What is a community seedbank and how does it work?
A community seedbank is a solution for improving access to, availability and safeguarding of seeds. It is an agreement among farmers to conserve crop varieties of importance to them, document indigenous knowledge related to how they can be eaten, used and sown, and exchange their seeds with others.
Membership is defined by the willingness to contribute seeds, which are stored and shared with farmers living within a defined geographical area. If you receive 1 kg seeds, you will have to give back 1.5 kg after your first harvest. Those who are not able to reimburse a seed loan may be either allowed to pay cash or give back seeds of another crop or postpone the payment to the next season. The system works as in rural communities people know and trust each other.
Seedbanks are important especially in complex, risk-prone and low-input areas where farming is subsistence-oriented. Some were created to face the loss of local seed supplies after a famine, drought or flood.
Well-established seedbanks may evolve and either specialize in few selected crops, become involved in crop improvement with scientists, branch out to nearby villages or start producing and marketing seeds. The money earned can be reinvested in the purchase of tools or fertilizers.
How do you set up a community seedbank? Could you provide an example?
The process of establishing a seedbank depends on the local situation and the actors involved. Recently national governments and genebanks - partly stimulated by climate change threats on food security - have become active in supporting these interventions, which were formerly initiated by NGOs.
During the last 20 years, Bioversity International has contributed to the establishment or strengthening of community seedbanks in ten different countries. Recently, in collaboration with the South Africa’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, we set up a pilot seedbank in Gumbu village of Limpopo province, South Africa, a remote dry land with poor access to the market. Farming in Gumbu is largely done by women, while men usually keep livestock away from the villages so that animals don’t eat the crops, or seek income in cities, leaving women to carry the full burden of agricultural production, often with very limited resources.
The main food crops grown for household consumption are maize, white sorghum, calabash, cowpea, pumpkin and melon, while cabbage, cucumber, garlic, gem squash, okra, onion, pea, spinach, sweet potato, tomato and chili are cultivated for market sale. Crop diversity in the farm is low, and seed exchange mostly takes place with fellow church members.
In this case, our team carried out an assessment of farmers’ needs, the technical support and the varieties available, the policy and legal context, market and climate conditions, and explored room for creating new opportunities.
Based on our experience, we knew that when setting up a seedbank, it is essential to focus on its social organization and farmers’ motivation and interests more than on building the storehouse. To explore villagers’ interest in the project, we organized a seed fair, and were not surprised to see that 99% of the participants were women, since even in agricultural systems where men are dominant, women are responsible for the seeds. On the occasion of a follow up meeting, at their own initiative, women had already proactively brought their own seeds to put into the seedbank. The meeting participants elected seven representatives, and the heads of the village mobilized a group of men to help build the physical infrastructure for the seedbank, which became a space for women to meet, share seeds and ideas and empower themselves.
Our work consisted in facilitating this process, as outsiders, managing power relations in a non-conflicting way, connecting the local community with the national extension service, and training farmers in organization, leadership and management practices as well as in technical aspects such as seed selection, preparation and sharing.
Although there are other examples of seedbanks mainly managed by women, this case is unique as these women’s involvement was spontaneous and strong from the start and not directed at all. They reported that agricultural production was affected by changes in the weather, and sometimes families were forced to consume all their food crops, and this was contributing to the loss of diversity in the area.
The Gumbu village community seedbank - inaugurated in October 2015 - is managed and operated by a group of 40 women farmers, who give priority to nutritious crops and varieties that are easy to combine in preparation of traditional dishes, require few inputs, are drought, pest and disease-resistant, have a short growing cycle and can be stored for long periods of time. They can now maintain a range of different crop species and varieties inherited from their parents, support their households in terms of food supply, and earn some extra cash, and will soon test improved varieties.
Want to know more?
Community Seed Banks: Origins, Evolution and Prospects. Edited by Ronnie Vernooy, Pitambar Shrestha, Bhuwon Sthapit. 2015. Routledge.
Meet Ronnie Vernooy – read his biography