In mid-2006, the National Seed Board of Nepal approved a rice variety called ‘Pokhareli Jethobudho’, improved through participatory plant breeding.
For the first time in Nepal’s history, farmers were given intellectual ownership of a traditional variety. “Getting to this point was the result of a great collaborative effort involving farmers, NGOs, NARS, extension workers and the private sector, with support from Bioversity,” says Bhuwon Sthapit, a Bioversity scientist and one of the coordinators of the project.
In 1999, various stakeholders started a participatory selection process in the Pokhara valley in Nepal with the objective of improving a local rice variety known as ‘Jethobudho’. Many farmers cultivate ‘Jethobudho’ on relatively large plots as its quality traits, such as aroma, taste, softness and other cooking properties are highly valued despite the variety’s susceptibility to lodging, diseases and its low yield. In addition, production of ‘Jethobudho’ does not meet demand, which pushes up its price. In many areas of the valley, the crop is sold even before harvest.
The project started by collecting 338 samples of ‘Jethobudho’ from farmers in the area. These were grown side by side for 3 years and assessed by the farmers and other team members. That whittled the number down to 46.
These were assessed again for so-called post-harvest traits, most notably: did they smell, taste and feel right? Six lines were chosen as the ’authentic’ ‘Jethobudho’. A mixture of the six lines constitutes the new variety, ‘Pokhareli Jethobudho’.
Seed producers sow a mixture of the six as their foundation stock, the harvest of which is sold to others farmers to grow for food. As Sthapit explains, “This approach maintains the diversity within the ‘Jethobudho’ population and helps in coping with the vulnerability created by crop uniformity.” Most importantly, the selected ‘Pokhareli Jethobudho’ meets the farmers’ expressed needs: they recorded grain yields of up to 3.35 tonnes per hectare, as against 2.4 tonnes per hectare in 1999 before the selection started.
That’s the research side of the story: farmers and scientists joining forces to improve an old landrace. Commercializing it brings in the policy experts. Nepalese seed law is complex. While the Nepalese Seed Act allows anyone to apply for variety registration and release, the National Seed Board requires the applicant to have at least an MSc degree and to have a breeding infrastructure that meets a number of stringent criteria. That makes it effectively impossible for farmers to apply for registration for their varieties.
The project set up Fewa Seed Producers Group, a community-based seed production system to supply farming communities throughout the Pokhara valley. They also named the farmers who had maintained the six chosen lines as custodian farmers. The application for ‘Pokhareli Jethobudho’ was therefore submitted by the project in the name of all the stakeholders and specifically included the Fewa Seed Producers Group and the six named custodian farmers. It was approved in June 2006, recognizing farmers as co-owners of a new variety for the first time in Nepal’s history.