Local seeds and social networks

Including seeds of local crop varieties in the relief seed packages distributed to small-scale farmers after natural calamities could help indigenous crop diversity to recover faster. In addition, existing social networks which act as vital channels for seed distribution hasten the recovery of diversity in disaster-affected communities. These are among the findings of a recent study by IITA that looked into the loss and subsequent recovery of cowpea diversity in Mozambique when widespread flooding, followed by severe drought, hit most of the country about 11 years ago.

Diversity of cowpea seeds. Photo by IITA.
Diversity of cowpea seeds. Photo by IITA.

Farmers in Mozambique usually receive relief seed packages as a stop-gap measure to alleviate the effects of natural disasters that often wipe out their crops. However, most of the seeds 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.

The study 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 making gifts and other social interactions involving friends, family members, and relatives within the same community or those adjacent to it. Morag Ferguson, a molecular biologist with IITA and one of the study’s lead researchers, says that 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 seeds 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 seeds, buy seeds 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 socially based backup for the safety of crop diversity. It is therefore important that seed relief strategies recognize and capitalize on this existing traditional network, based on social relations, to help restore diversity especially after natural upheavals,” Ferguson said.

The study was initiated in 2002, two years after the floods-then-drought disaster, in Chokwe and Xai Xai districts of the Limpopo River Valley—areas that were among those severely affected. The findings of the research have been published in the current issue of Disasters, a publication of the Overseas Development Institute.

The research established that nearly 90% of the farmers in the affected areas received cowpea relief seeds immediately after the back-to-back calamities. Two years afterwards, only one in every five of the recipient farmers were still growing the seeds, whereas 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 were mostly uniform, since they came from other districts that grew just one variety or a few select varieties.

Social networks provide a safety net for people affected by disasters. Photo by IITA.
Social networks provide a safety net for people affected by disasters. Photo by IITA.

On the other hand, about one-third of the affected farmers obtained seeds from friends and relatives from nearby districts not affected by the disaster and with excess seed to restock their farms—the same people with whom they had been exchanging seeds before the disasters. This practice was the main reason why cowpea diversity was restored in these areas, the study showed.

Ferguson says that such a seed distribution system based on social relations is already in use in an approach developed and implemented by the Catholic Relief Services in partnership with other relief agencies in which seed vouchers are exchanged for seeds at ”Seed Fairs”. In this approach, farmers from nearby districts not affected by disaster and with surplus seeds come to the Seed Fair to sell seeds to disaster-affected farmers in exchange for vouchers, which they then cash-in with the relief agency.

“This approach recognizes that farmers’ seed systems are robust and resilient, and can provide seeds even in emergencies. This study shows that such an approach will be more effective in restoring diversity faster and more efficiently than a system based on direct distribution only.”

The study was the first of its kind to investigate in detail the effects of disasters on crop diversity and its recovery. It combined agronomic observations (e.g., looking at the seeds’ color, size, pattern, and shape) with biotechnology tools to determine the seeds’ genetic makeup.