New Internationalist

Surviving climate change

Issue 435

In many African societies seed preservation was once an almost sacred duty. Isaiah Esipisu explains why it is becoming vital again.

Isahu Esipisu
Handle with care: two varieties of legume saved for seed in eastern Kenya. Isahu Esipisu

It was believed that whoever feeds on seed opens doors to poverty,’ says Abraham Okatsio, a 72-year-old farmer from western Kenya. ‘It was a shame for one to beg, or even to buy common seed from the neighbourhood. However, farmers could borrow particular seed types, or varieties that they wished to introduce for the first time on their farms.’

He has witnessed traditions change over the years, to the point where some African farmers now depend entirely on hybrid seeds, which he refers to as ‘barren seeds’.

But, as hybrid seeds take centre stage on large-scale farms, most smallholders still embrace the indigenous knowledge of seed banking, which has seen crop varieties survive for centuries, despite changing environmental conditions.

I still have a sweet-potato variety I inherited from my mother-in-law when I got married in 1970,’ says Susan Okubo, a 66-year-old farmer. ‘My children have already picked it from me, and I know they will hand it over to their generations.’

Seeds for crops like sweet potato or cassava are preserved and multiplied by the use of indigenous knowledge – planting in places that are rich with compost manure. ‘One vine planted in extremely fertile soils usually grows up very fast, thus generating more foliage that can be transplanted as crops in the main field,’ says Okubo.

Changing times

However, experts say that seed preservation – especially of grains – can only be sustained through community-based initiatives.

It calls for more innovative ways of doing it,’ says Samuel Nderitu, Director of Grow Biointensive Agriculture Centre of Kenya (G-BIACK). ‘Unlike in the old days, when each farmer preserved their own seed and passed it on to their siblings, it is becoming important to do the same exchanges at community levels, because of the changing times.’ G-BIACK is one of several community-based organizations in Africa which are interested in protecting local seeds.

The world is changing fast,’ says Nderitu. ‘If small-scale farmers do not work in groups in order to utilize modern skills in managing traditional indigenous knowledge, there is a possibility of particular seed varieties becoming extinct. Climate change is real. There is a possibility of floods sweeping off planted fields, or drought burning up the crops, thus rendering individual farmers seedless.’

He adds that the proliferation of hybridized and genetically modified seeds can persuade some farmers to abandon their traditional seed varieties for new ones that are high-yielding but cannot regenerate. ‘There is a real risk of losing crop varieties that have withstood the test of time to some that cannot survive beyond a single season.’

The G-BIACK initiative has put more than 5,000 smallholder farmers in Central and parts of Eastern Kenya through intensive training in indigenous seed production, seed preservation and community mobilization.

Small-scale farmers in eastern Kenya who planted local maize varieties are reaping benefits, while those who opted for hybrids are counting losses

Traditionally this was done differently. ‘In the case of maize, for example,’ says Abraham Okatsio, ‘it was the duty of the farmer to identify healthy crops in a plantation and mark them for seed. The marked crops were then harvested and stored separately from other grains meant for food.’

The kitchen was the best storage place for seed grains, because peasant farmers in Africa used – and still use – firewood for cooking. The smoke produced by the fire, and the slightly higher temperatures in the kitchen, helped to dry and preserve seeds.

To make it a little better,’ says Samuel Nderitu, ‘we are encouraging smallholder farmers to specialize in seed farming as a business venture through community-based organizations, and store seeds in community-based banks.’

Community-based seed banks are important storage points because they are centrally situated and buyers can easily access them, instead of following farmers to their homesteads. To sustain this system in Africa, organizations and communities are linked through networks.

We track them down and request them to enrol as network members, so that they can meet with their fellows on common platforms to share knowledge,’ says Anne Wanjiku Maina, Advocacy Co-ordinator for the African Biodiversity Network (ABN). ‘This also ensures uniformity and consistency in traditional seed production and storage on the entire African continent.’

The network brings together individual farmers, groups, alliances and other partners who work at grassroots level in 11 African countries to foster local knowledge and solutions – at a time when agronomists are predicting that only indigenous crop varieties will be able to survive the wrath of climate change.

The only way to ensure that Africa has sustainable food security in the climate change era is by encouraging farmers to plant crops from which they can regenerate their own seed,’ observes Zachary Makanya, Country Co-ordinator for Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Kenya. ‘Crop hybridization and mechanization is definitely not the answer. Local crops have been proved to be resilient to several conditions over generations. If we have to develop resilience to the changing climate, then we must invest in the resilient seed.’

PELUM is a regional network for knowledge sharing, advocacy and lobbying among smallholder farmers in East, Central and Southern Africa. It has developed guidelines for groups or individuals interested in community-based seed banks.

Poison

So far, small-scale farmers in eastern Kenya who planted local maize varieties are reaping benefits, while those who opted for hybrids are counting losses.

The hybrid maize variety in question has been popularized in this area as an ultimate seed, with high productivity and its ability to resist drought,’ says Damaris Nzioka, a smallholder in Eastern Kenya. ‘But we have observed that the produce from it is susceptible to aflatoxin, making it unfit for human consumption.’

Isahu Esipisu
Damaris Nzioka in her fields; escaping the grip of ‘the main players’. Isahu Esipisu

Aflatoxin is a naturally occurring chemical that can easily cause death if consumed. It is produced by fungi that prefer moist grains. Though it has not been proven, scientists working with communities in the region say that hybrid maize may absorb moisture even after it has been dried. In 2004, 125 residents of eastern Kenya died after eating aflatoxin-poisoned maize meals. The poison was traced again in maize harvested early this year.

Most of the farmers who planted this particular seed are now being forced to destroy their produce because it is poisonous,’ adds Nzioka. ‘Yet those who planted the indigenous seed have not experienced any problem.’

Nzioka is the chair of Wendano-Kwamonga Self Help Women Group, which specializes in seed and grain banking. The group stores local varieties of maize, millet, sorghum, vegetables and legumes.

Unlike other organizations, we do not farm seed,’ explains Nzioka. ‘Instead, we encourage the farmers to grow local crops and select healthy ones to be preserved as seed, in the traditional way. The selection is then presented to the seed bank where it is tested and stored.’ Testing seeds for germination is important because it ensures that nobody presents faulty seed for banking.

However, farmers’ groups that have invested in banking for commercial purposes cannot sell their stocks as seed. All commercial seeds must be registered with the Seed Quality Control Service, which operates within the Seeds and Plant Varieties Act of Kenya.

Registering our seeds would have been possible,’ says Nderitu. ‘But the main players, who are multinational companies, perpetuated by difficult government bureaucracies in the registration process, make it nearly impossible for smallholder farmers to register their seeds. However, we advise farmers to sell their seeds as grain. The buyers are verbally told that it is seed, though it is not registered or labelled as such.’

In general, farmers who bank indigenous seeds in Africa have their own method of preserving them. ‘Hanging unprocessed seed has been a common method of preservation,’ says Nzioka. ‘But if we have to store them as dry grains, then we mix them with ashes, and dry hot [chilli] pepper.’ Hot pepper repels insects, while ash absorbs moisture.

It is becoming clear that in order to save what remains of food-crop varieties, especially in the developing world, farmers must preserve local plants that have been developed for centuries, instead of putting much effort into new varieties meant for intensive farming. The recently concluded Convention on Biodiversity conference in Nairobi urged development partners to begin investing in indigenous knowledge as the only sensible option.

Isaiah Esipisu is a journalist who specializes in science and is based in Kenya.

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