When two major earthquakes hit Nepal this past spring, it devastated the country’s agricultural sector. Cultivated terraces were washed away by landslides and covered in rubble. But farmers lost more than just their crops, cattle, and homes (see Nepal Earthquake Strikes One of Earth’s Most Quake-Prone Areas). Gone, too, were the seeds they had uniquely adapted to their land over the course of decades.
Farming communities in central Nepal’s mountainous region were some of the hardest hit areas in the country. Seeds, tools, food stocks, and buildings were destroyed. In the six most-affected districts, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that about 60 percent of food and seed stocks were destroyed in farming households.
After cleaning up their lands, farmers couldn’t just start planting for the summer growing season, though. Most seeds were unusable, since they’d been exposed to the elements. Well-meaning aid organizations rushed in seeds to replenish stocks, but many of them may not be culturally appropriate or ecologically adapted for the hilly terrain.
The seeds in these areas weren’t well preserved outside farmers’ homes. Nepal’s rugged and varying land of mountains and hills pierced by valleys has created some pretty unique seeds for rice, maize, and pulses that are farmed in complex ways. When homes and barns were destroyed, so were many locally-adapted, genetically-rich seeds.
“Very few seed varieties from here are developed through public and private sector plant breeding,” explains Bhuwon Sthapit, a senior scientist at Bioversity International. “These seeds adapt to the local environment and culture through an evolutionary process of natural and human selection that takes decades,” he says. “Call it evolutionary breeding in situ.”
So why not just plant different seeds and start over? Doing so can lead to major yield reductions and more work for farmers, as well as threaten food security. “When seeds don’t yield as expected it can lead to hunger and malnutrition in the coming season,” explains Mina Nath Paudel, the chief of National Agriculture Genetic Resources in Nepal.
During past disasters in Nepal and other countries, well-meaning organizations like the FAO, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have brought in seeds that aren’t adapted to local conditions or cultural preferences. As a precaution after the earthquake, the Nepalese government asked all donors to send seeds through local authorities first. But it’s still likely some unsuitable ones have slipped through.
When there’s rushing after a disaster, people might not pay close attention to seeds.
Today crowdsourcing is helping identify appropriate seeds. Bioversity International, Global Crop Diversity Trust, Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC), and Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research, and Development (LI-BIRD) are among the organizations working to collect local seeds and rebuild suitable seed stocks with the help of farmer-based testing.
Farmers serve as citizen-scientists. By ranking seeds on their performance and yield, they help identify what works best in their specific environment. Crowdsourced methods like this allow scientists to get more research done in less time. And, seed businesses and community seeds banks can benefit from this recorded knowledge too.
What can other places learn from Nepal’s seed struggles? It’s all about diversifying seed stocks in community seed banks and backing them up at national and international gene banks (see Can Preserving Crop Biodiversity Save the World?). “That’s one way to improve community resilience to future disasters,” says Sthapit. A strong seed network makes all the difference in a farming community’s ability to bounce back.
Kelsey Nowakowski is a spatially thinking reporter at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter.