Local seeds resist climate change better

In the late 1990s, scientists told farmers in Malawi to abandon their traditional crop varieties. The experts argued that the yield was too low. Moreover, up-to-date hybrid seeds were supposed to be more resistant to pests and diseases. Today, however, the same researchers are telling farmers to restore traditional crops. These landraces are better adapted to the increasingly volatile climate.

Norway is funding the “Local Seed Restoration Project” of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Malawi. Hanne Blafjelldal, a high-ranking Norwegian government officer says: “The goal is to use local seeds, which are important in mitigating the effects of climate change.” According to Kent Nnadozie of the FAO, “local seeds are more tolerant of weather shocks and the invasion of new pests”. The traditional plant varieties also have nutritional advantages.

Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture supports the approach. It used to campaign against farmers growing local varieties. Accordingly, FAO officer Nnadozie now calls on those implementing the project “to respect the farmers by taking their views into consideration”.

Ned Kapira is a local farmer from Karonga District in northern Malawi. He claims he “never believed in the hybrid seed”. However, he adopted the new methods because everyone seemed to be abandoning the landraces. “Today we are being advised to plant local seeds because they withstand varying weather conditions,” he wonders.

Karonga District is hard-hit by drought and other impacts of climate change. In the 2017/18 growing season, drought and pests like armyworms have devastated about 600,000 hectares of farmland. Entire harvests have been lost. Hybrid varieties were destroyed in particular.

Now researchers propose a more climate-change resilient kind of agriculture. They tell farmers to grow several different kinds of crops in one field, using local manure such as cow dung and crop residues as fertilisers. The purpose is to ensure that the field has enough moisture and does not dry up fast in drought conditions. Moreover, pests normally thrive on one particular plant variety and spread more slowly when cultivation is diversified.

Raphael Mweninguwe is a freelance journalist based in Malawi.

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