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New paper on rice seed networks in Nepal

Participatory breeding of rice in Nepal. Credit: Bioversity International/B.Sthapit
Participatory breeding of rice in Nepal. Credit: Bioversity International/B.Sthapit

A new open access paper gives us a better understanding of informal seed networks in Nepal and the farmers who are most important for safeguarding and spreading the use of biodiversity.

Over 90% of farmers in Nepal rely on informal seed networks for their seed supply. As a country where rice is a major staple, the continuous exchange and trade of rice varieties is extremely important to the food and livelihood security of rural communities. Farmers can use this agricultural biodiversity to experiment, adapt to changing climatic conditions and better fulfill their nutrition needs.

A recent analysis by Bioversity International and partners of farmer seed networks in the mid-highlands, low hills and plains (known as the Terai) of Nepal, reveals how rice seed varieties are being traded or exchanged, and identifies some of the key farmers that act either as a source of rice seeds or create paths for the flow of seeds. Each of these three seed networks supply between 53 and 69 varieties of rice, demonstrating the robust diversity of the crop in Nepal. 

The three study sites – Begnas, Kholako Chhew and Kachorwa – have quite different seed networks. While seed exchange and the gifting of seeds still dominate the hilly regions, many farmers in the Terai are starting to buy seeds. This is an important trend to be aware of, and makes sense considering the Terai has stronger market links (including with India) and more access to crop varieties bred by the national system and private companies. Farmers in the hilly regions on the other hand, have to rely more on each other for rice varieties adapted to their harsher and more unique microclimates, so their seed networks tend to be stronger and more tight-knit.

These differences help guide what sort of activities can best promote the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity in different areas. For example, seed diversity fairs are extremely popular in the Terai. Farmers crave new diversity and are eager to experiment with both traditional and modern varieties. A community seedbank established in Kachorwa by LI-BIRD, Bioversity International and the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) has been very successful in giving around 6000 farmers better access to local varieties, and is strongly linked with a network of 17 community seedbanks, whose materials were recently duplicated by the national genebank to act as a reserve collection.

Another important finding of the analysis was identifying the roles and characteristics of what we call ‘nodal’ or ‘bridging’ farmers. The analysis found 18 farmers (out of 105 respondents) who have a direct link with at least 4 other members in their seed network. These nodal farmers play an important role as custodians and sharers of biodiversity. Supporting them are bridging farmers, who stimulate the flow and exchange of rice varieties by creating new paths between farmers. They tend to bring a lot of varieties from outside the region into the seed network as well. The analysis showed that both nodal and bridging farmers tend to have higher socioeconomic status, often coming from the “Brahmin/Chhetri” and “Magar/Gurung” ethnic groups. They also tend to have a higher education level and be involved in some off-farm employment to supplement their work as farmers. 

Being a nodal farmer is actually quite a dynamic role. Over a period of 5 years, we observed that many of these farmers step out of the limelight and are replaced by other farmers, even though they remain members of the greater network. It would be useful to investigate further what drives these changes and what opportunities there are for these farmers to encourage community-wide management of agricultural biodiversity. 

There are also a small group of farmers that are not connected to any networks at all. Further research is required to understand what kind of farmers are isolated, why they are isolated and whether they could also benefit from interventions such as seed fairs, diversity seed kits, field schools, participatory breeding, community seedbanks and so on. 

Read the full paper:

An Analysis of Social Seed Network and Its Contribution to On-Farm Conservation of Crop Genetic Diversity in Nepal

Below are some links to learn more or contact Bioversity International scientist Bhuwon Sthapit for more information.

 

Related articles:

Saving seeds locally: the role of community seedbanks

 

This research was carried out in collaboration with LI-BIRD, the Norwegian School of Economics, Bioversity International, USC Canada and the Nepal Agricultural Research Council. The study used time series data from the Global In Situ Conservation of Agricultural Biodiversity project supported by IDRC and SDC. This work contributes to the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.

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