Bioversity International: research for development in agricultural and tree biodiversity

The climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.

14 Oct 2016

On World Food Day 2016, Ann Tutwiler, Director General, Bioversity International lifts the lid on a Resource Box for Resilient Seed Systems, that can help both countries and farmers respond to climate change by making more effective use of agricultural diversity in their farming systems. As the theme for this year’s World Food Day neatly captures: ‘The climate is changing and with that, food and agriculture must too.’

“Maize stops growing when the rain does not come, but sorghum and millet survive” – the words of Peninah Mwangangi, a farmer from an arid region in Kenya, who is seeing the impact of climate change on her farm. Peninah’s voice is not alone. The farmers we work with all over the world give us similar messages about the need to find new – and in some cases to revive old – crops that can withstand unpredictable weather. They describe changes in the number of growing seasons, the amount and strength of both rain and sunshine, and new crop pests and diseases emerging on their farms. They want to know which crops and varieties to plant, when to plant them, and how to access crops and varieties that are better adapted to the rapidly evolving local conditions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agrees. It warns that by 2050, half of the cropland in most African countries will experience climatic changes that are so dramatic, that the crops that African farmers have been growing in recent years will not survive the climates they will face in 35 years’ time. Not surprisingly, the IPCC have predicted that the impacts of climate change will be worst where farmers’ ability to adapt is lowest.

Yet just when farmers need a wider selection of crops and better adapted varieties, findings from the field point to a decline in the diversity of crops and varieties in many countries.

Crop diversity can help farmers mitigate risks, and ensure food and nutrition security, by providing them with more options to manage climate risks and strengthen the resilience of their farms and surrounding landscapes. As Peninah explains: “[We] plant a variety of food crops – kidney beans, beans, millet, sorghum, climbing beans, lab lab beans. We grow them in large quantities, all mixed together. Because when there is no rain, there are those that cannot grow and those that can”. Bringing more diversity to farmers requires a different approach: open the ‘Resource Box for Resilient Seed Systems’ and you will find the tools you need to get started.

The Resource Box has been compiled based on Bioversity International’s long experience in seed systems research at local, regional, national and global levels. It contains an 8-step methodology which countries can use to identify, acquire, test, conserve and evaluate seeds that are adapted to future climate change conditions.

Peninah MwangangiResources in the box include: participatory tools to work with a community to identify its vulnerabilities to climate change and prioritize interventions; models to predict climate change and identify crops and crop varieties that are better adapted to climate change; mechanisms for acquiring germplasm (according to the rules and regulations that exist at national and international levels) to test in farmers’ fields; and tools to conduct crop variety testing in the field working with thousands of farmers simultaneously – a methodology inspired by crowdsourcing.

ClimMob, a user-friendly software package and online platform, is one of the free innovative resources in the box to design and execute crowdsourcing approaches. It allows the randomization of varieties for setting up field research and monitoring its progress. It carries out statistical analysis and automatically generates useful information for both researchers and farmers.

Taking the crowdsourcing approach turns the research paradigm on its head; instead of a few researchers designing complicated trials to compare several technologies in search of the best solutions, it enables many, many farmers to carry out simple experiments in real conditions that taken together can offer more useful information.

Trials have been replicated on different crops around the world, which has confirmed the value of this approach, the quality of the data it can produce and the willingness of farmers to participate. In India alone, partnerships and word-of-mouth increased participation from 30 to 15,000 farmers in just 3 years. In Ethiopia, 20% of the traditional Ethiopian varieties tested performed better than commercial varieties bred specifically for drought resistance. In Honduras, farmers’ evaluations of beans closely matched expert analysis, showing the value of using farmers as citizen scientists. Another tool in the box, a full set of training videos (in English and Spanish), has just been launched on how to apply crowdsourcing approaches to agricultural research efforts.

As Global Leaders prepare to meet in Marrakech for the 22nd Session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP22) next month, I urge them to take on board the message from World Food Day 2016: “The climate is changing. Food and agriculture needs to change too.” While there is no single solution to help farmers adapt to climate change, enabling farmers to access the diverse seeds they need must be part of the solution. One great way to do this is by using the tools in Resource Box for Resilient Seed Systems. Open it here.

M. Ann Tutwiler

This research is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security and is supported by CGIAR Fund donors.

Photo 1: Dry, cracked earth, Ethiopia. Credit: Bioversity International/C. Zanzanaini
Photo 2: Peninah Mwangangi is one of the leaders of the Kyanika Womens Group in Kitui, Eastern Kenya, and plays a key role in conserving local farmer landraces of a variety of crops. Here she shows some sorghum that the group is conserving. Credit: Bioversity International/ Y. Wachira

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