Communities in Ejere and Gonde, central Ethiopia, are storing their best seeds in local seed banks. These communities are taking steps to be independent of seed companies, and exercise full control over seeds that have taken generations to develop.
Many of the world’s original wheat and barley varieties were cultivated in Ethiopia, largely by women farmers. In recent decades, Ethiopian farmers have begun to substitute their own varieties for “modern” varieties developed with a focus on higher yields. With climate change and new fungal diseases such as UG99, farmers in Ethiopia are looking not only for yield but also for genetic diversity and adaptability. These are traits found in abundance in local traditional seed varieties. The Addis Ababa-based NGO Ethio-Organic Seed Action, or EOSA, is helping them out, supported by USC Canada.
The seed bank in Ejere is housed in a sturdy building of metal and cement. Inside, seeds from dozens of varieties of legumes, pulses and cereals are stored in dark, tightly sealed, polypropylene bottles. The seed bank operates much like any other bank. Farmers grow crops that yield seed, some of which is stored in the bank. Member farmers can choose to withdraw seeds. But at the next harvest, they must re-deposit more seed than they borrowed. The most valuable banked seeds are those which are resistant to disease or drought.
Birtukan Kabede is secretary of Ejere’s seed bank. Laughing, she says, “Our seed bank is very good. It helps poor farmers. I am very happy.”
But Ethiopian farmers aren’t just banking their seeds. They are expanding the diversity of the crop varieties they use. They are also comparing traditional farmers’ varieties with so-called “modern” or “improved” seeds. A half hour’s drive from Ejere, in fields overlooking Ethiopia’s parched Rift Valley, several hundred men and women are growing traditional varieties of wheat alongside modern higher-yielding varieties. The modern seeds are from Ethiopia’s national laboratories. Ganene Gezu works with EOSA. He explains that farmers choose varieties with a wide range of traits. These days, they are especially interested in drought resistance, found in plants with a big or wide leaf area and deep green leaves.
A shed near the gene bank houses the research office. Its walls are covered with maps, bar charts, photos, and tables. A young man named Sisay Mercha sits at a desk writing. He explains how the farmers’ trials work. The farmers are organized into groups of five or ten and provided with seeds. The farmers then grow the seeds on their farms and observe them. He says, “[The farmers] collect and give us their data.”
The farmers’ variety selection trials attract visitors from the Ethiopian seed industry. Some traditional local varieties resist the UG99 wheat disease. The potential of these seeds is huge. If UG99 continues to spread, scientists will increasingly turn to communities like Ejere. Farmers there know they are preserving genetic treasures in their seed banks and their fields.
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