Seeds for needs: Strengthening biodiversity on small farms

At a seminar with researchers from Bioversity International and IFAD staff on Monday, it was clear that supporting biodiversity in crop systems is an issue that resonates with IFAD’s work. Indeed, greater diversity of crops improves community resilience and contributes towards better food and nutrition security. However, as was noted several times, biodiversity often lacks an explicit focus in our projects and programmes.  

Bioversity International has published that only 12 food crops, together with 5 animal species provide over 75% of the world’s food today. This tendency by governments to favour efficiency and productivity is endangering our heritage of agricultural and forest biodiversity that farmers have practiced for centuries.

In response, Bioversity International has come up with the seeds for needs approach– a rapid means of identifying crop varieties that are locally adapted to climate and market conditions. The process involves agricultural trials with different seed varieties and subsequent analysis of farmers’ preferences. By making use of CGIAR and institutional genebanks, Bioversity can customize seeds and distribute to community seedbanks based on farmer demand.  

But the remarkable aspect of this approach is that the seed system is entirely open source. This means that there are no individual rights holders for the varieties they distribute, instead, the seeds are openly accessible to everyone.

“The biodiversity that we’re offering is in the public domain, open access, and therefore easy to work with, multiply, and move around as farmers identify seeds as being important to their use,” said Stephan Weise, Deputy Director General of Bioversity.

From both a food security and a sustainability perspective, this seems to make a lot of sense. However, in the many cases where government subsidies incentivize staple crops such as rice, maize and wheat, Bioversity’s approach actually represents a vast departure from the norm.

I asked Weise how he reacts to such policy barriers: “Policies can change if you provide the right evidence and link it to an engagement effort that allows them to be adjusted.”

“If we do not show that there is value in doing something differently, then policies are not going to change,” he added.

The production of minor millets in India is a case in point. These are small-seeded crops grown for food and fodder, which are rich in vitamins and nutrients. Despite the crop’s neglected status, Bioversity provided extension services to improve planting techniques and helped select higher quality seed varieties.  As a result, Indian small millet growers increased their yields by 70% and their income by 30%, all in a rural setting that is dominated by rice production.

As an organization that energetically applies itself to the plight of smallholders, IFAD has a role to play in demonstrating that agricultural biodiversity is more resilient and sustainable than monocrop farms. Engaging with colleagues in Bioversity can certainly lead to opportunities for promoting different agroecological systems in our own project contexts.