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The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience

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Commentary:Strengthening Community Based Seed Systems in West Africa—Example and Learnings From a McKnight Foundation-Funded Initiative in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger

Bettina Haussmann is the West Africa Liaison Scientist for the McKnight Foundation Collaborative Crop Research Program, and is based at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany. Her past work at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Sahelian Centre, Niamey, Niger, resulted in a regionally coordinated strategy for pearl millet improvement in West Africa.

Example of success

Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) and sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) are major crops cultivated under rain-fed conditions in the dryland areas of West Africa. Since 2006, the McKnight Foundation Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) has been funding a project entitled Sustaining Farmer-Managed Seed Initiatives for Sorghum and Pearl Millet in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.” This project is presently in its third phase. It has been led (until December 2015) by Eva Weltzien from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Mali and implemented in cooperation with scientists from ICRISAT-Niger, the national programs in Mali (IER), Burkina Faso (INERA) and Niger (INRAN), and seven farmer organizations (two each in Mali and Burkina Faso, and three in Niger). The project aims to contribute to sustainable seed supply to small-scale farmers in the three mentioned West African countries, through farmer managed production of sorghum and pearl millet seed. In 2014, the McKnight Foundation commissioned a case study to describe the project background, context and outcomes, to assess specific CCRP contributions, to summarize lessons learned and to provide recommendations. Major findings of the case study are summarized below; many more details can be found in the full case study document.1

The case study revealed that the project has been very strategic by tying participatory variety development and evaluation to farmer managed seed production, and by involving farmer organizations as equal partners in research. The core of the success was the participatory development of varieties that are adapted to the local context and produce considerably higher yields under farmers’ production conditions, while also maintaining a number of other preferred traits. Through very decentralized, participatory variety evaluation trials, farmers have gained contextualized knowledge of diverse varieties and can make informed decisions on the options available to them.

The availability of seed of these varieties has much improved during the course of the project due to strengthening of farmer led production of quality seed. The number of seed producers increased from year to year, as did the area used for seed production and the number of varieties being multiplied. By taking a “mini-packet’’ approach for seed marketing to individual farmers, access to seed has also improved. In addition, there were several other pathways for seed distribution, including through government agencies, NGOs or private seed enterprises acting as partners of the farmer organizations. Impacts were reported by farmers in the following domains: (1) variety adoption and seed systems; (2) productivity, income and nutrition; and (3) knowledge, innovation and development capacities.

In summary, the project has convincingly demonstrated that farmer managed seed production is feasible, and can improve variety adoption and achieves development impacts. However, there are still challenges ahead with regard to the sustainability of the project. Besides some necessary improvements in the seed chain itself, concerns exist regarding risk management at the farmer organizations, and improving the material resource basis for the farmer organizations and the national research institutes. Moreover, the sustainability of this project depends also on external factors, including decisions that are taken at the policy level. These external factors should be addressed, which may imply research and capacity-building measures that go beyond the original focus of the project.

The case study suggests conducting a policy and a stakeholder analysis in order to identify entry points for a science-policy dialogue, and to establish multi-stakeholder platforms in order to facilitate the development of shared visions and coordinated action towards the integrated development of more sustainable, equitable and resilient seed systems.

In the seed chain, linkages where farmer organizations directly depend on other actors should be improved. Three critical junctions were identified: (1) provisioning of source seed; (2) seed certification; and (3) coordination of complementary dissemination pathways. It further needs to be emphasized that not only knowledge and capacity-building, but also a better material resource base and risk-reducing measures, may be necessary to make the farmer managed seed production more sustainable. In order to address the seed sector as a whole, the case study suggests conducting a policy and a stakeholder analysis in order to identify entry points for a science-policy dialogue, and to establish multi-stakeholder platforms in order to facilitate the development of shared visions and coordinated action towards the integrated development of more sustainable, equitable and resilient seed systems in the three countries (Christick et al. 2014).

From my involvement as a pearl millet breeder in the seed systems project in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, followed by my function as CCRP liaison scientist, the following additional thoughts come to my mind:

How to promote seed diversity

Smallholder farmers’ production objectives, preferences and needs in West Africa are heterogeneous, therefore, these farmers need to be offered a range of variety options. Plant breeders should not strive to search for or promote just a single one-size-fits-all “best” variety—because such varieties actually do not exist in smallholder farming systems. Plant breeders aiming to serve smallholder farmers should rather strive to understand the heterogeneity of the production objectives, preferences and needs, and then strive to develop a basket of varietal options from which farmers can chose those varieties that fit best into the individual context. This would also include a move to a more systems-oriented breeding, where the different functions of a crop or cultivar in the production system are considered and improved/optimized.

“A paradigm shift is needed from considering farmers simply as beneficiaries and passive adopters to considering farmers as real partners who inform and advise the crop improvement process.”

Such an approach actually includes a paradigm shift from promoting just a few “best-bet” varieties to promotion of functional diversity via the development of a portfolio of “best-fit” varieties (varieties that are specifically adapted to different contexts, functions and needs). To enable this, a paradigm shift is needed from considering farmers simply as beneficiaries and passive adopters to considering farmers as real partners who inform and advise the crop improvement process. This is necessary, because farmers know much better than researchers what they really need and what a good variety represents in a particular context. Working with the farmers (women and men) as partners also helps to develop and improve ownership, and can enhance speed of adoption of new varietal diversity. Developing a diverse set of specifically adapted varieties also means to get away from considering yield (potential) under high-input conditions as the main trait to be improved; there are many more diverse traits that are important for farmers and that need to be integrated into different varieties by breeders in order to serve the diversity of smallholder farmers well.

“Offering diversity to the diversity of farmers and enabling them to choose what fits best into their respective situation” has also been the approach that was followed in the above-mentioned, CCRP-funded project. Annual participatory variety evaluation trials with about 20 cultivars (which changed in each year as new varieties came out of the breeding pipeline) exposed farmers to newly available variety options for the target region on a regular basis. These were followed by validation trials involving between three to six farmer selected varieties. These again were complemented by the seed mini-packet approach where small quantities of seed, together with information of the respective varieties, were offered to farmers for testing at very affordable prices.

Farmer exchange visits were organized to support farmer-to-farmer learning about varietal diversity and seed production. Seed and input shops in target villages, seed fairs and mobile seed shops contributed to enhancing access of farmers to seed and information of various cultivars, even in remote villages. This was then combined with massive training of the partner farmer organizations in certified, quality seed production for their communities. Different farmer seed producers would produce quality seed of different cultivars, so that a diverse variety portfolio became available to the communities.

“By offering such a diverse variety of options and associated information and by conducting large-scale farmer managed on-farm validation trials, farmers can be enabled to choose varieties that fit best into their system. In doing so, varietal diversity at local levels can be maintained or even promoted.”

On the breeding site, initial participatory diagnostics helped to identify and understand farmers’ needs and preferences. Then, varieties revealing the priority traits were developed together with farmers, both women and men, to serve their respective needs best and, at the same time, develop ownership. Examples are varieties with resistance to Striga for areas infested by this parasitic weed; early varieties to provide food in the hungry period; late varieties that better serve marketing quality; varieties with specific adaptation to low plant available phosphorus in the soil or to flooding/water stagnation; varieties with high micro-nutrient (iron, zinc) content to serve infant nutrition; varieties suitable for beer brewing; dual-purpose varieties that serve both food and fodder (and thereby crop-livestock integration in agroecological production systems), etc. By offering such a diverse variety of options and associated information and by conducting large-scale farmer managed on-farm validation trials, farmers can be enabled to choose varieties that fit best into their system. In doing so, varietal diversity at local levels can be maintained or even promoted.

Role of public health institutions in promoting seed diversity

Public health institutions did not play an important role in the project, but I imagine that they could play a role in promoting specific, nutrient-rich cultivars and recipes that combine different crops (for example cereals, legumes and nutritious minor crops such as hibiscus, mango or Moringa) and/or specific varieties into nutritious end products, targeting specific use groups, for example small children or specific patients. By valuing specific crops and varieties as healthy food and possibly creating a local value chain and local markets, farmers can be encouraged to add these crops and varieties to their existing portfolio, for improving family nutrition and also for income generation purposes. The use of this diversity will thus prevent it from being lost. (A similar “use it or lose it” approach has been applied by the International Potato Center (CIP) to conserve Andean root and tuber crops.)

The central role of seed for resilience

Understanding the number and type of crops, the varieties farmers maintain and how seed of these is managed can help breeders to integrate new varieties in existing systems. Participatory diagnostics conducted in the project revealed, among other things, that farmers in one village maintain several cultivars (up to 15 or more) explicitly for different purposes, including for risk management, food and nutritional security, and income generation.

Learning from nature can help us understand naturally existing mechanisms to cope with unpredictably variable environmental conditions and to achieve some resilience. Haussmann et al. (2007)2 studied intra-varietal heterogeneity of flowering time in six pearl millet landraces from Niger. Genetic differences between the earliest and the latest full-sib family derived from the same landrace were 16 days at minimum and 39 days at maximum. The enormous intra-varietal heterogeneity in these Sahelian pearl millet landraces for flowering time likely reflects adaptive benefits of intra-population diversity, whereby only a portion of plants is at their most sensitive stage at any point in time. This diversity arose through natural and farmer selection over many generations, and is likely an important mechanism for adaptation to high inter-annual climate variability in the Sahel. Sahelian pearl millet breeders are thus faced with the question of how much intra-varietal heterogeneity is desirable—or necessary—to obtain improved and stable varieties that consistently out-yield local cultivars under extremely variable growing conditions. This may be in conflict with the common understanding that “improved” cultivars should be distinct, uniform and stable.

“Farmer-participatory dynamic gene pool management using broad-based populations and diverse selection environments can be useful in developing new diverse germplasm adapted to specific production constraints, including climate variability.”

Furthermore, Haussmann et al. (2012)3 reviewed breeding strategies and required variety characteristics to enhance farmers’ resilience in variable and changing climates. According to these authors, developing variety types with high degrees of heterozygosity and genetic heterogeneity for adaptation traits can help in achieving better individual and population buffering capacity. Traits that potentially enhance adaptive phenotypic plasticity or yield stability in variable climates include photoperiod-sensitive flowering, plastic tillering, flooding tolerance, seedling heat tolerance, and phosphorus efficiency. Some of these traits (for example, photoperiod sensitivity) had been removed from elite germplasm during the Green Revolution, thereby reducing the germplasm’s ability to cope with unpredictably variable, marginal stress environments. But these traits are essential for stable performance, as in regions with a highly variable beginning of the rainy season and consequently variable planting dates, such as in West Africa. Farmer-participatory dynamic gene pool management using broad-based populations and diverse selection environments can be useful in developing new diverse germplasm adapted to specific production constraints, including climate variability. It also contributes to in situ management of genetic diversity. Larger-scale, on-farm participatory testing is required to enable assessments of varietal performance under evolving climatic variability, to provide perspective on needs and opportunities, and to enhance adoption. Strengthening seed systems will be required to achieve sustainable impacts regarding resilience.

The role of policy advocacy

There is a need for policy advocacy.

As mentioned above, resilient varieties that have a capacity for population buffering and stable yield in variable environments such as the Sahel require at least some genetic variation for adaptation traits, for example for flowering time. They thus cannot fulfill the common “distinct-uniform-stable” (DUS) criteria required for release of improved varieties in developed countries. But these DUS criteria are often also being promoted in regions where they are just not appropriate, in regions where uniformity also means vulnerability. Advocacy is therefore required to inform responsible authorities about the potential benefits of genetically heterogeneous, non-uniform cultivars, so that such types of varieties can also be released. Of course there will be an optimum heterogeneity, depending on the variability of the target environment, and heterogeneity for adaptation traits must not mean that the cultivar does not have an identity. Rather, a variety can be variable for flowering time but uniform for other plant traits such as panicle and grain characteristics.

“There is a need to recognize farmer-produced quality-declared seed and the so-called informal seed sector (which usually is not informal at all, but relies heavily on social rules established in a community) as important components of the overall system.”

Another area where policy advocacy would be helpful is related to the right of farmers to produce and share seeds. There is a need to recognize farmer-produced quality-declared seed and the so-called informal seed sector (which usually is not informal at all, but relies heavily on social rules established in a community) as important components of the overall system. A protection of farmers’ most popular, locally selected and maintained varieties should also be considered, for example in the form of a protected designation of origin (PDO).

“Farmers‘ rights as mentioned explicitly in the legally binding ITPGRFA, include the right to the protection of traditional knowledge; the right to participate in decision-making; the right to benefit-sharing; and the right to save, use, exchange and sell seed and propagating materials. However, the wording in the ITPGRFA is complex and does not provide a firm legal basis to farmers‘ rights in international law.”

Christinck and Tvedt (2015)4 explore the relationship between the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (the UPOV Convention), farmers’ rights as enshrined in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), and human rights, particularly the right to adequate food. These three legal frameworks have in common that they are all related to the issue of seed and to rules that concern access to seed. According to the authors, farmers‘ rights as mentioned explicitly in the legally binding ITPGRFA, include the right to the protection of traditional knowledge; the right to participate in decision-making; the right to benefit-sharing; and the right to save, use, exchange and sell seed and propagating materials. However, the wording in the ITPGRFA is complex and does not provide a firm legal basis to farmers‘ rights in international law. Also, the ITPGRFA does not establish a hierarchy between itself and other legal obligations of states. The UPOV variety protection convention renders illegal farmers’ customary practices of storing, processing, sharing, exchanging, selling and using seed, as far as protected varieties are concerned. This creates a conflict. It is the responsibility of governments to implement obligations of different treaties in a harmonious manner in their national legislation. Therefore, state parties need to be supported to take concrete steps for the protection and promotion of farmers‘ rights, and balancing them against the breeders’ variety protection rights as defined by the UPOV convention. The authors recommend that developing countries that have not yet joined UPOV should consider opting for alternative sui generis systems of plant variety protection that allow for more flexibility in meeting the obligations of different treaties, for balancing the interests of diverse actors, and for protecting and promoting farmers’ rights, compared with the UPOV system. UPOV members may consider the diversity of agricultural conditions of their present and potential new members in the further development of rules and their interpretation, and consider allowing for more flexibility in designing national plant variety protection laws, with regard to exceptions for small-scale farmers and Indigenous people (from Christinck and Tvedt, 2015).

What large development agencies could do to promote community based seed systems

Development agencies, together with farmer organizations, form a collective infrastructure that could cooperate with plant breeders to support variety testing, understanding patterns of variety adaptation, and matching of varieties to specific farmer’s contexts.

Development agencies, together with farmer organizations, form a collective infrastructure that could cooperate with plant breeders to support variety testing, understanding patterns of variety adaptation, and matching of varieties to specific farmer’s contexts. They can also facilitate decentralized farmer based seed production, storage in community seed banks and commercialization/dissemination schemes. Monitoring and evaluation of these development activities would also thereby provide answers to researchers (“Development for Research”, D4R approach), regarding adaptation and adoption constraints and opportunities observed for different variety options. This leads to the concept of farmer research networks (Nelson et al., under review)5. Farmer research networks are an approach under development within the McKnight Foundation CCRP and represent a strategy for matching diverse options (for example crops and varieties) and contexts in smallholder agriculture. In the context of the CCRP, farmer research networks would also aim at linking problem-solving research with action that could provide a context-specific evidence base for agroecological intensification, facilitate positive changes for farmers at scale as well as meet requirements of mutuality, reciprocity, co-creation, beneficiary ownership and local agency. The vision of farmer research networks is to transform the way that much of agricultural research and development is done to engage more (rural, but also peri-urban and urban) people in prioritization, observation, experimentation and utilization of agricultural research. This concept could also be applied in the strengthening of community based efforts to advance seed agrobiodiversity.

Conclusions

Ways to protect and strengthen community based seed systems and varietal diversity could include: promotion of farmer participatory development of varieties that are adapted to the local context and produce considerably higher yields under farmers’ production conditions, while also maintaining a number of other preferred traits; conducting large-scale, decentralized, participatory variety evaluation trials in order to appropriately sample the heterogeneity of smallholder farmers and enable identification of cultivars that are adapted to specific farmers’ contexts; citizen science approaches in evaluating existing variety diversity on a large scale (as in the Seeds for Needs initiative); large-scale training of farmer seed producers; development of public-private-producer/farmer partnerships in concert with the development of business models that include farmers as partners in order to create win-win situations for all; and farmer research networks that would help match a basket of varietal options to smallholder farmers’ diverse contexts.

Barriers to success of community based seed systems include, among others, the challenges of risk management in seed production and marketing; problems of cash flow (especially in regions where there is a short rainy season and a long dry season such as in the Sahel); lack of farmers’ credit access; and lack of appropriate seed storage facilities based on locally available materials.

“Working specifically with women farmers to cultivate and maintain local crop and varietal diversity could be an opportunity to (re-) link agriculture with nutrition, to enhance dietary diversity in rural families and to achieve desired nutritional outcomes and the reduction of malnutrition and hidden hunger.”

Policy issues that should be tackled include the introduction of DUS criteria for variety release in areas where farmers actually need or want heterogeneous, highly plastic, adaptable cultivars to cope with unpredictable inter-annual climate variation, or where farmers want to maintain intra-varietal heterogeneity for food security purposes, e.g., during the hungry period; and lack of recognition of local seed systems and strategies to build on these and the associated social values instead of imposing models developed elsewhere.

Greatest potential for impact is always relative, but my preferred areas of investment would always be the regions with the most vulnerable and poor smallholder farmers, and regions in the centre of diversity for a particular crop. Working specifically with women farmers to cultivate and maintain local crop and varietal diversity could be an opportunity to (re-) link agriculture with nutrition, to enhance dietary diversity in rural families and to achieve desired nutritional outcomes and the reduction of malnutrition and hidden hunger.

Endnotes
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1. Christinck A., M. Diarra & G. Horneber, 2014. Innovations in seed systems: lessons from the CCRP-funded project “Sustaining Farmer-Managed Seed Initiatives for Sorghum and Pearl Millet in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso”; https://www.mcknight.org/system/asset/document/850/original/CCRP_SeedSystems_Nov2014.pdf

2. Haussmann B.I.G., S.S. Boureima, I.A. Kassari, K.H. Moumouni, and A. Boubacar. 2007. Two mechanisms of adaptation to climate variability in West African pearl millet landraces – a preliminary assessment. E-Journal of Semi-Arid Tropical (SAT) Research. Vol. 3(1). Sorghum, millets and other cereals. http://ejournal.icrisat.org/.

3. Haussmann B.I.G., P.S.C. Traoré, H.F. Rattunde, E. Weltzien-Rattunde, K.vom Brocke and H.K. Parzies. 2012. Breeding strategies for Adaptation of Pearl Millet and Sorghum to Climate Variability in West Africa. (Review article). Journal of Agronomy and Crop Science, 198:327–339. doi:10.1111/j.1439-037X.2012.00526.x

4. A. Christinck and Tvedt. 2015. The UPOV convention, farmers’ rights and human rights: An integrated assessment of potentially conflicting frameworks. https://www.giz.de/fachexpertise/downloads/giz2015-en-upov-convention.pdf

5. R. Nelson, R. Coe and B.I.G. Haussmann. Farmer Research Networks as a strategy for matching diverse options and contexts in smallholder agriculture. Experimental Agriculture, revised version is under review.

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