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Saving seeds locally: the role of community seedbanks

Custodians of seedbank in Nepal. Credit: Bioversity International/R.Vernooy

Community seedbanks play an important role in the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity – we break down the three core areas in this blog post.

Community seedbanks play an important role in the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity – we break down the three core areas in this blog post.

When it comes to getting seeds for the agricultural year, farmers have several options: they can save seeds from their own crops, buy seeds from a market or shop, exchange them with friends and neighbours, or set up some sort of community-level seed saving initiative.

Community-level seed saving initiatives have been around for about 30 years. They can come in the form of seed huts, seed libraries, seed savers groups, community seed banks and many others. Bioversity International’s expertise is in the field of community seedbanks, having helped to set up at least 20 community seedbanks in countries such as China, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Nepal, Rwanda, South Africa and Uganda.

However, there is surprisingly little scientific research on community seedbanks, and that which exists is predominantly empirical. A better understanding of the roles played by community seedbanks in the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity, is the first step to gaining recognition from formal seed sectors and relevant policymakers who can provide them with technical and institutional support.

Based on an in-depth review of experiences from around the world, Bioversity International researchers have categorized the functions and services of community seedbanks into three core areas: conservation, access and availability, seed and food sovereignty.

Conservation

Those working on crop conservation will be familiar with two terms: ex situ and in situ. Ex situ refers to conserving a species outside of its natural habitat, usually in a genebank or botanical garden. In situ is the opposite – conserving a species where it naturally grows, such as on farm or in the wild. Community seedbanks do a bit of both – they store species in seed containers, packets or in a dedicated conservation field, but with the idea that those crop species are immediately available for local use. They also play a role in safeguarding heirloom or rare varieties, building up stocks of major crops in case of famine, drought or other sudden surges in need, and provide a space for training local farmers on better ways to conserve and produce quality seeds.

Access and availability

Community seedbanks are locally based and locally run (often by women), and located within reach of the communities that use them. They act as a central nodal point for farmers to exchange seeds through their own networks or events such as seed fairs. They are a key source of good quality local agricultural biodiversity, especially for species that are not covered by commercial plant breeders. Usually transaction is through exchange rather than money, so even poorer community members can take part and share the benefits.

Seed and food sovereignty

At a more political level, community seedbanks are a clear expression of farmers' rights. Seed and food sovereignty stems from the idea that choosing what you eat and grow is a basic human right. A community seedbank is locally designed, locally managed, and helps farming communities be more self-sufficient. Community members lead decisions about how they want to recognize local knowledge, share the benefits of local agricultural biodiversity and strengthen their own seed systems. They also provide an opportunity to share and exchange knowledge and resources with formal seed systems such as national genebanks and the private sector.

Community seedbanks play an invaluable role in improving the benefits that communities get from available agricultural biodiversity. But it takes a lot of time and effort to establish and maintain a community seedbank. Constructive policies and technical support are needed to make them possible for more communities around the world.

In 2015, a new book will published as part of our Earthscan/Routledge seriesCommunity seedbanks: history, evolution and prospects, edited by Ronnie Vernooy, Bhuwon Sthapit and Pitambar Shrestha. The book will include results from the global review mentioned above, and include 30 case studies of community seedbanks from around the world.

Find out more in this presentation by Bioversity International scientist Ronnie Vernooy at an international GIZ seminar on Farmer Seed Systems.

View this Flickr photo slideshow of some community seedbanks around the world. 

Photo: Custodians of seedbank in Nepal. Credit: Bioversity International/R.Vernooy

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