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Farmers put together seed bank for food sovereignty

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Daniel Wanjama, Seed Savers Network CEO,displays pumpkin at a seed bank in Gilgil. PHOTO | POOL

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Summary

  • Without seeds, which are the basis of production, food insecurity flood gates are swung open, making access to planting materials crucial for farmers.
  • The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 75 per cent of crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000.
  • A recent study, highlighted in the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, predicts that as much as 22 per cent of the wild relatives of important food crops of peanut, potato and beans will disappear by 2055 because of a changing climate.

Smallholder farmers always find it hard accessing seeds, and when the coronavirus outbreak shook global logistics and distribution of the input, local food system almost crumbled.

Without seeds, which are the basis of production, food insecurity flood gates are swung open, making access to planting materials crucial for farmers.

Like the global food system, which relies on several chains, seed system also depends on a series of very complex networks that often make planting materials inaccessible by small-scale farmers who are the mainstay of food production for developing economies like Kenya.

And since plant breeders and commercial seed companies have narrowed their interest to promote just a few crop varieties while neglecting many, dozens of traditional crops, which used to be locally available, have either become scarce or face extinction.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 75 per cent of crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000.

A recent study, highlighted in the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, predicts that as much as 22 per cent of the wild relatives of important food crops of peanut, potato and beans will disappear by 2055 because of a changing climate.

But in Kenya, a group of farmers are now saving seeds at home to avoid reliance on global seed system where are susceptible to factors like Covid-19 pandemic or seed companies’ gatekeeping.

Daniel Wanjama, who started the Seed Savers Network about 10 years ago, says farmers can easily boost their access to planting materials and food security by having a seed bank.

Seed saving, he says, is an important activity for farmers since it is the only way they can have seeds for the next season and ensure continuity of production without depending on supply from other people.

“Seed saving is a traditional practice by ancient farmers. It is the art of a farmer selecting the best and using them for productions in the coming seasons. This practice stopped when seed companies came up with campaigns to promote high yields seed varieties,” he says.

According to Mr Wanjama seeds, which are being promoted as high yielding and fast-maturing do not entirely stop low yields. Therefore, farmers have to dig deeper into their pockets to buy fertiliser and pesticides to boost yields.

The expert who studied agricultural extension at Egerton University says seed saving begins at the farm during tussling, especially for crops such as maize or sorghum.

“Ideally, the maize that tussles fast in the field is fast maturing, so it should be tagged, when the maize bears more than one cob it shows that it can be high yield. Seed selection practically begins at the farm, not after harvesting,” he says.

When a seed is replanted in a particular region over time, it adapts to that region. Therefore, it will not need additional inputs to give good yields and farmers also minimise their cost of production, he adds.

Mr Wanjama has established a seed bank in Gilgil, some few kilometres from Lake Elementaita. The main door leading into the bank has been beautifully decorated with a variety of seed including red beans, white rice, green grams, brown pulses as well as red and brown sorghum. Inside the seed bank, a one storey house made of mud and refurbished materials, a variety of maize, legume, vegetable and pumpkin seeds are hanged on the wall while others are stored in small containers.

The seeds have also been dressed with diatomite, which is mined in Gilgil, to protect the seeds from weevils while mud keeps the temperature of the room low.

“What is here is a reflection of what is with farmers, this is like a seed library,” he says, adding that they mainly focus on traditional food crops and in building capacity of farmers to be able to save their seeds.

The network has so far reached more than 50,000 farmers across the country. And the farmers are also being encouraged to establish seeds banks in their locality.

By focusing on traditional seed crops, farmers avoid the inevitable clash with commercial seed companies. Normally seed companies acquire breeders right for the seeds they produce. Therefore, they are capable of prosecuting anyone who saves or recycles seeds.

Unlike gene banks, which can conserve seeds for hundreds of years, the farmers’ seed bank stores seeds for a season, after which they are planted harvested and again stored.

This system has been very effective in helping farmers access the neglected seeds, For instance, sweet potatoes, traditional vegetables and legumes.

Buying seeds

It is estimated that only three per cent of potato seeds come from commercial seed companies with farmers controlling the remaining 97 per cent.

Emmanuel Oriedo, an agricultural economist from the University of Nairobi, says there is nothing wrong farmers buying seeds from commercial seed companies farmers should not discard what they have.

Seed saving and sharing among farmers, he says, fill the gap left by seed companies and plant breeders.

“One positive attribute about commercial seeds is that they guarantee predictability; farmers know what to expect when harvesting in terms of volume, flavour or taste. However, when the seed sector is entirely left in the hands of seed monopolies, then it becomes a big problem,” says Mr Oriedo.

While over 60 per cent of seeds used by smallholder farmers in rural areas are sourced through farmer-managed seed systems, these systems are largely ignored by governments whose agricultural budgets are mostly used to promote hybrid or improved seeds through the commercial or formal seed system.

Food rights crusaders also note that seed laws and policies have become a big challenge to food sovereignty and a bottleneck to advancement of seed saving, exchange, sharing and selling practices within farmer managed seed systems.

“Seed laws in the country only allows farmers to share their seeds amongst themselves (at no cost) but prohibits them selling them. While the on one hand protects farmers against buying fake seeds, it on the other hand bars easy access of seeds in famer managed seed system,” explained Mr. Oriedo.