Seeds in farmers’ hands: escaping poverty through diversity and local knowledge
In the Philippines, once the leading economy in Southeast Asia, 38 percent of the population now live on less than three dollars a day, while one in seven people are undernourished. With the “Green Revolution”, the once diversified traditional form of agriculture was fundamentally transformed. The much-lauded high-yielding varieties, offered in combination with chemical fertilizer and pesticides, led many small-scale farmers into a debt trap: the price of inputs and resources increased while yields failed to match expectations.
It also caused the erosion of rice genetic diversity. To escape this dead end, farmers, scientists and non-governmental organizations joined forces in the 1980s and founded MASIPAG, the Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development. They collected and maintained more than 1,300 traditional rice varieties and bred 1,288 new MASIPAG rice varieties that are specifically adapted to local soils and climate conditions. Each year, these rice varieties are grown and are further developed on almost 200 trial farms. The farmers learn how to assess their varieties, how to choose those which are best-adapted to the natural conditions of their plot of land and how to identify which seeds can best be used for breeding new varieties.
With support from scientists, the farmers themselves have become experts. The MASIPAG members exchange their knowledge and seeds. It has resulted in a knowledge partnership based on an equal footing, taking the needs at the grassroots level into consideration and increasing the self-confidence of the farmers.
“International agricultural research is dominated by multinational companies. At MASIPAG, the farmers have regained control over their most important resource: seeds,” says Manny Yap, the former national coordinator of MASIPAG. Currently, there are more than 30,000 MASIPAG farmers in 563 member organizations. The secret of MASIPAG’s success is diversity.
The farms opt for a broad range of crops and rice varieties to prevent a total crop failure. Since priority is not only given to yield when choosing a rice variety, but also to its adaptation to local conditions, one variety is always able to withstand droughts or floods. This is the best, cheapest and most reliable insurance in the face of climate change.