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Int’l Day for Biological Diversity - May 22




The common subject of these international headlines was ‘seed’. These issues gain significance against the backdrop of the Inter Academy Partnership report by 130 science academies last year that confirmed the global food system is broken, leaving people either underfed or overweight, driving the planet towards a catastrophe.


According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, conservation outside farms (ex situ) is the most popular means of protecting plant genetic resources. But local communities around the world use a combination of ex situ and in situ conservation to grow traditional crops for cultural reasons, food preference, risk avoidance and market opportunities or simply because these approaches are time-tested. These communities have developed active processes for restoring their food needs through judicious use of diversity, exploring cooperative models, ancestral farming methods and seed management systems.



Since 1996, at least 2,40,000 new plant materials have been added to ex situ 1,750 gene banks worldwide. The World Bank supported consortium of global seed banks — Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research — focuses on select crop species to secure food security and operates with an annual funding of about $191 million, estimated in 2017. But funding for these banks has become a concern, including in India, which has six bodies to manage genetic resources.



Where locals do better

Community-led seed banks hold the answer as they are repositories of ‘future-smart’ genetic resources where local varieties form the basis for climate-resilient, disaster-proof agriculture. Though managed for less than a fraction of the cost compared to the national and international banks, there is still no concerted effort to know the invaluable resources of these banks.



Take for example the work of conserving the millet germplasm in Kolli Hills or the rice varieties in parts of Tamil Nadu. The local communities are not only conserving the resources but are also adding value to the resources. But, neither of these initiatives are part of a national framework nor does the work get due recognition within the country or abroad, where the focus on millet and rice varietal improvements are key priorities. Therefore, establishing a global data and inter-institutional network around community gene banks is a critical task that requires attention.



Notwithstanding the global efforts that are threatened by uncertainty due to climate change, decreasing resilience and reduced funding, communities across the world have been protecting seeds much effectively at a negligible cost. For instance, Uttarakhand is said to have about 100 community seed banks, while a network of seed banks of traditional rice in Odisha and West Bengal boasts of a collection of more than a few hundred varieties.



Some back-of-the-envelope calculations to manage seeds ex situ will show the grant-in-aid received by the International Rice Research Institute in Philippines in 2015 was around $91.19 million. With a collection base of 129,590 varieties, the cost to conserve one variety is $703 annually. Compare this with the cost of a seed variety a farmer grows — an average of 20 cents for at least four to six months. It means farmers can conserve the 129,590 varieties at an annual cost of $25,918. The location-specific management methods of farmers also ensure better survival of seeds since they are cultivated seasonally, letting the varieties evolve and adapt.



It is a no-brainer that managing the national and international banks needs more resources and they reduce or almost stop evolution of a crop variety, as they are not grown in farms. This is where we need an initiative that formalizes community-led gene and seed banks as the sustainable option for food security.



Though community-based conservation and breeding are ongoing at the local level, the need for understanding the diversity, using traditional knowledge and practices for modern breeding are immense. These opportunities should be captured to recognize the contribution of community-based gene banks for global efforts to secure food, nutrition and health, and to restore the ecological balance of the planet.



If one links the four issues mentioned at the start, the answer is citizen-led, local solutions, which could be achieved if we work towards community-led seed and gene banks, especially for crops like cassava (tapioca) that offer more food and nutrition. And most importantly develop a global network to exchange data and knowledge. Such an initiative will complement the international gene banks better.


(The author is chairman of FLEDGE, an NGO, and former chairman of National Biodiversity Authority)





Source: Times of India, 21 May 2019, Chennai.