Plant breeding

Self-confident rural communities

by Yoya Doctor
Village women can make a difference: participants in a farmer field school hosted by SEARICE in the Philippines.

Village women can make a difference: participants in a farmer field school hosted by SEARICE in the Philippines.

In Southeast Asia, farmers are breeding seeds at the village level, supported by SEARICE, a regional civil society organisation. The aim is to develop capacities at the village level for the sake of sustainability. This approach is opposed to granting seed breeders intellectual property rights as is standard practice in rich nations. SEARICE’s Joya Doctor elaborates what the NGO does. By Joya Doctor

In January, dioxin contamination of food was a major issue in Germany. Some Asian countries stopped importing meat from Germany. The situation was similar in the United States in 2006 when around 7000 long-grain rice farmers claimed that Bayer CropScience’s genetically modified Liberty Link Rice had contaminated their products. The result was that the EU stopped imports and speculative future prices fell dramatically. In the end, US courts decided that Bayer had to pay millions of dollars in damages.

Meanwhile, the biofuel frenzy is endangering food security across many nations. In view of rising demand, precious lands in Asia and Africa, on which food was once grown, were suddenly converted to plantations of jatropha, canola or palm oil. The dioxin scare, the US rice debacle and the biofuel crisis have one thing in common: the control of corporate and industrial agriculture over food. In particular, corporate control over seeds in the form of legal and technological enclosures is of great concern today. According to the ETC Group (2008), the top ten seed companies control two-thirds, or 67 %, of the global seed market.

How did the corporations take control? The most important step was the deregulation of markets. The corporations argue that markets regulate themselves, with buyers carefully assessing the quality of products and deciding how much they want to pay for any given product. In this view, state intervention is hardly needed.

Perhaps such a system of self-regulation can work in developed countries, though the dioxin case in Germany casts doubt on the matter. Self-regulation certainly does not work in developing countries. All too often, governments of developing countries support new technologies with subsidies, allowing farmers to acquire hybrid rice seed or GM products for less money.

Patently problematic

Governments, moreover, support corporate interests by granting exclusive proprietary rights in the form of patents or plant variety protection. It is argued that intellectual property rights drive innovation by protecting the commercial interests of inventors, who are usually the corporations. In 2007, the global seed industry was valued at $ 22,000 million, and 82 % of seed sales were subject to corporate control (ETC Group, 2008).

Intellectual property rights, moreover, have become part of trade negotiations. Examples include bilateral trade agreements between Japan and the Philippines, the USA and the Philippines, the USA and Singapore or the USA and Morocco.

This trend is not healthy. In most developing countries, farmers simply do not understand what a protected seed is. For them, seed is part of their livelihood, culture and tradition. They follow customary rights to save, use, exchange and sell seeds, whether these seeds are protected or not.

All kinds of protection infringe on this traditional understanding of what is right and wrong. This is true of legal protection (patents and plant variety protection) as well as of technological protection: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and hybrids are typically designed to be of poor fertility, so they are useless for breeding purposes.

Seed sovereignty

There is an alternative to the corporate approach, one that respects that seed sovereignty is a crucial cornerstone for food security at local and national level. According to the IAASTD, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, smallholder farmers supply 80 % of glo­bal food. Any meaningful development initiative, therefore, must cater to their needs. This is what SEARICE is doing. The acronym stands for South East Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment.

SEARICE is a regional civil society organisation, based in the Philippines. We acknowledge the role that village men and women play in sustaining safe and secure food systems. In partnership with governments and other civil society organisations, SEARICE strives to:
– boost the capacity of farmers to manage their seeds,
– develop capacities of local institutions and
– provide support to policymakers.

In particular, SEARICE addresses to the need to link farmers’ science and innovation systems with formal science and research to build stronger national research systems. Some noticeable accomplishments of the multi-stakeholder partnerships are:
– increased agricultural biodiversity as farmers produce new seeds according to their preferred traits and management options. These farmer-bred varieties are resistant to pests and diseases, do not depend on chemical inputs and have shorter maturity periods – characteristics that lower production costs and increase productivity. In Bhutan, there are now 46 farmer-bred rice varieties that were recognised by the Bhutan Varietal Release Committee. Before, farmers relied only on a handful of IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) varieties. In Laos, 600 farmers produced 114 varieties in a span of nine years. In the Philippines, government’s Philippine Rice Research Institute released 55 inbred lines in ten years, from 1994 to 2004, whereas SEARICE partners released 209 farmer-bred varieties in eight years (1996 to 2004).
– higher incomes as farmers increased their yields: SEARICE-assisted farmers who produced their own farmer developed seeds incurred profits of as much as $ 1,436 per hectare per season in Vietnam. Farmers in the Mekong Delta reported increased yield by as much as 10 % to 20 % from their usual yield. In Bhutan, farmers saved at least 10 % on the purchase of rice and vegetables due to higher yield and cultivation. In terms of yield, there was a 57 % increase in rice production to 2,100 kilograms per acre in the western part of the country, while maize production rose by 62,5 % to 1600 kilograms per acre in the eastern part of the country. In Laos, 50 % of farmer-­partners had surplus production.
– easy access to good seed: in the areas where SEARICE was active, farmers had easy access to good seeds. Project areas in Vietnam produced 4,536 tons of seed. That is 62.33 % of the amount the country needs.
– resilience in view of climate change: In Nan, Thailand, SEARICE was instrumental in providing seed to farmers affected by floods in the middle of the cropping season of 2007. This flood was the worst in Nan’s history. Laos was hit by a typhoon in 2008; 65,000 hectares of cultivated land were flooded, including 51,900 hectares of lowland rice area. To assist affected farmers in five provinces, the government and the FAO purchased 30,500 kilograms of seed from SEARICE project partners.

The most important point, however, is that farmer-­bred varieties meet the specific needs of local communities. Farmers use their own selection criteria according to their own preferences, and they test their seeds in their own fields. In Vietnam, there are now four farmer-bred rice varieties, which are well adapted to acid-sulfate soil. Eight farmer-bred varieties thrive in acidic soil, and there are seven varieties that do well in saline soils.

In other countries, there are farmer-bred varieties that are tolerant to drought and flood conditions. Others are suitable for organic farming systems, and still others are resistant to specific pests. The capacity of farmers to develop varieties that are adapted to specific local needs and the conditions of ecological micro-niches is essential for making rural communities resilient in spite of climate change.

The way we work

SEARICE facilitates seed sharing through farmer-to-farmer exchange, biodiversity fairs and farmer field schools. In these occasions, farmers share their varieties with other farmers. Policymakers, government officers, students, teachers, religious leaders and community members participate in learning about seed, and how farmers play in the proper conservation, development and use of these genetic resources. SEARICE also encourages the conservation of farmer-bred varieties in community seed clubs, seed banks and seed centres that farmers can easily access.

SEARICE’s capacity building interventions provide farmers with new and more appropriate know­ledge and skills. The rural communities thus gain confidence and the self-esteem that results from knowing that one is in a position to improve one’s own fate and help people in one’s community. Many farmers have become trainers and/or leaders of farmers’ groups and communities.

Through SEARICE and its partners, there are now thousands of farmer breeders, selectors and trainers who are capable of managing the conservation, development and use of plant genetic resources. The success lies not only in the capacities of individual farmers but in the force of farmers’ groups which organise to be a collective voice, arguing for their rights.

Smallholder men and women farmers can feed the world with safe and nutritious food, and it all starts with allowing them access and control over seeds, making them part of innovation systems towards securing local seed systems. Once policymakers come up with laws supportive of small farmers’ efforts, there will be no more dioxin scares, no rice debacles, no biofuel crisis, and eventually, no more hunger.