Matching seeds to needs in the aftermath of the Nepal Earthquakes

Bioversity International supports CBD's call for mainstreaming biodiversity for well-being

Bioversity International scientists report from Nepal on the importance of considering farmer preferences when replenishing seed stocks lost in the earthquakes.

Bioversity International Senior Scientist Bhuwon Sthapit and colleague Devendra Gauchan, send their first report from Pokhara, Nepal, three months after two devastating earthquakes killed and injured thousands of people, destroying homes, food and seed stores.

Focusing on the urgent need for seed in the remote farming regions in Nepal which have been particularly affected, they explain how taking time to understand farmers’ preferences for varieties is essential if food and livelihood security is to be restored in the longer-term.

By Bhuwon Sthapit and Devendra Gauchan

The devastating earthquakes that hit Nepal, our home country, in April and May of this year, killed and injured thousands of people, destroying homes and food supplies leaving over 3.5 million people in urgent need of food, water, shelter and medical assistance. The most severely affected areas were the remote, risk-prone, mountainous parts of central and western Nepal, where many rural communities depend on already difficult terrain to cultivate food.

Reports of the devastation caused by the earthquakes made international headlines around the world, but among the debris and heartache left in its wake, there is another story that has been little told: the loss of many carefully stored seeds of traditional varieties on which vulnerable farming families depend for food and income. In the six most affected districts, this loss is estimated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to be 60% of households’ food and seed stocks.

We have seen what this really means on the ground. Many of the winter crops that were ready to harvest in the fields, including wheat, barley, young maize and legumes were lost. Carefully saved seeds of widely grown crops such as rice, millet, beans, buckwheat, foxtail, proso-millet and summer vegetable seeds were damaged or destroyed. Some minor crops which were only stored in low quantities, such as some varieties of bean, buckwheat and vegetable seeds like radish, were lost completely. In some cases, farmers were able to recover some or all of seed stocks from their damaged homes in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes and aftershocks, but mishandling and poor storage have reduced the quality of those seeds, putting their future viability into question. When you consider that many of these farmers and their families are now living in chaotic conditions in temporary tin-roofed shelters, this is not surprising.

Jugu, Dolakha, Nepal Credit: Bioversity International/N. Pudasani and Safal KhatiwadaThe temptation now is to replenish those stocks quickly in order to secure food supplies and agricultural livelihoods. But the urgent need to act creates risk that inappropriate seed and varieties will be rushed in from other regions that is poorly adapted to local ecological conditions. This could not only result in potentially poor harvests, but also crops that do not meet local cultural preferences, for example, as ingredients in traditional meals. With scarce labour and land resources, getting it right is vital to avoid longer-term food insecurity, as well as to safeguard the local agricultural biodiversity for the future.

One way to ensure that seeds match farmers’ needs, is to directly involve them as ‘citizen scientists’ in the selection and testing process of varieties taken from genebanks, plant breeding programmes and farmers’ fields. A large number of farmers can participate, and varieties are grown ‘in situ’, tested in a range of real growing conditions. Another benefit is that farmers can keep and exchange their preferred varieties. This approach also creates an exchange of knowledge: the scientists benefit from the valuable feedback about farmer preferences while the farmers increase their own knowledge of useful varieties and traits. This crowdsourcing approach is one that Bioversity International has been developing through its ‘Seeds for Needs’ initiative which works with more than 20,000 farmers and on different crops in 11 countries including India, Guatemala and Honduras.

Deploying this innovative approach here in the remote areas of Nepal is critical. The farmers need seed urgently, and as agricultural research programmes have not focused on these challenging and remote geographic areas, there is little knowledge about the traditional crop varieties that grow there.

With the support of partners, we recently hosted a workshop to strengthen the capacity of experts engaged in variety evaluation and selection, to carry out rapid detection and dissemination of farmer-preferred varieties using crowdsourcing methods in areas affected by disaster or at high risk of being affected in the future.

The workshop led to a commitment to roll out this approach for priority crops in four severely affected districts in starting this year.

Read the second part of this report: Deploying crowdsourcing and seed diversity in disaster recovery efforts in Nepal

View related Nepal photos on Flickr

For more information, please contact Bhuwon Sthapit

This work is part of: the GEF/UNEP Project: Integrating Traditional Crop Genetic Diversity into Technology: Using a Biodiversity Portfolio Approach to Buffer against Unpredictable Environmental Change in the Nepal Himalayas; the Global Crop Diversity Trust/Bioversity International/Nepal Agricultural Research Council Project: Rebuilding local seed system: Collection, conservation and repatriation of native crop seeds in earthquake affected areas in Nepal and Netherlands; the Genetic Resources Policy Initiative/Bioversity International project: Rebuilding Family Farming in earthquake affected areas in Nepal.

It is also carried out with support from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, the Local Initiative for Biodiversity Research and Development (LI-BIRD), the Nepal Agricultural Research Council, the Department of Agriculture, Development Fund, Norway and the Swiss Development Corporation (SDC), Nepal.

Media coverage:
Crowdsourcing Nepal's Seeds - SciDev.Net, September 2015
Why getting Nepal the right seeds after the earthquakes matters - National Geographic, September 2015


Top Photo: 
Planting rice in Nepal, Credit: Bioversity International/Sriram Subedi, LI-BIRD, Lamjung

Bottom photo:
Jugu, Dolakha, Nepal, Credit: Bioversity International/N. Pudasani, LI-BIRD, Dolkha