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August 02, 2011

Local seeds vital to recovery of crop diversity after natural calamities: study

Seeds of local crop varieties must be included in relief-seed packages distributed to small-scale farmers after natural calamities if indigenous agricultural diversity is to rebound faster. Agricultural relief efforts should also capitalize on existing social networks to distribute seeds more effectively and efficiently.

These are among the findings of a recent study looking into the loss and subsequent recovery of cowpea diversity in Mozambique after massive flooding, followed by severe drought, hit most of the country about 11 years ago.

After natural disasters such as floods and drought that often wipe-out their crops, farmers usually receive relief seed packages to help them recover and restore their food security and source of income. However, most of the seeds in these relief packages are generally of introduced and genetically uniform varieties purchased from markets or from seed companies 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 double-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, a molecular biologist with IITA 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. Therefore, when natural disasters strike, many farmers often lose their seeds and are forced to rely on relief, 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 network based on social relations to help restore diversity especially after natural upheavals,” she said.

The study was initiated in 2002, two years after the flood-drought double disasters and carried out in Chokwe and Xai Xai districts in the Limpompo River Valley –areas that were among those severely affected. The findings of the research have been published in the current edition of ‘Disaster’, a publication of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

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-fifth 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 were mostly uniform, coming from other districts that grew just one or a few select varieties.

On the other hand, about one-third of the affected farmers obtained seeds from friends and relatives living within the same or neighbouring localities 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 showed.

“This approach recognizes that farmer seed systems are robust and resilient, and can provide seed even in emergency situations. And 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,” she says.

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 (for example looking at the seeds’ colour, size, pattern, and shape) with biotechnology tools to determine the seeds’ genetic makeup.


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