Blog Steps to ensure seed systems conserve China’s underutilized crops

Researchers explain the importance of seeds for diverse, underutilized crops in China, and suggest policy actions to increase access for smallholder farmers.

Foxtail millet variety Qinzhouhuang has been cultivated for hundreds of years. It is golden in color with a fragrant and sweet taste, and is highly nutritious with a rich fat, protein and soluble sugar content. Crops like this exemplify China’s rich agrobiodiversity, and are particularly important for smallholder farmers in traditional farming systems as they face challenges associated with climate change.

One of the main topics of the Convention on Biological Diversity COP 15 (to be held in Kunming, China, on 11-24 October 2021), is the management of agrobiodiversity for climate-adaptive agriculture. Especially in the face of rapidly changing environments, access to viable seeds is critical to maintain the diversity of species and varieties on-farm, and support sustainable livelihoods and resilient food systems.

Foxtail millet in the field

Over 100 millet landraces and improved varieties collected from farmers’ fields are maintained by the Agricultural Extension Station in Aoshan, Inner Mongolia, where millets have been cultivated for more than 8000 years. Credit: Zhongwen Zhang

Status of underutilized crops in China

Underutilized crops refer to minor crops with a small planting area that are generally overlooked by government, research organizations and extension services. China has many such crops, including barley, foxtail millet, common millet, sorghum, oat, buckwheat and many legumes. These crops are rich in nutrients and functional ingredients, and recognized as healthy foods.

Underutilized crops tend to be more adaptable to poor environments. They are widely distributed in mountainous, semi-arid areas, as well as in other areas with poor ecological and environmental conditions. The growing area of underutilized crops is about 10,000,000 hectares annually, including 1,500,000 hectares of foxtail millet, 600,000-800,000 hectares for each of barley, buckwheat, oats, sorghum, and common millet, and 4,200,000 hectares of legumes.

Local people often prefer traditional varieties of underutilized crops with special characteristics, such as taste or health benefits, that best suit their living habits. Some traditional varieties are intertwined with local culture and religious activities; for example, the local varieties of Tartary buckwheat are used in the Torch Festival of the Yi people in Liangshan, Sichuan province.

The seeds of underutilized crops have been preserved by farmers in unique ways. The harvested seeds are hung nearby the hearth to keep them dry on one hand and prevent disease and pest occurrence on the other. The viability of the seeds can be maintained for years. This seed preservation method is widely used by farmers in the south and southwest of China.

Farmers’ role in exchanging seeds

Farmers themselves usually propagate seeds of underutilized crops. They harvest individual plants with high yield, strong disease resistance and lodging resistance and maintain these seeds for the next growing season. In remote and mountainous areas, this is the only way to produce seeds of traditional varieties of underutilized crops; there are no other seed suppliers to be found.

Farmers have exchanged seeds with each other since ancient times, in order to obtain new varieties. The most popular place for seed exchange is the country trade market. If local farmers know families that have planted good varieties, they usually exchange these varieties with their own seeds or grains. Seed sharing between relatives is common. In some communities in the southwest of China, seeds can even be brought to a husband’s family by a woman as a wedding gift.

Policy progress so far

In 2001, China released the Seed Law, which stipulates that farmers can sell or exchange their surplus seeds of conventional varieties, propagated for their own use, without obtaining a license. The revised version of the Seed Law in 2015 maintains this provision, allowing farmers to sell surplus conventional seed, which is very helpful for seed production and the dissemination of underutilized crops, mostly managed by farmers.

In 1997, China released Regulations on the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. In 1999, China accessed UPOV and conformed with the 1978 Act of the UPOV Convention. China has released 11 lists of new plant variety protection, covering crop species under 191 genera, including most of the underutilized crops available in China. Some local varieties of underutilized crops have been successfully granted variety rights for protection. However, compared with staple crops, there are fewer applications for variety rights for underutilized crops, and the impact on farmers is very limited.

The national and local governments have issued policies on grain planting subsidies, which are favorable for the production of underutilized crops. However, the national seed subsidy policy, which is mainly aimed at crops such as corn, rice, wheat, soybean and rapeseed, is unfavorable for underutilized crops.

Recommendations for government action

The Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT has been working with partners from Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) and Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) to study the seed systems of underutilized crops in China, and suggest policies for promoting the availability of adequate seeds of underutilized crops for farmers in addressing the challenges of climate change and sustainable livelihoods. The following actions are recommended for government at all levels:

  • 1. Support the production of special and superior varieties of underutilized crops. This not only increases variety diversity in the field and food diversity on the table, but also provides good economic benefits and can become an important source of farmers’ income generation.
  • 2. Support farmers’ participation in seed production and distribution by providing technical training to promote seed quality and quantity and broaden seed supply channels for access to underutilized crop seeds.
  • 3. Establish a seed reserve system, including community seedbanks for underutilized crops, to prepare for disasters, ensure the restoration of the planting system after disasters and ensure the sustainable livelihood of farmers.
  • 4. Further expand investment in scientific research by integrating underutilized crops into the key national research programmes for crop variety improvement and advanced technical research and development, simultaneously encouraging farmers to participate in the variety improvement of underutilized crops.
  • 5. Introduce a subsidy policy for the price of underutilized crop seeds, formulate a subsidy policy for the purchase of small machinery, and provide preferential tax policies to small enterprises engaged in the production and marketing of underutilized crop seeds.

Bringing seeds for registration in the community seed bank, Guangxi province. Credit: The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT/R.Vernooy