the Agrobiodiversity Index, companies and governments can reduce operational and reputational risks and seize opportunities, by estimating and monitoring the agrobiodiversity impact of supply chain investments. The Agrobiodiversity Index can also help investors to screen...
Subject area: Promoting local crop diversity
Subject category: Financial and incentive mechanisms
Publication or report
This report discusses the findings on the application of marker-evaluated selection (MES) and marker-assisted selection (MAS) in a partnership programme involving participatory plant breeding (PPB) in Nepal and India. The project resulted in the development of novel varieties...
Subject area: Enhancing crop diversity for local needs
Subject category: Participatory plant breeding
Article or presentation Case study
This report is on a project which combined participatory plant breeding (PPB) with marker-assisted selection (MAS) to introduce quantitative trait loci (QTLs) for root growth and drought resistance in rice grown by farmers in Nepal and India.
Subject area: Enhancing crop diversity for local needs
Subject category: Participatory plant breeding
Case study Publication or report
This report describes a participatory plant breeding (PPB) programme for spring wheat in organic production initiated in Canada in 2011. The objective was to test the field performance and quality of farmer selected wheat populations and compare them with some...
Subject area: Enhancing crop diversity for local needs
Subject category: Participatory plant breeding
Case study Publication or report
Seed security exists when men and women within the household have sufficient access to quantities of available good quality seed and planting materials of preferred crop varieties at all times in both good and bad cropping seasons. Measuring seed security...
Subject area: Strengthening seed systems
Subject category: Other
Method Publication or report

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