The global seed market has grown considerably in the last decades into a multibillion-dollar industry, largely due to more farmers purchasing seeds. Despite the growth in the commercial seed sector, the majority of farmers in the developing world still depend on farm-saved seeds. Availability and reliability of seeds at the right time as well as easy access is crucial for poor farmers. Seeds are carriers of genetic diversity that contains the building blocks required for plant breeding and thus constitutes the basis of all food and agricultural production in the world.
A report by the Development Fund links community seed banks to the implementation of farmers’ rights, looking into different experiences with community seed banks in Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Nepal, Thailand, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Community seed banks are collections of seeds that are maintained and administered by the communities themselves. A robust local community, both in terms of locally-adapted seeds, diversity of crops and strengthened local institutions, has a better chance of adapting to changing conditions such as climate change.
Community seed banking, however, faces challenges including the lack of legal frameworks and institutional support as well as restrictive seed laws. The report makes several recommendations to different players on how to address these challenges. Among these, governments should revise seed regulations and provisions on intellectual property rights to ensure Farmers’ Rights to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds, as well as support the up-scaling of community seed banks in order to reach as many farmers as possible, especially in marginalised areas, as part of their obligations to implement farmers’ rights and other provisions of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Agricultural research institutions should democratise agricultural extension systems and ensure that farmers are given an informed choice between traditional and modern varieties while the commercial seed sector should contribute to the Benefit Sharing Fund of the Treaty.
Chapter V of the report containing all the recommendations is reproduced below.
A short study of community seed banks in Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Honduras,
India, Nepal, Thailand, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
To fully reap the benefits of community seed banks in enhancing farmers’ access and control of seeds, as well as their contribution to the conservation and sustainable use of crop genetic diversity, we will end this report with a set of policy recommendations.
• Establish and/or support community seed banks as part of their obligations to implement Farmers’ Rights and other provisions of the Plant Treaty, such as sustainable use and conservation of crop genetic diversity. Parties should support the up-scaling of community seed banks in order to reach as many farmers as possible, especially in marginalised areas.
• Integrate community seed banks in broader programmes on agricultural biodiversity, where the local seed banks should serve as a storing place for results of participatory plant breeding and participatory variety selection, and make such results accessible to farmers. Seed banks should also be venues for seed fairs for farmers to exchange and display their seed diversity.
• Include community seed banks in governments’ agricultural development strategies as a vehicle for adaptation to climate variability. Agricultural extension services would provide the best institutional infrastructure to embark on a scaling up of local seed bank experiences to a national level.
• Revise seed regulations and provisions on intellectual property rights to seeds to ensure Farmers’ Rights to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds.
• Redirect public subsidies from promoting modern varieties to fund the above mentioned activities.
Agricultural Research Institutions should:
• Ensure that farmers are given an informed choice between traditional and modern varieties. Extension services and government agricultural policies should be reviewed as to ensure this balance. There is a need to democratise agricultural extension systems so that it provides all kinds of information (e.g. about the role of formal and informal seed systems) in a transparent way without putting farmers’ varieties to a disadvantage.
• Extend their expertise and services for free to assist and support communities and NGOs in setting up and maintaining community seed banks. Their assistance and support should be based on the actual needs and capacities of the communities and local organisations seeking their expertise.
• Facilitate the access of communities and NGOs setting up community seed banks to other in situ as well as ex situ sources of seeds, if necessary and when required. They should help provide linkages among communities engaged in community seed banking and relevant institutions and organisations that may be able to support such efforts. Community seed banks are the bridge between in situ and ex situ conservation. Through them, national gene banks should make their acquisitions available to farmers.
Commercial seed sector should:
• Contribute to the Benefit Sharing Fund of the Plant Treaty, which in its turn should make sure that sufficient funds for supporting community seed banks are in place. The cost of conserving crop genetic diversity should not be borne by resource poor farmers in the Global South, but be shared by all who benefit from the commercialisation of this diversity.
• Multiply and produce farmers’ varieties for increased availability of locally adapted seeds.
• Adopt a mechanism to share their skills and knowledge in establishing and maintaining community seed banks to interested communities, farmers’ organisations and other NGOs in and around the countries where they are based. The main role of NGOs is to promote community seed banks until governments have incorporated such banks in their formal systems like agricultural extension services.
• Strengthen community based management of agricultural biodiversity and avoid using community seed banks for promoting only modern varieties.
“All States should: Support and scale-up local seed exchange systems such as community seed banks and seed fairs, community registers of peasant varieties, and use them as a tool to improve the situation of the most vulnerable groups,..”
(Mr. Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, speaking at the 64th session of the UN General Assembly (October 2009) – Third World Network