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Social networks, native seeds crucial in restoring crop diversity

08 August 2011 International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA)

Including seeds of local crop varieties in relief-seed packages distributed to smallscale farmers after natural calamities could help indigenous crop diversity rebound faster. Additionally, existing social networks act as vital seed distribution channels that hasten diversity recovery in disaster-affected communities. These are among the findings of a recent study by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) that looked into the loss and subsequent recovery of cowpea diversity in Mozambique when massive flooding, followed by severe drought, hit most of the country about 11 years ago.

In this southern African country, farmers usually receive relief seed packages as stop-gap measure to mitigate the effects of natural disasters that often wipe out their crops. However, most of the seeds in these relief packages are generally of introduced and genetically uniform varieties purchased from markets or provided by seed companies or by well-meaning relief agencies, which slow the recovery of crop diversity. 

Interestingly, the study also noted that the speedy recovery of Mozambican cowpea diversity after the back-to-back disasters of 2000 was largely due to the exchange of seeds among farmers through gifting and other social interactions involving friends, family members, and relatives within the same community or adjacent communities.

Dr Morag Ferguson, IITA molecular biologist and one of the study’s lead researchers, says farmers in Africa traditionally grow many crops and several varieties of each crop on the same plot of land to cope with unforeseen economic or environmental instabilities. They usually set aside part of their harvest to serve as seed for the next cropping season. They also share or trade some of these seeds with friends and relatives. When natural disasters strike, many farmers often lose the seeds that they have set aside and are forced to rely on relief seed, buy from the market, or receive seeds as gifts from friends and relatives.  

“We found that the substantial recovery of cowpea genetic diversity two years after the calamities was mainly due to the informal exchange of seeds among farmers that served as a social-based crop diversity safety backup. It is therefore important that seed relief strategies recognize and capitalize on this existing traditional social network to help restore diversity especially after natural upheavals,” she said. 

The study was initiated in 2002, two years after the floods-then-drought disaster, in Chokwe and Xai Xai districts of the Limpompo River Valley –areas that were among those severely affected. The findings of the research have been published in ‘Disaster’, a publication of the UK-based Overseas Development Institute. 

The research established that nearly 90% of the farmers in the affected areas received cowpea relief seed immediately after the back-to-back calamities. Two years after, only one in every five of the recipient farmers were still growing the seeds, while more than half sourced their seeds from markets. However, this did little in restoring cowpea diversity in the affected communities as the seeds bought by farmers from the market, which comes from other districts that grew just one or a few select varieties, were mostly uniform.

On the other hand, about one-third of the affected farmers obtained seeds from friends and relatives living within the same locality to restock their farms – the same people that they have been exchanging seeds with prior to the disasters. This practice was the main reason why cowpea diversity was restored in these areas, the study found.

Dr Ferguson says that such a social relations-based seed distribution system is already in play in an approach developed and implemented by the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in partnership with other relief agencies in which seed vouchers are exchanged for seed at ‘Seed Fairs’.

In this approach, farmers from nearby districts not affected by disaster and with excess seed, come to the Seed Fair to sell seed to disaster-affected farmers in exchange for vouchers, 
which they then cash-in with the relief agency.  

“This recognizes that farmer seed systems are robust and resilient, and can provide seed even in emergency situations. And this study further proves that such an approach will be more effective in restoring diversity faster and more efficiently than a system based on direct distribution only,” she says.

Attached files

  • Women farmers inspecting local cowpea.


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