Bioversity International's 'Seeds for Needs' initiative works with >45,000 smallholder farmers in 14 countries to research how agricultural biodiversity can minimize the risks associated with climate change. The concept is simple – if farmers have better information and access to a wide range of varieties, they are more able to choose what best suits their conditions and cope with unpredictable weather.
We focus on deploying existing diversity to farmers from wherever it is found, whether in genebanks, plant breeding programmes or in their own fields. The farmers we work with are 'citizen scientists, evaluating and selecting varieties, and providing valuable feedback' on their preferred traits that helps inform priorities in breeding programmes.
“Earlier we used to have only a few choices in wheat and rice farming. Through Seeds for Needs, we came to know how many types are available for our use and some of them are really performing better than our regular ones” says an Indian farmer participating in the research.
Durum wheat is a very important crop in Ethiopia where 80% of the population works in agriculture. With increasing threats to durum wheat production from changes in the environment, breeders and scientists are turning back to Ethiopia's rich reservoir of durum wheat genetic diversity.
Through Seeds for Needs, hundreds of Ethiopian durum wheat landraces and several Ethiopian improved lines underwent extensive molecular and phenotypic* characterization and in crowdsourcing trials, more than 20% of traditional Ethiopian wheat varieties performed better than commercially released varieties under marginal conditions. One farmer variety yielded 60 % more than the best commercial variety. Farmers have since increased their durum wheat yields and sustained yields, even in a drought year like 2016.
Results showed that Ethiopian durum wheat represents an important and mostly unexplored source of durum wheat diversity. As a result of crowdsourcing trials, in 2017, the Ethiopian government approved two new wheat varieties for distribution as officially approved seeds.
*Phenotyping is the science that characterizes and quantifies complex plant features such as growth, yield and stress tolerance.
In Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, Bioversity International is working with local farmers to find local varieties of beans that can survive changing climatic conditions, following a severe drought in 2014.
In Nicaragua, Bioversity International tested a number of improved bean varieties from a national seedbank. The number of households that participated in the crowdsourcing trials to propagate these beans jumped from 62 households in December of 2015 to 818 households in March of 2016. So far, 33 Farmer Field Schools have been implemented, in which leaders were trained in variety selection of beans. Nicaraguan farmers, many of whom are women, have learned about crop-breeding techniques with varieties of beans and how the growth of the beans correlates to changes in the environment.
Through successful crowdsourcing approaches, Seeds for Needs has spread across Nicaragua.
In 2013, Bioversity International introduced a Seeds for Needs programme in Cambodia focusing on areas that were affected by climate change. Very few improved varieties of rice were available to farmers at the time, but through the programme, ten local varieties of rice that would perform better on project sites were identified and distributed for farmers to test.
Sweet potato is also a very important crop in Cambodia for income and home consumption. From seven varieties, more than twenty new varieties were released.
The project was also a tool of women empowerment as nearly 59% of representatives from households were women who were seeking improvement in farming practices. A long-term, sustainable use of these seeds emerged as a community seedbank was established for seed safeguarding and future use.