Do farmers know how to save seeds?

by Jeremy Cherfas on November 11, 2009

There’s a strange story one hears in various quarters, that small-scale farmers, outside the industrial mainstream, don’t really know how to save their own seeds. We saw it a couple of weeks ago in a comment from Andre, who said that European legislation ensures that “varieties [are] properly maintained and registered and the seed produced according to state-of-the art standards and certified”. The clear implication is that seed produced under any other regime is likely to be defective in some way. I don’t have numbers, of course, but this kind of argument seems to be reasonably common among proponents of high-tech seed breeding. But I was rather surprised to see a somewhat similar argument in a project in the World Bank Development Marketplace, which is busy building to its giddy and exciting conclusion even as I write.

One of the finalists, Helvetas Mozambique, justifies its proposal like this:

“Without access to quality seeds, subsistence farmers practicing rain-fed agriculture continue recycling grain that has been exhausted after generations of cultivation, producing poor yields. …”

To break this cycle, Swiss-based Helvetas proposes what it calls a “zero-emission fridge” consisting of low-cost storage facilities run by community-owned seed banks that “distribute quality seeds of improved crop varieties and serve as a social safety net to benefit 10,000+ rural households”.

What is this notion that grain can become “exhausted after generations of cultivation”? It used to be said of potatoes in Europe, before anyone really understood anything about either sexual reproduction or tuber-borne diseases. And the proof was that if you saved potato fruits and planted true potato seed, the plants were much more vigorous, usually because the seeds did not contain the virus load that plagued seed tubers. Sex reinvigorated the stocks.

8FC44D73-C968-4BF2-91FB-0EBACA330815.jpg Judging from the picture accompanying the piece on the Helvetas proposal, the grain in question is maize. And maize does indeed suffer from inbreeding depression if seeds from too few individuals are saved, but I’m not aware of any evidence that experienced maize farmers don’t understand this. Does Helvetas have evidence that inbreeding depression is a real problem? Or is it, perhaps inadvertently, promoting a view that one reason subsistence farmers don’t have Swiss bank accounts is that they don’t know what they’re doing?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jacob November 11, 2009 at 12:14 pm

I would like to have a zero emission fridge myself. Where can I buy one?

An inbreeding depression in a maize open-pollinated variety under farmer conditions is possible, but unlikely. “Tired” seeds may have to do with a loss of favourable traits due to natural/unconscious selection (for lateness, for instance) or a loss of uniformity. Also, farmers sometimes replace seeds to find out if it’s the seeds’ genetics (or other factors like soil fertility) what makes the seeds “tired”…

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Jeremy November 11, 2009 at 12:38 pm

Thanks for the reference Jacob. And when you do find a zero-emission fridge, be sure to let Amory Lovins know. I remember hearing about super-insulating foam from him oh, 20 years ago, and it still isn’t on the market.

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Luigi November 12, 2009 at 7:16 pm

I’ve just learned that cowpea seeds can also carry quite a range of viruses. I can’t believe that farmers don’t select seeds for next year’s planting preferentially from healthy plants, though.

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Andre November 12, 2009 at 10:50 pm

That was a giant leap! The view on the benefits of seed legislation does not imply anything on farmers’ knowledge with regard to seed production. That’s one.

For another, the implication that seed produced outside the standards set for recognition (certification or FAO-style quality declaration) is likely to be defective in some way needs some caveats. If “is likely” means an almost certainty, then the statement is excessive. If it challenges in some way the existence of higher risks, then it is open to question. “Defective” would also need some elaboration. Quality assessments are relative and standards and views differ along the seed production and use chain, from breeder to processor and through farmers, and between members of any group of actors.

There is no doubt that there are risks. Seed production plots and lots occasionally fail to pass the certification standards. As to seed produced by farmers themselves, particularly as part of their normal crop production, it is common ground that its quality varies considerably. At the risk of opening a can of worms, I will quote Percy Schmeiser:

“Percy had saved and used his own seed, developing his own variety that was tolerant to local farming conditions. It has been destroyed by Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola being released uncontrolled into the environment. Percy is now unable to use his seed again, and views that as one of the hardest things to happen and accept as a farmer. His lifetime of work is gone and has been taken away.”

The reference to proponents of high-tech seed breeding is also a frequently seen twist. Whilst breeders of new varieties are no doubt keen to see their varieties in the marketplace in the form of high-quality seed, considerations of seed quality are essentially the same for all types of varieties.

As to Helvetas Mozambique, it would appear that it is not among the 100 finalists. I wonder whether a fridge is necessary and what would be put into it.

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Christian Steiner November 13, 2009 at 1:21 pm

For those curios to learn more about the proposal submitted by Helvetas Mozambique to the Development Marketplace 2009, you can go check out under ‘zero emission fridge’ on youtube and flickr. For those wanting to find all the errors we committed in our line of thought (after all, it’s all about invention), please send me an email (christian.steiner@helvetas.org) and I’ll be happy to forward the proposal paper to you (19 pages) for a critical review and discussion, either through this blog or bilaterally. We’re eager to network, exchange and learn from each other.

In our proposal, we are indeed talking about open-pollinated varietes of maize and common beans, mainly, in a context where due to chronic food insecurity many farmers are not able to safeguard seeds across the dry season. The invention we called zero emission ‘fridge’ is low cost, low tech, and it is an indigenous innovation of a local farmer called Gilberto Tethere in Maririni village, Cabo Delgado Province of Mozambique.

Average maize yields in Northern Mozambique are <800kg/ha, and can easily be doubled just by introducing for instance the open-pollinated Tsangano variety, which is a significant change for people struggling with food security. The proposal is about community-based seed multiplication and seed banking controlled by the communities.

Thanks for your interest in the issue, I'll know later this day whether the DM2009 jury will award our proposal or not, but being at the event has already allowed to connect with Biodiversity International represented here by Dr. Ehsan Dulloo, and we are exploring ways to join efforts to help protect crop diversity and indigenous knowledge.

Chris, Helvetas Mozambique

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