African farmers have been warned against abandoning traditional seed varieties because they are more cost effective. Researchers say the seeds are drought and pest resistant as opposed to those developed in laboratories and subsidised by governments.
The researchers are from Kenya, Peru, Panama, India and China and are attached to the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
“Where farming communities have been able to maintain their traditional varieties, they are already using them to cope with the impacts of climate change,” says the project leader, Ms Krystyna Swiderska of IIED.
“But more commonly, these varieties are being replaced by a smaller range of ‘modern’ seeds that are heavily promoted by corporations and subsidised by governments. These seeds have less genetic diversity yet need more inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers and more natural resources such as land and water,” she added.
The researchers fear that the diversity of traditional seed varieties is falling fast and this means valuable traits such as drought and pest resistance could be lost forever.
They demand that the international treaty on the protection of new varieties of plants also called the UPOV Convention besides protecting the profits of powerful private corporations should also protect the rights and knowledge of poor farmers.
It is understood that Western governments are pushing for the UPOV to contain provisions that would give exclusive rights to commercial plant breeders, a move that will further demote the use of traditional seed varieties mostly used by poverty-stricken communities and deny their rights to agriculture-friendly customs.
Posing a threat
The researchers also point out that in order to continue conserving and adapting the varieties, farmers need to be allowed to freely save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds.
Technologies which restrict these customary rights — namely Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTS) — pose a serious threat to genetic diversity, seed quality and the livelihoods of poor farmers.
“The farming communities that have developed and sustained a rich diversity of seeds over millennia urgently need incentives to continue sustaining them,” says Ruchi Pant of Ecoserve in India.
“They need the same rights over their traditional seed varieties and associated knowledge as corporations have over modern varieties they develop and patent. The new seed laws being introduced in developing agrarian countries are posing a threat to the rights of small farmers to save, sow and exchange their traditional varieties.”
Small-scale farmers rarely benefit when outsiders such as corporate plant breeders make use of their traditional seeds to develop new varieties, because of the plant breeders acquire the intellectual property rights when they test and register the new varieties.
One solution proving successful in Southwest China is the development of participatory plant breeding research partnerships between farmers and breeders, through which plant breeders share benefits equitably with farmers in return for their contribution of seeds and knowledge.
“Traditional seed varieties are critical to help Chinese farmers adapt to climate change,” says Jingsong Li of the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy in China.
“At the same time, this biological diversity is under threat from problems such as drought, floods, pests and diseases, which climate change may promote. For these reasons, farmers are keen to improve their varieties through Participatory Plant Breeding.”