Report by Elsa Andrieux
From 27-29 September 2012, in Périgueux in the Dordogne, France, 275 participants gathered to share experiences about farmers’ collective efforts to conserve farmers’ seeds. The gathering was organized by a number of French non-government organizations including AgroBio Périgord, Bio d’Aquitaine, le Beau Germe, le Centre d’Etude et Terre d’Accueil des Blés, Réseau Semences Paysannes (Network of Farmers’ Seeds) and Biodiversité : Echanges et Diffusion d’Expériences (BEDE). Among the participants were a large number of representatives of French farmers’ organizations and citizens’ networks concerned about the conservation of plant genetic resources, the survival of farmers’ efforts to produce, reproduce and distribute seeds, and the promotion of organic farming. Also present were several farmer plant breeders, known in French as “artisans semenciers” (literally, seeds artisans) and researchers from France’s National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA).
From farther away –including Austria, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Mali, Roumania, Senegal, Spain and Togo– came members of organizations working with farmers on seeds as well as farmers themselves, in particular, involved in community seed banks. Two plenary sessions offered various organizations to explain about their origin, objectives and functioning. The rest of the time of the conference was organized in smaller workshops on technical and policy issues, and field visits. The gathering was an opportunity to discuss among different actors the models of collective action regarding the conservation of plant genetic resources and agricultural biodiversity. A topic of much debate was the rights of farmers to produce, conserve and exchange seeds. A few of the highlights of the gathering are presented below.
France: Community seed bank pioneers
Bio d’Aquitaine set up a “Maison de la semence” (literally, seed house) community seed bank in 2000. Right now there are 300 farmers involved in the initiative aimed to conserve traditional maize and sun flower varieties. Each member commits to conserve one variety in an isolated plot on their own farm. Every year, the network requests farmers to multiply one variety and replenish the seed bank with at least the same quantity of seeds they received. The network has built a physical “maison de la semence” (community seed bank) to stock the seed collection of traditional varieties. The network also maintains, in collaboration with INRA, an experimental plot where roughly a hundred of maize varieties are monitored. The purpose is to showcase the different varieties to farmers. At the same time, INRA and farmers are carrying out some participatory plant breeding work.
France: Pétanielle and the farmer-bread bakers
Pétanielle is a network in the Haute-Garonne that works for the conservation of traditional wheat varieties. The 120 farmers and gardeners who are part of the network conserve and grow different wheat varieties of which 15 are used by farmer-bakers to make and sell traditional breads. Varieties are conserved in different environments in order to assess adaptation to changing conditions. The network also carries out participatory plant breeding activities in collaboration with INRA.
Brazil: Microbacias 2 and AsPTA, and “the seeds of passion”
Microbacias 2 is a government program by the State of Santa Catarina to promote agroecological practices and the conservation of maize varieties. Every year, a fair of traditional varieties is organized at State level to exchange and promote local (“creole”) varieties. In 2011, 5000 people attended the fair. Community seed banks have not been set up; instead, farmer household conserve traditional varieties at home. AsPTA Agricultura Familiar e Agroecologia is a non-government organization active in the promotion of sustainable and collective management of natural resources. In the region of Paraiba, AsPTA developed a program to support local varieties known as “seed of passion.” Varieties are conserved in thousands of family gene banks. Family gene banks are supported by community seed banks that serve to store seeds in larger quantities. The network of gene/seed banks receives government support and plays an important role in the public sector by providing seeds to schools and hospitals.
India: Deccan Development Society (DDS) and the women seed custodians
DDS works with 5000 small-holders and marginal farmers to promote farmers’ seeds and food security at the community level. So far, 55 community seed banks have been set up to stock and exchange seeds. Women community seed keepers conserve seeds at home: 50 summer and 40 winter cultivars. Through an analysis of the practices of seeds custodians at village level, DDS has learned about the diverse determinants for farmers to decide on the kind of varieties to conserve. Factors include taste, labor requirements, storability, soil fertility, commercial potential, crop duration, social and cultural meaning, and pest and disease resistance.