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Community Seed Banks in India

Centre for Education and Documentation

05 / 2009

The Green Revolution shifted the focus of Indian agriculture away from biodiversity to increased yield. With the modernization of agriculture, agricultural practices and cropping patterns changed and genetic diversity started getting lost. As a result, the genetic base of traditional seed varieties reduced considerably and several traditional seed varieties are now facing extinction. These varieties were inherently more compatible with local farming conditions, economically practical and environmentally sustainable than the high yielding varieties being used today. They were also more resistant to pests, diseases, droughts and floods.

The availability of the appropriate kind of seed is highly significant for agriculture because without viable seed, the survival of rural households is endangered. The ways that farmers obtain seeds are as old as agriculture, and most small-scale farmers routinely save their seed from one harvest to the next. At one time, India had 200,000 varieties of paddy (rice grown in fields submerged in water), ranging from wetland to dry land to deep water and scented millets were once a popular crop because they are drought-resistant, highly nutritious, and capable of cultivation in poor soil.

Nevertheless, these community systems of seed supply are increasingly facing pressure due to:

1.Factors such as droughts, crop failure, conflict, difficult storage conditions, and poverty which are eroding both the quantity of seed, and number of plant varieties available to farmers.

2.Agricultural modernization because of which farmers are increasingly purchasing more of their seed requirements. As this bought-in seed replaces older, local varieties, these varieties become increasingly unavailable in many communities.

Therefore, interventions to strengthen informal seed supply systems, such as establishing seed banks, and seed breeding and multiplication are gaining popularity among non governmental organizations (NGOs) and public sector institutions engaged in the area of seed supply. Community seed banks are one of the important methods used to provide seed security and conserve agro biodiversity. They also guard against depletion and pollution of water, mono-cropping and peasants’ indebtedness which are among the many disadvantages of using genetically engineered high yielding varieties that require the use of large amounts of pesticides.

Functioning of community seed banks

Community seed banks usually store seed from a wide range of individuals, informal groups and NGOs who share seed among themselves. Seed is primarily retained from participants’ own production with no formal quality control, but individual selection process and handling skills are involved. More recently, some community seed banks have been set up in partnership with the formal sector - chiefly plant breeding research institutes.

Seed banks are a form of storage and diversification, and they enhance farmers’ ability to buffer environmental and economic stress by planting several crop varieties adapted to a range of environmental conditions. At the same time, seed banks facilitate farmers’ access to markets and give farmers more choice over what they grow. Seed banks enable rural tribal villages to become less dependent on engineered high-yield varieties and on expensive inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides.

Traditionally, seed preservation has been women’s role, and their knowledge of seeds has been extensive. Therefore, women play a major role in the conservation of diversity at the farm level. It is women who decide on the amount of seed and selections of varieties to be stored and the various ways of storing them.

Much of the seed stored in community seed banks is generative, but vegetative seed such as potato tubers, sweet potato vines, yam stets and cassava stakes are also found. Transferring seed between individuals, households and the seed bank entails a variety of exchange mechanisms. These are mainly informal mechanisms such as seed fairs, in-kind seed loans, barter and transfers based on social obligations, but also through cash sales and purchases.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems

Indigenous peoples and local communities are the holders of traditional knowledge about the use of biodiversity for food security and community health. The development and adaptation of plants and crops to different ecological conditions, such as soils, rainfall, temperature, altitude, and to meet specific community nutritional, medicinal, cultural, and spiritual needs, is the product of traditional knowledge. This knowledge mobilizes sophisticated and complex observations and understandings of, and experience with, the properties of living organisms and their interactions with all elements of local ecosystems. Indigenous peoples, local communities and peasant farmers practice and retain traditional knowledge through dynamic practices of seed saving, storage and exchange that allow for continued innovation in plant breeding. There is a wealth of information that farmers have. Rather than imposing methods and information on farmers, it is important to listen to them. In farmers’ fields, scientists are discovering a dynamic living laboratory of tremendous biological diversity sustained primarily by small-scale farming communities.

In order to harness the indigenous knowledge of local users, some NGOs have introduced participatory agro-biodiversity management programs that take indigenous knowledge into account in conservation activities. Cases of two organizations in South India namely the Green Foundation and Deccan Development Society that have done significant work in developing Community Seed Banks are discussed here.

The GREEN Foundation

The GREEN Foundation is a community-based organization that has been working since the early 1990s with about 4200 households of small and marginal farmers spread across 109 villages in Thally Block, Dharmapuri District, Tamilnadu and Kanakpura Taluka, Ramanagara District, Karnataka. It aims to preserve and promote agro-biodiversity in this region by conserving seeds of indigenous varieties of plants. In order to do this, the foundation introduced and promoted the concept of community seed banks in conjunction with other organizations working at the grassroots level with farming communities among small and marginal farmers where they could conserve, borrow, lend and multiply their seeds.

According to Dr.Vanaja Ramprasad, seed bank is not just a store house where seed is kept for distribution or marketing or a sophisticated storage facility which is controlled for temperature and humidity. It is an important self-help strategy for maintaining genetic diversity in crop and plant species on farms. It is also a system in the process of community agriculture which includes village level facilities, a garden or field where traditional varieties are safeguarded. Through this system, farmers have played a key role in the creation, maintenance and promotion of genetic diversity. They have developed skills to meet their specific needs such as quality, resistance to pests and pathogens, adaptation to soils, water and climate etc. Under this system local farmers have established their own seed networks to facilitate seed supply to their families and local markets.

Seeds are given free of cost to members of a seed bank. Any one from the community can become a member by paying a nominal annual fee. The member then sows the seed, harvests the crop, and later returns to the seed bank twice the quantity he received to replenish the store. The seed bank also works on seed treatment, seed selection, maintaining a record of needs, and planning for the next season.

The seed banks are managed by women’s groups. The women have the capacity to select the seeds, store the seeds and maintain the germination to the level of improving their performance. Seeds are distributed to the farmers and in return twice the quantity is received to replenish the store. Their work involves the process of seed mapping which is to gather information about the varieties of seeds that had become extinct or fallen into disuse and then collecting small quantities of them. The foundation then multiplies these seeds by growing them on small plots of lands and setting up seed banks.

Among the various methods adopted by the foundation for this purpose, on-site conservation involves distribution of seed diversity among farmers, monitoring it using cards and then collecting them after the season. Seed bank register, monitoring card and in-situ farmers’ list are maintained as part of conservation activity. The farmer is also encouraged to put aside part of her/his seed supply for sowing, farmer to farmer exchange and for selling in the market.

The Green Foundation also organizes seed fairs, seed yatras and exposure visits where farmers interact and understand the need to conserve agro-biodiversity and also get an opportunity to exchange seeds.

Deccan Development Society (DDS)

The Deccan Development Society (DDS) works with voluntary associations of poor village women, mostly dalit agricultural laborers in 60 villages in the Medak District of Andhra Pradesh. The community gene bank project initiated by the Society and targeted at these dalit women farmers envisages that the seed business will give the women a chance to enter the market once they become good seed producers. DDS visualizes a new context in which organic (non-hybrid) agricultural products will be bought at a premium. This will be to the advantage of the women who grow traditional crops using non-chemical farming practices.

Three main initiatives have been taken up by the Society under this project. These are: an Alternative Public Distribution System known as the Community Grain Fund; massive wasteland development; and the raising of traditional seeds and establishment of decentralized village-level seed banks called the Community Gene Fund.

The Community Gene Fund project identifies 30 acres of land per village to raise traditional crops for seed purposes. The lands are selected by the village sangams along the following criteria:

  • the poverty of the woman who owns the land and her commitment to grow the traditional crop;

  • the suitability of the land to grow the traditional crop as seed.

Once the lands have been selected, an amount of Rs. 2500 is made available to the farmer as input support to cover the expenses towards timely ploughing, purchase and application of farmyard manure, timely weeding and harvesting. This is a one-time investment and is recovered in the form of seeds. The recovered seeds will be stored in the village to serve as an in situ gene bank to help other farmers grow traditional crops.

The Community Gene bank project aims to:

  • secure crop biodiversity in the area

  • create an in-situ gene bank

  • develop a seed distribution network for the local crop varieties and ensure large-scale re-emergence of these varieties

  • ensure a safety net for women who are dependent on subsistence farming and empower them to reclaim their unproductive lands

  • enable the women’s groups to develop the skills and management capacity and empower them to develop into seed entrepreneurs and enter agribusiness.

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