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The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience

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Commentary:The Paradox of Locally Saved Seed, Agrobiodiversity, and Smallholder Prosperity

Jim Gaffney started with DuPont Pioneer in 2010 and in his role works on advancing agronomic traits, including those that help crops better use water and improve yield and yield stability. Gaffney earned a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota, a Master’s from South Dakota State University and a PhD from the University of Florida. He is particularly passionate about improving African agriculture—an interest that dates back to his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, where he worked at an agricultural technical school.

Valasubramanian Ramaiah is an agriculture and biotechnology professional with 15 years of experience in the seed and agribiotechnology industry. Ramaiah earned his PhD from the University of Madras, India, and has been at DuPont Pioneer since November 2006 as a member of the company’s Agbiotech Research and Development team. Committed to sustainable agriculture, his interests are to develop and commercialize technology-based solutions and agricultural products that improve agricultural productivity and science communication.

Seed is the fundamental input for sustainable agriculture and the foundation of successful farming for smallholder farmers. Smallholder farmers around the world are a resilient group of people and have survived for generations in the face of political unrest, unpredictable weather, and limited, or perhaps worse, uneven attention from politicians, policy-makers, donor organizations, and industry. They are self-reliant risk managers, operating without the safety nets of insurance for crops, health, or life, and in general have relied upon friends and family for labour and credit needs. Their cropping systems include multiple species, growing in close proximity, usually with no fertilizer, and most often utilizing locally saved seed or vegetative cuttings.

Regions where smallholder farmers dominate—Africa, India, and Southeast Asia—are changing rapidly. There is a continual rural exodus of young people seeking employment in large population centres. Labour shortages in farming communities are becoming common. Current smallholder farming practices can exert unsustainable pressure on soil and water resources, and expansion of cultivated land contributes to disproportionate (to the level of productivity) greenhouse gas emissions and degradation of natural biodiversity. Additional environmental pressure will come with population growth. Africa’s population, for example, is expected to grow to two billion by 2050, and this rapid growth will be uneven, with some of the most poverty-stricken countries estimated to grow even faster than the rate of population growth of Africa as a whole. Africa will also be a very young population—by 2050, approximately 40 per cent of all births in the world will be African (UNICEF Generation 2030 Africa), adding to an intractable nutrition crisis in developing economies, according to The Cost of Hunger in Africa, a study that is part of a continent-wide initiative. Likewise, India’s population is expected to reach 1.7 billion by 2050. Agriculture remains the largest sector of the Indian economy, with almost half of the workforce in India dependent on agriculture. Like Africa, output per hectare, a common measure of agricultural productivity, remains low in India when compared to many other countries, with large regional variations within the country.

“Finally, the resilience of these informal seed and smallholder production systems often leaves farmers to merely subsist, with few opportunities to gain footing toward prosperity, and markets to purchase inputs or sell excess production remain out of reach.”

Although saved and locally traded landrace seed may benefit agrobiodiversity, it also presents many challenges to smallholder success. Storage is often inadequate and seed degrades over time due to exposure to the elements, disease and insect damage. Saved seed and vegetative cuttings from traditional varieties suffer from genetic drift, in which once-differentiated varieties continually receive pollen from multiple sources and over a few generations no longer provide the same level of productivity or quality or are no longer genetically distinct. In addition, older genetics inherent to saved seed were developed for a climate and environment that no longer exist, and, with history as a guide, the climate will continue to challenge agricultural production (Stambaugh et al., 2011; Boyer et al., 2013). Finally, the resilience of these informal seed and smallholder production systems often leaves farmers to merely subsist, with few opportunities to gain footing toward prosperity, and markets to purchase inputs or sell excess production remain out of reach.

Therein lies the paradox of the informal seed system and conservation of agrobiodiversity: How do we improve resilience and risk management strategies and maintain agrobiodiversity while increasing the productivity and prosperity of smallholder farmers? And how do we limit environmental pressures as we meet these challenges?

An anecdotal account about loss of agrobiodiversity comes from a personal communication from villages in southern Cameroon. As late as 30 to 40 years ago, a number of local, distinctly different roots and tubers were cultivated. In the local Bulu language, these crops were named egnouma, adia, egom, and nbubi, and each had specific agronomic and culinary attributes. Cassava (Manihot esculenta), which had been introduced to Africa more than 400 years earlier, is now the dominant root crop in these villages, and the local roots and tubers are rarely cultivated, if at all. The change to cassava was likely made for a number of reasons: cassava is more productive over a broader range of environmental conditions, it offers greater flexibility in food preparation and use, it is a more efficient crop to cultivate based on return-to-labour, and it likely has more value as a cash crop than traditional roots and tubers.

Smallholder farmers in India experienced a similar change on a much broader scale. During the Green Revolution, research and technology developed during the 1930-60s that increased agricultural production worldwide, numerous local rice cultivars were replaced on millions of hectares by “super varieties” developed to be more responsive to fertilizer and deliver a higher grain yield. In addition to reducing food prices, hunger and poverty, the Green Revolution has been credited with sparing millions of hectares of natural ecosystems from cultivation and lowering greenhouse gas emissions (Stevenson et al., 2012).

These relatively rapid changes to fewer crop species and varieties were made based on the same risk-management and survival strategies that smallholder farmers have been making for generations, and which have been repeated in many other crops and geographies. Farmers everywhere will make decisions based on what they need to do to support themselves and their families and until basic needs are met, agrobiodiversity will be a lower priority. How then, do we make local seed systems more productive and conservation of agrobiodiversity more meaningful and realistic for smallholder farmers?

First, formal seed systems, the use of improved varieties and hybrids, and greater use of agronomic inputs cannot be considered separate from, or in opposition to, the informal seed system or conservation of agrobiodiversity. Heterosis, or hybrid vigour, is simply the increased size or rate of growth of offspring over parents, when two unrelated parents are crossed (Duvick 1999) and should be considered as part of the solution. Long-term, successful breeding programs are based on heterosis and continual heterotic pool development (Troyer and Wellin, 2009), and when combined with multi-location trials in the target environment with agronomic improvements, provide a powerful combination to account for environmental change, farmer needs, and productivity improvements in the most challenging of conditions.

For example, improved pearl millet varieties helped the households of western Rajasthan manage the risk of rain shortfalls and stabilized long-term yields. These improvements enabled farmers to shift a portion of their farmed area from millets to cash and other more productive and profitable crops (Bantilan et al., 2003). Improved cropping income has also led to concrete houses replacing mud housing and increased rates of schooling, especially for girls (Parthasarathy and Chopde, 2000). A doubling of sorghum yields over a period of thirty years in India (Kenga et al., 2004), and greater prosperity for smallholder maize farmers in Kenya (Mathenge et al., 2014) and Zambia (Mason and Smale, 2013), are just a few examples of value creation and ripple effects of increased prosperity through greater productivity and efficiency.

“Hybrid crops and improved agronomics may also address environmental issues by intensifying agriculture on less land. Recent research shows that modern maize hybrids are more efficient users of nitrogen and phosphorous than hybrids from only 25 years ago, and maize yield under drought stress has improved significantly during the past 50 years, with no additional water extraction from the soil profile.”

Hybrid crops and improved agronomics may also address environmental issues by intensifying agriculture on less land. Recent research shows that modern maize hybrids are more efficient users of nitrogen and phosphorous than hybrids from only 25 years ago (Ciampitti and Vyn, 2014), and maize yield under drought stress has improved significantly during the past 50 years, with no additional water extraction from the soil profile (Reyes et al., 2015). North American agriculture is among the least wasteful globally, with more efficient use of fertilizer and irrigation water and less greenhouse gas emissions than any major grain producing region (West et al., 2014). Combined with much greater productivity levels, these systems are among the most sustainable globally (Grassini and Cassman, 2012). Identifying other areas of high productivity using tools such as the Yield Gap Atlas (van Bussel et al., 2015) and applying the best available technology to farming will save millions of hectares from cultivation (Tilman et al., 2011) and overall, allow for greater biodiversity. Uncultivated ecosystems may not directly address agrobiodiversity, but they do offer similar benefits by preserving native flora and fauna on areas that might have otherwise been converted to cropland (Phalen et al. 2016).

To more directly address conservation, the seed sector in India offers an excellent case study for coupling higher productivity cropping systems with agrobiodiversity. Rice diversity in India consists of landraces, improved cultivars, hybrids, and closely related wild relatives adapted to varied agroecological conditions. Informal, formal and participatory seed systems coexist in India to maintain the biodiversity, conservation and sustained rice production in India. Traditional knowledge and the informal seed system play an important role in maintaining and cultivating landraces in smallholder farming communities. Public sector systems and state agricultural universities also play a major role in developing the improved cultivars for the specific regions, while the private sector mainly focuses on hybrid seeds through a formal seed system process.

The Koraput district of Odisha, India, is recognized for its rich diversity in Asian cultivated rice, and is known to be one of the centres of origin of these varieties. Smallholder farm families in the region cultivate landraces to fulfill their economic, social and cultural needs using traditional practices, which contribute significantly to maintaining in situ on-farm diversity and sustainability. Yet lack of support mechanisms and relevant training to enhance their skills in the seed selection process, common in the formal seed sector, are constraining the needed scale of quality seed production (Mishra et al., 2012).

“The open access to source seed, active participation of smallholder famers, the availability of growers and processing facilities on a contract basis and a well-developed marketing network have reduced transaction costs, enabling the emergence of a wide range of seed enterprises, particularly in the private sector.”

An answer to how these constraints might be addressed is observed in the rice seed system in the Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states of India, which offer a number of outstanding examples of the private delivery of public varieties. Several private seed companies and cooperatives are supplying an increasing proportion of rice seed, in addition to two public seed agencies, namely State Seeds Development Corporation and the National Seeds Corporation (NSC). The open access to source seed, active participation of smallholder famers, the availability of growers and processing facilities on a contract basis and a well-developed marketing network have reduced transaction costs, enabling the emergence of a wide range of seed enterprises, particularly in the private sector. Also, a greater degree of public-private interface is facilitated by transparent mechanisms for acquiring source seed, commercial incentives and an enabling regulatory framework. This system utilizes the best of what both the formal and informal seed systems have to offer and, perhaps most importantly, has provided smallholder farmers with market access and more options for their farming enterprise.

Zhu et al. (2003) offer an interesting experience in China, where more than 50 per cent of rice production is sown to hybrids. Intercropping of traditional varieties with hybrid rice has maintained or increased yield and reduced disease pressure and fertilizer needs while also increasing use and preservation of 20 traditional varieties and meeting China’s productivity needs. This would seem to be a relatively simple solution that meets multiple needs: more efficient use of inputs, greater productivity, and conservation of valued landraces.

Benzançon et al. (2009) reported on the ability of farmers in Niger to preserve diversity of sorghum and millet varieties. Even with social and climate change, a high level of diversity was maintained in traditional varieties, thus highlighting the potential for on-farm conservation of agrobiodiversity. Barnaud et al. (2007) reported on the structure and dynamics of sorghum landraces in northern Cameroon and found that while high potential for gene flow existed among the dozen or more sorghum landraces found in a single farm plot, biological barriers likely contributed to maintenance of differentiation among landraces. At least part of the significance of these studies is that with some prior thought and planning, improved varieties and hybrids could likely be introduced while still maintaining genetic diversity of landraces. As with the example from Zhu et al. (2003), multiple objectives, including more options for farmers, would be achieved.

Conclusions

The drive toward conservation of agrobiodiversity must first address farmer well-being if any level of success is to be expected. Informal seed systems, while often resilient, are often inadequate to meet the complete seed needs of the smallholder farmers due to challenges of productivity, lack of enhanced breeding skills, seed conditioning, storage, marketing and distribution.

“An integrated and participatory approach that includes the formal, informal and traditional seed systems is needed for knowledge sharing, maintenance and use of germplasm and conservation of agrobiodiversity.”

The following points should be considered in order to maintain a balance between productivity and agrobiodiversity.

  • An integrated and participatory approach that includes the formal, informal and traditional seed systems is needed for knowledge sharing, maintenance and use of germplasm and conservation of agrobiodiversity.
  • The formal seed sector, which includes hybrids, improved agronomics, and the intensification of agricultural systems for smallholder farmers, has a strong history of gains in productivity, efficiency, health, nutrition, and overall prosperity, which in turn is likely to create more options for maintaining agrobiodiversity.
  • Smallholder farmers must have greater connectivity to the markets—both to access new technology, credit, and insurance, and to be able to market excess production.
  • Regional agrobiodiversity exchanges—where local farming communities and the public and private sectors work on an integrated platform to conserve and use biodiversity though knowledge sharing (from traditional to modern science), while focusing on meeting the productivity needs of the country—will create a more sustainable effort.
  • Government policy is critical and should support awareness of newer technologies and traits, ease of movement of germplasm and technology across borders, and land reform that is beneficial to smallholder farmers.

“A collaborative effort that supports more options for farmers is needed to meet the challenges of agrobiodiversity and greater prosperity.”

With changes in the population, climate and plant pest and disease spectrums, we cannot ethically ignore newer technologies and the necessary knowledge transfer required for those smallholder farmers to improve their lives along with maintaining and utilizing agrobiodiversity. A collaborative effort that supports more options for farmers is needed to meet the challenges of agrobiodiversity and greater prosperity.

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