Community seed banks

Community Seed Banks (CSBs) are places of storage where indigenous seed varieties are conserved and managed by community members. These ex-situ conservation sites provide farmers with free and easy access to traditional seeds under the condition that a farmer returns twice the amount of seeds he or she borrowed. They not only reduce farmers’ dependence on seed companies but also help conserve the agro-biodiversity of their villages. These seed banks form the cornerstone of GREEN’s efforts for biodiversity conservation through community empowerment.

Managed mostly by women, CSBs have successfully harnessed the role of women in Indian agriculture as custodians of biodiversity. Traditionally, it has been women who select and store seeds after every harvest. In CSBs their understanding as resource persons is used to good effect, empowering them with a sense of pride and accomplishment that raises their footing in the community. We facilitate the set up of these seed banks by building a strong relationship with the community. Members are trained on seed selection, storage, record keeping and other aspects of seed bank management.

The Foundation has helped establish close to 11 seed banks across Karnataka, some of which contain as many as a 100 different varieties of indigenous seeds. Over 2250 households have been directly and indirectly impacted through these CSBs. Through collaboration with 11 other NGOs, GREEN has also initiated the set up of 34 seed banks in 9 of Karnataka’s 10 agro-climatic zones. These seed banks formed a Community Seed Bank Network (CSBN) developed to address the dire need for agrobiodiversity conservation in Karnataka. By working and developing strong links with community members and NGOs, GREEN aimed to meet the core objective of the CSB Network: strengthening the livelihood of small scale and marginal farmers through biodiversity conservation and sustainable agricultural practices that would also safeguard the ecology of their land for future generations. For its work in biodiversity conservation, GREEN received the prestigious Equator Initiative Prize by UNDP in 2004.

Over time, CSBs have proved to be more than just seed repositories. They have provided a platform for community members to set up alternate income generating schemes. The information sharing that often takes place at seed bank meetings raises awareness of sustainable agriculture within a community. Through these meetings, many more farmers are persuaded to adopt organic farming practices.

GREEN’s pioneering efforts at biodiversity has galvanized whole communities to spread its message of sustainability. The effectiveness of these seed banks has influenced the Karnataka Govt. to fund the establishment of CSBs throughout the state.

Functioning of a seed bank

When setting up a seed bank, members of existing women’s Self Help Groups within a community are invited to a meeting. A group is then selected from among these members to manage the bank. Meetings are held regularly in order to carry out the seed bank functions.

Functions of a CSB include: storing seeds in the proper manner, lending seeds to those who request them and keeping records of seeds returned. A very important duty of CSB members is promoting traditional agricultural practices through the use of local seeds. These members are responsible for maintaining the purity of seeds by monitoring the farming methods of members who contribute to the seed bank and ensuring that they employ organic farming method. They are, therefore, trained in seed selection and storage techniques.

Why do we need CSBs?

“We’ve been buying high yielding seeds every year, often with borrowed money. We’ve stopped conserving and saving our own traditional seeds so we have no stocks. We’re worried about what will happen if, for some reason, big seed companies are unable to supply seeds,” says Dhananjaya Murthy from the Haveri district of Karnataka at a farmer’s meeting. Murthy is worried about the most critical need of every farmer: access to good quality seeds. He knows that without them, his very livelihood and survival is at stake.

Across India, farmers like Murthy converted to the cultivation of exotic seed varieties in the hopes of increasing yields and incomes. Today, they are heavily dependant on large companies to provide them with seeds. Murthy’s fellow villager and proud owner of a two acre plot of land, Mukkappa Poojar expands on the problem this poses to many small scale farmers like him: they can ill afford to buy these seeds and the expensive inputs they require. “If we use indigenous seeds and stop using chemical fertilizers, I’m sure we can save almost Rs. 5000 in a year,” he says. For small scale and marginal farmers like Murthy and Poojar, who make up more than 83% of India’s agricultural sector, access to good quality indigenous seeds can often mean the difference between sustainability and food insecurity.

A rich biodiversity means a farmer has access to wide varieties of produce for domestic consumption. Its loss would put in jeopardy the food security of not just this generation, but future generations to come. But as farmers converted to exotic seeds, many of the indigenous ones slowly started disappearing. The subsequent adoption of unsustainable monocropping techniques brought about by the use of exotic varieties meant that, though farmers produced food, they did not have enough for their own families to eat.

There was, therefore, a great need in many communities for free and easy access to indigenous seeds. “We wait for seed bank meetings every week as they give us the opportunity to meet and interact with each other. The time we spend here helps us in so many ways. By exchanging information we get to know of things beyond the boundaries of our home and advice our husbands on maters related to agriculture such as useful pesticides etc. We also discuss matters not related to agriculture but which are still important to our lives,” says Nagamma, a small scale farmer in Karnataka.

* report2010-11/AR.pdf
© GREEN Foundation 2009