People are fascinated by diversity, not uniformity

Author: Karolien Bais

Bhuwon Sthapit, Bioversity International, Nepal

“I am a plant breeder by training. I come from a family of temple wood carving and builders, but I wanted to study agriculture and got a scholarship for India. My first job in Nepal was plant breeding and selecting varieties that grow in the high mountains. My text book knowledge mostly failed in complex and difficult mountain environments. We needed to look into local diversity, because the varieties from big seed companies did not produce well. In farmer crop populations, you always see some doing better than others. We asked the best producing farmers what rice seeds they use: that is the best material. One of my British managers called me a crazy guy, because I selected seeds from farmers, not from the research station. I got the rice seed released at the National Seed Board Nepal under the name of Chhomrong Dhan; Chhomrong being the name of the village where the material was found. It is nutritious, has a good blast tolerance and grows above 2000 meters. It is the first locally selected variety released. We have a lot of crop diversity, but we don’t use it. Most experts rather rely on marker assisted sophisticated conventional breeding.

What I do, is talk with farmers to find out about their needs. One day, a group of women called us when we passed, and said: ‘We spend hours a day pounding rice to remove the red skin. If you can give us white rice, we’ll all be happy to cooperate.’ Next day, we came back, and they confirmed that they wanted to work with us. We crossed their rice with a Japanese variety. After six years, the seeds start showing different species, and we selected the white one. Nowadays, this process of ‘participatory plant breeding’ has become popular. Farmers and breeders work together to design the product the client likes.

So, there are two things I have learned over the years. One is: understand the local context, and use the best genetic resources selected by our forefathers. The second is: farmers are eager to learn new things. You need to build on the knowledge of farmers. You need a critical mass of farmers to make things change. And, you need local institutions to take leadership. Knowledge building doesn’t happen overnight.

Now we’re looking into tropical fruits. Fruit is locally very important, but very little research has been done on it. Farmers have already selected the best trees. We look at the trees they grow, collect branches (scion), graft and multiply in nurseries and register the farmer’s name. In four countries we have identified ten species of mango, rambutan, mangosteen and pomelo, fruits that have a worldwide demand. Communities will benefit if we invest small amount of resources to identify what farmer orchard’s have best fruit trees and select for further multiplication. People have various tastes: this person likes green mango, someone else prefers the yellow one. People are fascinated by diversity, not uniformity.

So, we identify the best varieties, multiply them and give them back to the farmer. Farmers should be recognized as ‘custodians of diversity’. Support them if they deliver good planting material. That is a global public service. They do a kind of research, so why not recognize them. I mean, if we believe in farmers’ rights…”

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