Issues Magazine

Seed Selection for Food Security

By Jeremy Cherfas

Pre-selection of crops is an important step towards food security in a changing climate. Projects in Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea are working with gene banks and the traditional custodians of seeds and diversity – women.

Climate change will drastically affect food security for people around the world, and there is little time to prepare. Extreme events and more general changes require farming systems to adapt, and farmers will need new varieties and even new crops to ensure that their growing systems remain productive.

Some of the diversity that farmers need is probably held right now in gene banks around the world, collected from places that currently have the same climate that is predicted for other places in future. But how, among the myriad accessions, does one find the most valuable ones that might help farmers to meet their future needs?

Part of the answer is Seeds for Needs, a project by Bioversity International that is designed to steal a march on climate change by pre-selecting crops and varieties that are likely to perform well under future conditions.

Location coordinates – latitude and longitude – for where the accessions were collected are taken as a reasonable proxy for the growing conditions that suit those accessions. Plugging that information into geographical information systems can help to identify accessions that are already adapted to future growing conditions elsewhere in the world.

But the selected varieties still need to be tested, and this is where Seeds for Needs has already scored. A US$200,000 proposal to fund work with women farmers in Ethiopia was named a winner in the World Bank’s Development Marketplace 2009. A second proposal, for a similar project in Papua New Guinea (PNG), is being funded by a private foundation.

In Ethiopia the focus is on durum wheat and barley, the two hardy cereals that are the mainstay of farming systems. In PNG the project is looking at taro and sweet potato, root crops that are likewise the most important components of the farming systems and that are the basis of food security for poor farmers and their families. Sweet potato alone accounts for two-thirds of total staple crop production in PNG.

In Ethiopia the project is working in close partnership with the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation in Addis Ababa, and a primary focus among the farmers is women, who are the custodians of seeds and diversity. The project will work at two target sites with around 200 vulnerable women farmers.

Ehsan Dulloo, the Bioversity scientist who leads the Seeds for Needs project, says women are important because “they have to confront significant uncertainty in the climate every year and regularly face food shortages as crops fail”. Locally available varieties may no longer be sufficient and so, he adds, “communities need to look further than their neighbours’ fields for the best-adapted seeds”.

Crucially, the work will help to prevent women farmers, who also often head the family, from falling deeper into poverty.

Seeds for Needs is developing a framework that combines three vital information streams: available knowledge of the diversity of durum wheat and barley from a range of sources; an improved understanding of climate change scenarios in Ethiopia; and the farmers’ own experiences, indigenous knowledge and adaptation strategies.

The women are currently working with the scientists to assess a range of varieties selected from the Ethiopian gene bank on the basis of the climate they are adapted to. The best selections will then be tried in more extreme climates that are predicted.

Pre-selected varieties “will provide women farmers with adapted varieties to help them cope with climate change,” Dulloo says. The point is to offer the farmers options that they can make use of to respond to changing conditions.

Women are also the focus in PNG, for similar reasons. The project has identified three different sites from the highlands, which is cooler and more humid, to the lowlands, which is hotter and drier. “Climate change models predict that in the future the higher areas will become more like the current lowland areas – hotter and drier,” says Dulloo.

Dr Raghunath Ghodake, Director General of the National Agriculture Research Institute in Papua New Guinea, the project’s main partner in PNG, points out that 90 per cent of the population is entirely dependent on agriculture, and that for the past 20 years the farmers have noted changes in growing conditions. “We have been having more frequent droughts,” says Ghodake. “There are pest and disease problems. Temperatures are rising at sea and on the land, and those changes are being felt by PNG farmers.”

So the project is working with gene banks and local partners, including communities and women’s groups, to identify sweet potato and taro varieties that can withstand extremes of temperature and rainfall as well as differences in the salt content of the soil and predicted shifts in pests and diseases. The pre-selected varieties will then be matched with places where they should continue to produce good yields under predicted future conditions.

The planting season begins soon in PNG, and the project has been working to bulk up the pre-selected varieties so that farmers in the trial villages will have enough material to plant.

In Ethiopia and PNG, the local farming communities are a vital element in the mix as it is their needs, after all, that have to be met. They are sharing their traditional knowledge about climate and strategies for coping with change, and they will be active participants in the research to identify suitable varieties and then test them. After testing, the best-performing and most adaptable varieties will be distributed to farming communities for multiplication with the help of local agribusinesses.

The Seeds for Needs projects are a crucial step toward gaining the knowledge to meet the challenge of helping farmers to achieve true food security, despite climate change, by identifying options and making them available. Although currently restricted in size and scope, the hope is that other countries will follow when they see that this approach works.