Preserving varieties, promoting biodiversity and improving food security

Article, 17.05.2018

The SDC supports seed banks to preserve varieties and give smallholder farmers access to high-quality seeds. Providing smallholder farmers with training and further education in the production of healthy seeds and in business management is an important part of the project, which makes it possible to transform a seed bank into an economically viable company. The approach is now being integrated into national legislation in Uganda, and is being used as the basis for establishing seed banks in other regions of the country.

A farmer explains the characteristics of different types of beans stored on a pink rack beside her in the seed bank in Kiziba.
Thanks to the wide range of bean varieties available in Kiziba, farmers not only have seed at any time, but can also find suitable varieties for growing in difficult climatic conditions. © SDC

Food security improved thanks to seed banks

In 2008 in Kiziba, Uganda, smallholder farmers, together with researchers from the national research organisation and Bioversity International, discovered that some of the traditionally planted bean varieties were no longer being cultivated. Seed for some of the varieties was simply no longer available, while other seed was of poor quality. There was no quality control system in place to ensure that seed exchanged with or purchased from neighbours or relatives was not diseased or had a good rate of emergence. The idea of setting up a seed bank was born. 

The SDC supports the development of seed banks in various countries of the Global South, including Uganda, through its 'Improving seed systems for smallholder farmers' food security' project. Only 15% of the seed used in Uganda comes from the formal state-controlled system. The remaining 85% comes from the informal system, for example by producing one's own seed through repeated cropping or exchanging seed with relatives or neighbours. 

Improving seed systems for smallholder farmers’ food security

Dramatic loss of agrobiodiversity

Worldwide, there are an estimated 7,000 different plant species that are used for human nutrition, but rice, maize and wheat alone provide more than 50% of all calories obtained from plant sources. 75% of the food consumed by people worldwide comes from just twelve plant and five animal species. The diversity of agricultural plant species and varieties has declined sharply over the last century. In China, for example, there were more than 10,000 local wheat varieties in 1949, while barely 1,000 are still cultivated today. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we have already lost 75% of the plant diversity that originally served our diet.

SDC project boosts harvests and self-confidence

Today, when the farmers concerned look back and describe how taking part in the project has changed their lives, first on their list is a higher income, followed by improved food security and the assurance that seed is always available. The existing diversity of seeds means that yields can now be achieved even in years with difficult climatic conditions or in poor soils. Furthermore, the smallholder farmers – mostly women are responsible for the cultivation of beans and the production of seeds – highlighted the transfer of knowledge on a wide variety of topics as very positive. It enabled them to become recognised and valued experts in the production of good-quality certified seeds, which in turn increased their self-confidence. One of the women even won the competition for the best farmers in Uganda. 

Banking on diversity and knowledge-sharing – the story of one of Uganda’s best farmers

Smallholder farmers invest in the Kiziba seed bank

The Kiziba seed bank was opened in 2010. The seed capital came from local smallholder farmers. Other bean varieties originated from other regions of Uganda and from the national seed bank. A total of 100kg of bean seeds of 49 different varieties were distributed to 100 smallholder women. After the harvest, the women gave 200kg of seed back to the seed bank, from where it was distributed to other farmers. 

More than 1,000 smallholder women have now benefited from the seed bank. In 2016, some 1,500kg of seeds of 70 different varieties was already borrowed. In the same year, for the first time around 40kg of seed was produced, which underwent a quality control and was certified. There are now three further seed banks in other communities and regions of Uganda, as part of this project.

Variety catalogue and diversity for a secure harvest

The specific characteristics of each bean variety such as taste, susceptibility to disease, planting duration or even market demand were recorded in a variety catalogue. This information enables the smallholder farmers to select the varieties that meet their needs. The high number of varieties available with their different characteristics gives farmers the opportunity to grow several different varieties simultaneously, in order to anticipate possible risks such as low rainfall. This diversity will become even more important in the future in the context of climate change and can make a useful contribution towards improved food security for poorer populations.

Education and training

Training modules train smallholder farmers on a wide variety of topics, such as the production of high-quality seed and optimum seed storage. The management committee of the seed bank, which is responsible for all processes of the seed bank, was also given training in accounting and business management.

A woman is standing in a field.
Thanks to the training, smallholder farmers became recognised and valued experts in the production of good-quality certified seeds. © SDC

When asked about future developments, the smallholder women and the management committee of the seed bank point to the increasing demand for high-quality, certified seed. In order to profit from this development, they want to transform the seed bank into a profitable commercial business.

Local solutions as a basis for national guidelines

The objectives of the SDC-funded project do not only include activities at local level, however. Additional work at the national and global level aims to contribute sustainably and in the long term to preserving biodiversity, ensuring food security and consolidating activities at the local level. 

At the beginning of the project, Uganda's legislation only regulated the formal seed system. This includes the certification of seed to ensure that the seeds are healthy. However, all farmers and the seed bank itself are dependent on healthy seed, even if it comes from the informal system. The project has enabled the introduction of a seed quality control system adapted to local conditions and the informal seed system. Thanks to the positive results of this approach, it has been taken into account in the revision of national legislation and is now being applied in other regions of Uganda.

From the equator to the North Pole

The national seed bank provided the Kiziba seed bank with various varieties that were no longer available in the Kiziba region. Conversely, certain varieties from Kiziba, which were not yet included in the national seed bank, were able to complement the varieties it already had and thus contribute to the conservation of biodiversity. Perhaps one or another variety has properties that will be particularly in demand in the future because of climate change. National seed banks, in turn, can have back-up copies of their varieties stored in the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, 1,300km from the Arctic Circle. The Global Crop Trust is responsible for the management of the Global Seed Vault. Since the establishment of the Global Crop Trust, the SDC has strongly supported its activities. The aim of the seed vault is to protect the world's genetic plant heritage in the event that varieties of the national seed banks were lost. In the event of a disaster, these backups can be used. It is possible that a variety of bean from Kiziba is stored in the Global Seed Vault.