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The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience

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Commentary:Strengthening Community Based Seed Systems in Latin America

Humberto Ríos Labrada is the Latin America Program Director for ICRA1, an agricultural research institute based in Spain. After earning a PhD in Agronomy in his native Cuba, he worked for over a decade at the National Institute for Agricultural Sciences, where he developed an innovative methodology for farmers to teach scientists how to increase crop diversity. He has applied these methods in various regions of Mexico and Bolivia. In 2010 he won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his successful efforts to improve agrobiodiversity.

I will briefly describe different approaches that I have been involved in with some success.

Participatory breeding of landraces

“Farmers have the capacity to choose varieties that are locally adapted. They understand—often better than professional plant breeders—which types of varieties are needed for local conditions.”

In my experience of working on-farm with farmers and breeding landraces I learned some important lessons:

  • Differences in appearance, or phenotypic variability, exist among traditional varieties of a domesticated species of plant (landrace) grown in low-input conditions. This allows for options to breed new varieties by selection.
  • Farmers are able to improve complex characteristics i.e., yield in low-input conditions. It was proven that through direct selection farmers can make genetic advances to yield and its components.
  • Farmers have the capacity to choose varieties that are locally adapted. They understand—often better than professional plant breeders—which types of varieties are needed for local conditions.
  • In order to stimulate seed diversity and farmer participation, it is more efficient to increase the learning process through a participatory landrace breeding approach than to externally determine the best variety for a specific zone.

In the various programs I have been involved with, farmers, civil society representatives and plant breeders have promoted community-organized seed collections to link their own seed bank to landrace breeding programs; and farmer sown collected materials: every cob or head was considered as a family and separately sown. Farmers chose and mixed the best families and made improved gene pools and multiplied seed for self-consumption, barter and/or sale.

Participatory seed diffusion (PSD)

Varieties from formal and informal seed systems are sown under the usual cultural practices of the target environment. Farmers have the possibility to choose three-six varieties per crop in the field, then changes are introduced.

“Culinary qualities of the varieties were extremely important in keeping more diversity on-farm. Women organized cooking tests as important criteria for varietal selection. Mostly male farmers voted for varieties with high yield and associated characteristics. Female participants voted for varieties related to culinary properties. In the cooking tests, men noted that more than 80 per cent of the varieties tested were of good cooking quality, whereas women were more rigorous.”

For example, at diversity seed fairs in Cuba, participants were not told the seed sources in the plot during the selection exercise; only afterwards were the identities of the varieties revealed. Afterwards, on their own farms, the farmers organized trials with selected seeds. Discussions on varietal performance took place within the communities; between farmers, researchers, and civil society representatives. In practice, each farmer who participated in the varietal selection exercise ran a small experimental station.

Culinary qualities of the varieties were extremely important in keeping more diversity on-farm. Women organized cooking tests as important criteria for varietal selection. Mostly male farmers voted for varieties with high yield and associated characteristics. Female participants voted for varieties related to culinary properties. In the cooking tests, men noted that more than 80 per cent of the varieties tested were of good cooking quality, whereas women were more rigorous.

Fig. 1 Interactive learning cycles (Source: ICRA)

Innovation through collective learning and adaptation to opportunities and challenges

This approach, involving collective processes, enables stakeholders to seize opportunities, build trust and take joint action. ICRA has developed such an approach that leads multi-actor groups through progressive phases of joint action. We have applied this approach to scale up best participatory plant breeding practices in Cuba, Mexico and Bolivia.

An ICRA “interactive learning cycle” (Fig. 1) engages all those actors and stakeholders that face a common innovation challenge and stand to profit from joint learning and action. They reflect on the challenges they face, learn how to deal with them and plan how to apply the lessons learned in their own working environment.

Box 1
Example of a learning cycle in Cuba in favour of seed diversity and farmer participation
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Diversity seed fairs in Cuba have successfully promoted seed diversity use and farmer participation. Through facilitated collective learning, ways to sustain diversity seed fairs without international donors were identified.

For example, “champion” farmers from San José de Las Lajas, Province of Mayabeque, have organized diversity seed fairs to identify local farmers’ demand. They have also explored how other champions can be part of seed diversity businesses.

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Box 2
Example of a Bolivian learning cycle in favour of seed diversity and farmer participation.
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Bolivia has a great diversity of crops, however landraces are not considered by the formal seed sector as an alternative to increase yield and nutritional quality under low input conditions.

Members of a learning cycle from RASP (Network of Support to the Productive Sector) and INIAF (National Institute for Agriculture and Forestry Innovation) organized a participatory landrace breeding initiative to choose and multiply seeds for the local seed sector.

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“It is important to identify those who have excelled in the implementation of a new idea—champions—so they can be trained on the job as innovation brokers or facilitators.”

However, for an action learning cycle to be successful, someone must keep the actors pointed in a jointly agreed direction. It is important to identify those who have excelled in the implementation of a new idea—champions—so they can be trained on the job as innovation brokers or facilitators. For instance, in four years, three learning cycles were conducted in Cuba (through the Local Innovation Program in Agriculture, PIAL) and Bolivia (through the National Innovation Systems for Agriculture and Forestry Innovation, SNIAF), applying a two-track interactive and experiential learning approach in each cycle. They identified champions from different organizations (university lecturers, researchers, technicians, and farmers) who were then trained on the job as innovation facilitators/brokers. They facilitated a learning cycle with actors and stakeholders coming together to address a specific challenge (see Figure 2).

Fig. 2 Interactive learning applied by Innovation brokers in Cuba and Bolivia. (Source: ICRA)

“Most important was the bottom-up approach, starting at the district level and gradually extending the learning groups to include other actors at the provincial and national level. A major success factor was the fact that the learning groups focused on real challenges that farmers were facing, and that the facilitators got the groups into action, collectively sourcing for solutions.”

Most important was the bottom-up approach, starting at the district level and gradually extending the learning groups to include other actors at the provincial and national level. A major success factor was the fact that the learning groups focused on real challenges that farmers were facing, and that the facilitators got the groups into action, collectively sourcing for solutions. This action learning helped to achieve a common understanding among a group of people as diverse as local governments, other public organizations and emerging business-minded farmers interested in agrobiodiversity. This method of action learning has been utilized to organize a critical mass of farmers and other stakeholders to promote seed diversity and farmers participation in Cuba (Fig. 3), Mexico and Bolivia.

Fig. 3 Effects of interactive learning cycles in enhancing seed diversity and farmer’s participation in Cuba

Barriers to success

Sometime public policies are paternalistic and consider farmers as a burden rather than a development opportunity. Frequently, local governments and local NGOs subside local seed production by buying improved seed and distributing it freely to communities.

Researchers, extension services and universities have limited capacity to involve small farmers and others key actors in search for seed supply solutions. For instance, local adapted landraces are well received by local farmers; however, it is not clear how farmers, breeders, lecturers, professors, extension workers and consumers can work together to maximize use of landraces.

The public plant breeding sector is often top-down in practice, with plant breeders putting researchers at the top, extension workers and NGOs next and farmers and rural consumers at the very bottom, as if they lack the intelligence that a researcher has to provide adequate seed solutions.

Proposed funder interventions

  1. There are many examples of how farmers have limited access to formal gene banks or others sources of seed diversity to improve their local seed systems. One intervention could be to promote simple mechanisms for farmers to access seed diversity from formal and informal sectors, test it, then multiply and disseminate seeds to others farmers.
  2. Many individuals and organizations in the Global South are in favour of farmers’ participation and agrobiodiversity enhancement. However, they need to develop competencies, capabilities and capacities so that great ideas could be turned into practical tools to improve local seed systems. Another option could be to strengthen brokering capacity in individuals and organizations to link the informal and formal seed sector into a win-win balance.
  3. Reinforcing agroecological practices as integral to local seed systems could be an alternative that would help diversify farming systems, increase farmers’ independence, amplify economical options, strengthen social networks, and build the resilience of family farms in the face of climate change and political instability.