Print Edition - 2015-01-17  |  On Saturday

Recovering from a seedy past

  • Nepali farmers are slowly waking up to the problems brought about by hybrid seeds produced by large agro companies. Seed banking will help them find their way back
Recovering from a seedy past

Jan 16, 2015-

Think of this seed as a rustic local who knows everything about its surroundings. It has the history of the place--the soil condition and climatic conditions--encoded in its DNA. That information, passed on from its ancestors, helps it survive in the locality.  And when it comes time to produce progeny, it does so willingly, passing on the history of the place to the next generation. It is no wonder then that its progeny, armed with the survival traits it has passed on, flourish in the region. It is these seed that farmers all across Nepal used to sow in their fields and which they would store in their seed vaults, to be used come the next planting season. That is how things were until around 30 years ago--when the more cosmopolitan hybrid seeds, produced by big agro companies showed up.

The hybrid seeds came bearing the promise of higher yields: scatter them on your plot, even a small one, and you would reap a bountiful harvest. Nepali farmers, who were drawn to them by their ability to multiply so rapidly and into such large numbers, were sold on the new variety. And they bought these seeds--year after year--for the plants born of many of these hybrid seeds produced sterile progeny. And so the next planting season, the farmers would troop on to the market and buy yet more bags from the seed store. The promise of another bumper harvest lured them. And as they bought and used more of these hybrid seeds, the local seed varieties started losing their presence in the farming sector.  This is how the hybrid seeds soon came to not just dominate the local market but displace local seeds entirely.

Today, there is much talk of getting community vaults stocked with local seeds again--that is what seed-banking is all about. And there is much to gain for the farmers if the vaults get going again. “Nepal is rich in bio-diversity in general and agro-biodiversity in particular. We have always had a rich variety of rice, buckwheat and barley seeds,” says Pitambar Shrestha, programme manager of Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development, a pioneer non-governmental institution working with farmers to set up Community-Seed Banks (CSBs) throughout the country. Now, with the encouragement from such initiatives, some farmers are starting to opt for native seeds again.

 “Quite a few farmers today want to fill their community-banks with seeds that are indigenous to their region and have been used by their fathers and forefathers. That’s because they have learned that these seeds are hardier and can adapt very well to freak weather patterns and extremes,” Shrestha says. For example, local farmers in Pokhara have taken the leadership in setting up CSBs in their area and within the Kaski district, to preserve the local seed varieties that are already on the decline or are being replaced by the commercial seed varieties. One particular success story has to do with the local farmers in Pokhara preserving the famed Pokhareli Jethobudo, an aromatic rice variety. This variety was also the first traditional seed variety that Nepali farmers garnered intellectual property rights for.

In many places, seed banking means the locals’ merely going back to seed storage methods that were always used by their ancestors. In Kailali, for the local Tharu farmers, who have been involved in the farming sector for ages, it means going back to storing seeds in their deheri--a traditional storage vessel made from a mixture of clay, ash, straw and plant fibre, among other natural materials. The vessels, which come in many shapes and sizes, are used to store rice, wheat and mustard.

 “Today, our farmers have taken to planting local rice varieties again and replenishing their seed stock. Our ancestors used to do this, and now we are again following in their footsteps,” says Ramlakhani Chaudhary, a local farmer from Tikapur in Kailali. “And we also exchange seeds among ourselves.”

The community seed banks in other places around the country have also started to see seeds trickling in. And earlier this month, CSBs from 12 different districts handed over a total of 916 local seed varieties of 62 different crop species to the central government-owned gene bank in the Capital. Today there are 25 community seed banks across the nation.

But despite the newfound enthusiasm for native seeds among farmers, turning the clock back will not be easy. Worldwide, the hybrid marketers have mastered the art of selling their hybrid seeds. And even today, despite the pushback in recent years, many farmers in Nepal are still falling prey to their promise of great yields, in effect plunging themselves back into the vicious cycle of using fertilisers produced by the very seed companies and other vendors. This practice of repeatedly using hybrid seed and using chemical fertilisers on them further depletes the soil of valuable nutrients, but many farmers cannot think beyond the immediate future and want to opt for the higher-yielding hybrids.

But in the last few years, a growing number of farmers have gotten more knowledgeable about the shortcomings of hybrid seeds. They have learned their lessons the hard way. Many lost everything when their hybrid seeds stopped producing harvests; for instance, in 2010, farmers in Bara, Rautahat, Sarlahi, Parsa and Nawalparasi districts demonstrated against the government after their maize crops failed. Thus when Monsanto, the global giant, tried to make its foray into the country in 2011, to promote hybrid maize seeds among 20,000 farmers in Chitwan, Nawalparasi and Kavre districts, many farmers, agriculture scientists and anti-Monsanto activists took to protesting against the company’s controversial entry.

To help the farmers get a leg up, the government in 2010 established the National Agriculture Genetic Resources Center (Gene Bank); the bank seeks to support on-farm conservation by involving farmers and their genetic resources in research, and by establishing CSBs in various districts. Earlier, the government in 1993 had signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and also became a signatory member of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (IT PGRFA) in 2007. Both these legally binding treaties focus on the conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits of biological resources and they recognise the right of farmers “to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed/propagating material.”  

But the seed-banking initiatives need all the help they can to counter the multinational agro companies’ message and stranglehold on the market.  “The government needs to actually come up with policies , including the proper mechanism to promote the use of local seed varieties among the farmers,” says Hari Krishna Uprety, a senior agro scientist. We need to encourage our farms to use our own improved seeds (produced from seeds of open pollinated varieties grown locally) to fortify the farming sector,” he says.

Published: 17-01-2015 14:51

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