Seeds for Iife

Seeds for Iife INDIA'S fields and seed stores are the cradles of tremendous biological wealth in the form of diverse crop varieties. These varieties or 'landraces' have been shaped by farmers over generations to fit the requirements of often harsh environments, the opportunities of diverse production 'niches' and people's preferences for different products and qualities. But recent years have seen the erosion of this homespun diversity as 'improved' varieties, developed by research institutions, have spread in the rural areas. These varieties are much fewer in number, since plant breeders generally aim for 'broad adaptation', a j ack- of- all- trades strategy that fits well with centralised seed production and regulation. Improved varieties now dominate most of India's irrigated and less risky agricultural areas, though they are less popular where farmers still plant with the rain.
Dynamic conservation Are diverse crop varieties growing in farmers' fields only a vestige ofan indigenous but less productive agriculture, or are they still needed to satisfy people's needs? Can that diversity be conserved other than by storing it in the freezers of government or international institutions, or subsidising farmers to grow it? These and related issues were explored at a workshop, "Using diversity: enhancing and maintaining genetic resources on-farm", held in June 1995 in Delhi. The meeting brought together field workers and scientists from NGOS, national and international research institutions from across south Asia, with additional participants from Africa, Europe and southeast Asia.

Despite their very different backgrounds and affiliations, participants agreed that conservation must involve more than merely preserving particular ]andraces. At least as important, and as threatened, are the skills that have guided the evolution of that diversity. Farmers identify, test, judge, maintain, multiply and spread promising types, but these functions are being increasingly usurped by the formal sector.

. Scientists and NGOs are exploring several practical approaches which build on farmers' ability to choose varieties which meet their needs and which ensure the availability of choice; Participatory breeding and selection programmes are devolving to farmers the decision of what to retain or discard from among either genetically stable varieties brought together in one field, or the wildly varying offsprings from the cross of two varietal parents. In environments as far apart as the hills of Nepal and the highlands of eastern Africa, farmers have identified sets of varieties that, together, outperform the one or a few that typically emerge from conventional research. Their choices meet multiple needs and preferences: grain yield, of course, but also straw production, taste, etc.

Drawing farmers into the selection of new varieties should be particularly rewarding in the most difficult farming environments, where natural hazards occur in complex and often unpre dictable patterns. A case in question is the vast flood-prone areas of eastern in'l As J L Dwivedi (Crop Research Statio Ghaghraghat, Uttar Pradesh) explain a floods occur at different times from year to year, and to different depths, eld within the same farm. Local rice cro rely on different survival strategies, so emerging quickly from the seed, others tolerating submergence for a few d and still others able to grow to an :d quate height quickly to get above a mic season flood. How high the rice gro%,, and how long it takes to mature are ot'd parameters that adapt it to a particula. location. Breeders have had little luckle' picking combinations that thrive and th.: farmers want to use. Instead, Dwiv1d intends to give farmers diverse, earlv gel-. eration populations from crosses of 10 varieties to grow in their own fill Farmers will select what they judge use ful, and what survives the flood. Novel and potentially fruitful approaches Iike this demand a new 'division of labour' between farmers and scientists.

NGO participants described range of communit -based ini tiatives which are making avail able to farmers seeds of locally developed, but now rare, vari eties. Methods vary. For example the women of the 'Nayakrit Andolon' in Bangladesh a developing community se wealth centres' where farmer can obtain and, They prefer this to the id a of centralised 'bank'. Most grou work to support farmers' testi and evaluation of unfamilit varieties. The Academy Development Sciences (ADS) A collected more than 300 rice strains from the Konkan region of Maharashtra and provides them for trial to interested farm ers. The Beej Bachao Andolan (BBA - "Save the Seeds") is working with rice, beans and neglected crops like amaranth in the hills of Tehri Garhwal. Seed multiplication is vital if large numbers of farmers are to be reached, and several of the groups see this as a means to make the initiatives self-supporting. For example, the Deccan Development Society is working with sangams of mostly lower-caste women in Andhra Pradesh, who are rehabilitating patches of degraded land, then managing them as small but productive seed farms.

Reaching out
These programmes are quite young and, for most, it is too early to expect a rigorous evaluation of their reach or effectiveness. But many at the meeting, within and outside the organisations involved, were concerned about their isolation. Networks to share both seed and experiences among them, on a national or regional basis, could help: nothing like this exists. But links in other directions are also needed.

One way lies in simply preserving the diversity that has been assembled. Take the case of the BBA. In village conditions, seeds of rice and other hill crops can be stored for only a few seasons before they degenerate. So the hundreds of varieties that Tehri Garhwal farmers have contributed must be grown out regularly to replenish the stock. This is costly, demands land, and there is always the risk that the seeds will be accidentally mixed. Of course, only some of the varieties are in active demand; others are being tested and evaluated, while still others appear not to find a place currently in farmers' fields. That may change in future. Long term storage would keep options alive and provide security, but requires refrigeration which only formal institutions like the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in Delhi can afford. Space should be available in their gene banks. But for this to become a reality, a host of issues must be addressed. Among the most important are procedures by which community groups can retrieve their material and agreements on who else, and on what terms, can access the seed and any information 'deposited' along with it.

Community initiatives would also benefit from support in enlarging the choices open to farmers, beyond those available in the 'pool' of local varieties. One possibility is to enhance local landraces through breeding. For instance, the Konkan rice varieties in ADS' collection and in farmers' fields are susceptible to the yellow stemborer, an insect that burrows into the plant and cuts the growing panicle. Synthetic pesticides are rarely effective against it and are out of reach for most farmers, besides being hazardous. Genetic enhancement could provide a saner option. Konkan rices could be crossed with Indian or Asian varieties that have at least a partial resistance to the stemborer, taking care to preserve the characteristics that, in other respects, adapt the landraces so admirably to the region. The idea is 'easily stated, but access to those resistant varieties and to certain breeding skills is the hang-up. A labyrinth of institutional obstacles currently prevents farmers and scientists from working out how to make intelligent use of genetic diversity to meet pressing needs.

Expanding the choices available to farmers need not require breeding. NGOS or research organisations can help bring to farmers' attention both rare local landraces and those originating in other regions where similar climate, soil, pest and other conditiom prevail. The popularity in several states of farmer-selected rice varieties like Mahsuri and Indrasan shows clearly what can be gained by'moving diversity around'. However, without a concerted effort, useful diversity may remain hidden because diffusion - among farmers and through seed companies - is often slow and uneven. Again, assuring farmers access to wider diversity demands a level of collaboration that does not yet exist between community initiatives and formal sector institutions.

Finding common ground
The meeting found a heartening degree of agreement among researchers and NGO workers on the need for farmers' active involvement in genetic conservation and varietal improvement, and a recognition that the two activities are closely related. Several participants remarked that farmers seldom make an absolute distinction between old/local and new/improved varieties. The crucial element in both dynamic conservation and participatory breeding and selection is allowing farmers to choose from varieties 'on a level field'. That has seldom been the case till now. There is a clear need for grassroots initiatives to work out collaborative relationships with formal sector institutions in both conservation and enhancement areas, but little headway can be expected if policy and procedures in those institutions are not more welcoming. There was a good deal of discussion at the meeting about establishing trials of such linkages, which all concerned can observe and evaluate.

Till now, national and international gene banks have taken in landrace 'deposits', but 'withdrawals' by the corn - munities that bred them have been much less frequent. Indeed, the banks weren't set up to operate that way. The emergence of community-based conservation initiatives requires new thinking in this area and a broader role for the banks in supporting farmers' 'seed security'.