How Crowdsourcing Seeds Can Help Farmers Adapt to Climate Change

How Crowdsourcing Seeds Can Help Farmers Adapt to Climate Change, by VIRGINIA GEWIN, Yale360, Feb 26, 2019

In Ethiopia and other developing nations, scientists are working with small-scale farmers on trials to see which seed varieties perform best in changing conditions. These initiatives are enabling farmers to make smarter crop choices in the face of rising temperatures, drought, and more extreme weather.

In Ethiopia’s undulating, high-elevation grasslands, farmers — most of them working parcels of only two to three acres — produce more wheat than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. They accomplish this feat in the face of chronically short supplies of high-quality seed. Still, Ethiopia’s record harvest of 4.6 million metric tons in 2017 didn’t satisfy the country’s needs, forcing it to import an additional 1.5 million tons of wheat.

Despite Ethiopia’s diverse landscape and resulting microclimates, the Wheat Atlas — the master list of modern variety recommendations — advises farmers to use one of three commercial varieties. Recently, however, a blind trial of different durum wheat varieties carried out on roughly 1,000 farmers’ fields unearthed several farmer-bred varieties from the Ethiopian national gene bank that proved superior to the Wheat Atlas recommendations. One variety — known by its gene bank identification number, 208279 — emerged as a superior choice for colder locations in the country’s highlands.

“The analysis revealed a surprise — the importance of cold adaptation,” says the trial’s architect, Jacob van Etten, a senior scientist at Bioversity International, an agricultural research organization. Many durum wheat varieties are cold-sensitive, but 208279, collected originally from Ethiopia’s Oromia region at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet, was adapted to low nighttime temperatures during early growth.

Van Etten’s study of “crowdsourced” seed in the developing world was not confined to Ethiopia. He and his colleagues have analyzed, in total, 12,400 farmer-managed experimental plots, including trials in Nicaragua and India that evaluated the official variety recommendations for bean and wheat, respectively. The collective findings confirmed that farmers — acting as citizen scientists in vulnerable, low-income areas — could pool their knowledge to identify varieties that performed best under current climate conditions. Crowdsourcing also led to improvements in the recommended varieties in both Nicaragua and India.

Crowdsourcing seeds “is not breeding — it is testing existing diversity and democratizing seed bank collections.”

This approach enables farmers to make more informed seed choices in the face of rising temperatures, drought, and other extreme weather events. And by accelerating and improving recommendations of the most suitable varieties for a specific region, it allows farmers to contribute to a broader understanding of how varieties respond to climate shifts.

“The ‘wisdom of the crowd’ principle states that no single person knows everything,” says van Etten. “We show that it’s possible to help farmers, cheaply, over large scales.”

Walter de Boef — a global consultant on seed systems working with the Germany-based Crop Trust, which curates stores of international seed — says that crowdsourcing seeds “is not breeding — it is testing existing diversity, and democratizing gene bank collections.” Increasing diversity, be it with commercial or traditional varieties, in farmers’ fields is “a critical feature of resilience,” says de Boef, especially given that “the scale of breeding will never match the number of microclimate niches.”


Durum wheat varieties grow in trial plots in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. Thousands of farmers participated in the project, testing how various wheat strands performed under changing climatic conditions. BIOVERSITY INTERNATIONAL

Private seed companies, public plant breeders, and philanthropies such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are increasingly turning their attention to climate adaptation. The Gates Foundation has invested millions of dollars in breeding improved varieties able to withstand heat, drought, or disease, and Bioversity International’s Seeds for Needs program has focused on using crop diversity to adapt to climate change.

Neither participatory farmer trials nor crowdsourcing farmers’ results are new ideas. Arguably, the earliest version of this approach helped jump-start agriculture in the United States. In the early 1800s, the United States Postal Service didn’t just send letters. It administered a program that sent more than 1 million packages of seeds to farmers. Growers were able to test which seeds would perform best, from the South’s humid iron-rich soils to the Midwest’s black earth. The massive seed distribution program was a huge success — U.S. agriculture thrived by arming farmers with enough crop diversity to conduct their own experiments. Cary Fowler, former executive director of the Crop Trust and the mastermind behind the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, has argued that a similarly bold endeavor is needed to help the 1.5 billion people who make their livelihood on small farms in the developing world.

Big seed corporations routinely perform field trials with thousands of farmers on the latest high-tech soybean varieties. But as van Etten notes, “Our approach adapts these methods to work where infrastructure is limited, there are fewer resources, and the skill set is weaker.” By asking farmers which of three varieties performs best and worst, the scientists simplify the data collected — and then combine it with climate data and other statistics such as soil moisture. “We organize all the messy data to generate valuable information from the chaos,” says van Etten.

Ethiopia’s major wheat-growing regions are in the southern and central highlands. Several years ago, Carlo Fadda, van Etten’s colleague at Bioversity International, screened 400 different varieties taken from the national gene bank to see how they performed. When farmers evaluated the 400 varieties, none of the more commercial varieties were in the top 10.

In Nicaragua, official variety recommendations failed to identify sufficiently heat-tolerant crops.

In its first year, van Etten’s trial took the top 20 varieties from the Fadda study and randomly assigned thousands of farmers three of the unnamed seed varieties to evaluate. The farmers ranked their seed from best to worst, supplying their data either in farm visits, community meetings, or by mobile phone. Their results were then combined with climatic and soil analyses. While it can take time to build farmer trust, van Etten says most farmers were eager to participate. “Everyone felt ownership of the process,” he says. “They were the innovators and experimenters.”

As van Etten’s trial was underway, Gareth Borman, a seed system advisor with the Wageningen Center for Development Innovation, took notice and adopted the approach. Borman’s team works to increase the availability and use of crop varieties. For example, sorghum farmers in the Tigray region have struggled with poor harvests because they relied overwhelmingly on seed passed down from their forefathers.

Borman’s team gave nine farmers six different sorghum varieties to test on their farms. Once superior varieties were identified, those seeds were shared with other farmers and multiplied for exchange. “It’s been an easy way to inject new diversity into farming systems,” says Borman.


Volunteers label seed storage jars for a community seed bank in northern Ethiopia. BIOVERSITY INTERNATIONAL/C.FADDA

Since 2016, the efforts of Borman and his colleagues have increased the availability and use of quality seed for roughly 3.4 million farmers in Ethiopia. The diversity of crops and varieties increased by 16 percent in 2017 and 8.5 percent in 2018.

Van Etten’s research demonstrates how climate-resilient varieties are urgently needed. In Nicaragua, heat stress is already upending bean variety performance. Crowdsourcing showed that the official recommendations failed to identify varieties that are sufficiently heat tolerant. Local bean varieties outperformed the official recommendations.


Redrawing the Map: How the world’s climate zones are shifting. Read more.

Climate change is already negatively impacting agriculture globally, resulting in an increase in hunger, which had been on the decline, according to the United Nations. For three years in a row, the number of undernourished people has increased—to 821 million in 2017, a rise due, in part, to climate variability and extreme weather, according to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report that also called for developing new crop varieties adapted to climate change.

Yet most subsistence farmers around the world grow vital crops, such as teff [a grain] or cow pea, that receive little, if any, attention from breeders. Even major crops such as wheat are not being bred to produce climate-adapted seeds for every region of the world.

“What we need to put in place to adapt to climate change is not very sexy,” says Gary Atlin, a plant breeder turned senior program officer at the Gates Foundation in Seattle. He says the basic requirements for climate change adaptation for farmers in the developing world, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are links to markets, commercialization, cropping system intensification through increased fertilizer use, and irrigation. Farmers also need a steady stream of new varieties bred for the current climate. Climate-adapted crop seed will be achieved through steady, incremental improvements, says Atlin.

A study found that improved seed from major companies reaches only 10 percent of the world’s small farmers.

“If [crop breeders] do a great job, we can increase yields in the face of climate change about 2 percent,” he says. To simply stand in the same place, he adds, will require genomic and plant evaluation technologies to speed the process.

“We need a fast and responsive crop improvement system that develops new varieties in real time,” says Atlin. It exists in many regions, including North America, western Europe, and China, but needs much more development in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. To that end, the Gates Foundation offers grants to CGIAR, the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers, as well as government programs in the developing world to support that kind of systematic breeding for crops such as cassava and legumes, as well as wheat and rice.

The 2019 Access to Seeds Index, a measure of the world’s leading seed companies that aid smallholder farmers, found that “improved” seed from major companies reaches only 10 percent of the world’s small farms. And seed industry investments in local seed breeding and production are limited to a few countries, such as Kenya and Tanzania.


Ethiopian farmers gathered to discuss a trial of 20 different durum wheat varieties, with bags of seeds in the foreground.BIOVERSITY INTERNATIONAL/C.FADDA

Access to Seeds Foundation Executive Director Ido Verhagen is optimistic that all farmers could be reached with appropriate seeds in the coming decades — a massive leap considering only one in 10 are today. For example, many countries in South and Southeast Asia have robust private certified seed production and distribution programs, says Verhagen. The question is whether research agencies or companies with breeding programs will produce high-quality, locally adapted seed farmers are willing to buy, he says.

Farmers are notoriously finicky. It’s not uncommon for them to shun new and improved varieties if they don’t have other desirable qualities — for example, tall stalks for feeding cattle or easy threshing. But farming community interest in climate-adapted seeds has risen sharply in recent years. When the Access to Seeds Index was first published in 2013, farmers said access to modern plant varieties was not a high priority. By 2016, that was changing, says Verhagen, adding, “Groups were more apt to say they needed greater access to modern plant breeding — all because of climate change.”

I have to share that at COP14 i attached myself to Preston. He was simply the most important source of information and critical analysis in a place full of world representations of all kinds. Without him you could never understand the complexity of these issues. Preston never complained and during not hours, but two entire weeks he patiently explained many things that i still need to debrief. That time has been so far the most important in my life. No kidding.  We have a lot of work to do. I was actually called to this work right before I left Peru in 2000 in the middle of crazy political violence, but i had to get lost for more than an entire decade as any asylee trying to rebuild life and family. 19 years after and with little more knowledge, i am back to express my total commitment to develop these ideas and tasks that I think are of the utmost importance for our Peoples. If you have time to share, I can visit you anywhere using my fellowship to assist on connecting all dots.

Let’s invite Mr. Hardison to share the latest developments of these issues


Hi Reynaldo and Rising Voices –

Sorry for the long post, but this is a continuation of a conversation Reynaldo and I have been having for some time.

Thanks, Margaret, for sharing the information on the Eastern Band of Cherokee collections. Terry Williams at the Tulalip Tribes was an advisor on the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee (NGRAC) from 2014-2017. I put together a presentation on tribal issues related to the U.S. National Germplasm System, and the EBC were featured prominently.

Interestingly, the NGS has a mechanism to “black-box” tribal collections – to store seeds without making them publicly available, or available without the permission of the tribes. They put this into their system primarily for companies that otherwise might be reluctant to store their seed stocks in the national system. Tribes haven’t made much use of this mechanism. For tribes without the capacity to maintain seed and germplasm collections to standards to maintain viability and currency (germplasm evolves), this could be one option.

We also recommended to the Secretary that they support tribal efforts to collect and store seeds and germplasm in their own collections, as well as inter-tribal organizations that do so cooperatively.

Another recommendation was to expand the NGS beyond cultivated varieties. Many of tribal concerns related to seeds and germplasm are related to wild-harvested plants and animals (fish sperm and eggs, livestock breeds, sheep breeds, etc.). Their genetic diversity can be greatly threatened by habitat destruction, pollution, population growth and climate change. Tribes also depend on semi-domesticated species. Tribal agricultural fields are often “weedy” in comparison to “modern” fields – there is a lot of intermixing of wild and cultivated species, volunteers, etc. Indigenous peoples include many companion plants in fields and home gardens, as there are many relatives that work together (the “three sisters” of corns, beans and squash are a classic example). As I have posted before, plant and agricultural microbiomes (microbial biomes) are an important and necessary part of the whole system ecology.

With the rapid change in selection pressures, especially from climate change, there needs to be a lot of thought and planning in maintaining and working germplasm collections (moving seeds from collection to field and back again). I think of it as a continuing dialogue between collections and the field. Too many collections treat seeds in a sterile box as the ends of their work in order to serve the commercial trait hunters. (see: ” Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook” Jan Salick, Katie Konchar, et al. 2014 and “Managing Biodiversity in Agricultural Ecosystems” D.I. Jarvis, C. Padoch and H.D. Cooper 2007. With the caveat that probably none of the authors are indigenous and are not insider accounts).

Some of the harder issues are related to “creating an alternative to the intellectual property system.” This is what a number of us are working on at the World Intellectual Property Organization. One major problem is that the intellectual property system aims to be totalizing. There are a number of dialogues circulating on how to deal with traditional knowledge. Some leading ones are:

  1. Partnerships and respect: this uses social contract and mutual relationships language as a foundation. For example, there have been two declarations out of British Columbia in the past two years on the value of scientists and Indigenous Peoples working together in partnership. This reflects many indigenous values related to sharing, good relations, doing good, helping others and those less fortunate, etc. It is not a legal foundation. It can provide some protection and control through ethics and protocols, but this may be only effective if any shared or co-produced knowledge is held within territorial boundaries or within the partnership. If traditional knowledge passes outside of these circles, it can be at risk.
  2. Formal agreements: There is a movement to formalize partnerships through binding agreements, such as collective biocultural protocols and community contracts. The Creative Commons is a similar licensing arrangement. These are stronger, as they take the form of contracts, which can contain clauses that specify penalties and remedies if they are violated. As contracts, these are private instruments. If indigenous peoples want them enforced, they have to do the monitoring and taking others to court, paying filing and court fees, and take the risk of adverse judgments. They are not bad tools – depending on the kind of traditional knowledges and resources that are dealt with, the risks can be low and the benefits of sharing and partnerships high. There has bee relatively little experience across the world on the long-term effectiveness of licensing or contractual approaches, or how satisfied indigenous peoples are generally. Such agreements are also likely to be rather narrow, and not able to take into account all of the cultural and spiritual values that indigenous peoples may want to protect. This is a major limitation of the Access and Benefit Sharing system of the Nagoya Protocol (see: “Genetic Resources, Justice and Reconciliation: Canada and Global Access and Benefit Sharing,” Chidi Oguamanam (ed.) 2019)
  3. Intellectual property system: Another limitation of the contract approach is the intellectual property system which believes it has jurisdiction over traditional knowledges. IP systems protect intellectual property not as contracts but as state guaranteed rights. There is one case in the United States (Jacobsen v. Katzer) that has been adjudicated in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California that, as part of the decision, made a legal decision related to the status of instruments such as Creative Commons licenses that overlap the copyright system. The conclusion was that such contracts are not separate from, or distinct from, or superior to copyrights. They are merely a modification of an underlying copyright. If the two come into conflict, the copyright prevails.

This means that the intellectual property system is a silent partner, and a legally binding one, in both the social contract and the formal contract approaches. Make no mistake. The United States, in the potential international treaty negotiations related to traditional knowledge at WIPO are proposing the following elements for a definition of “misappropriation” (in simplistic terms, if something is not defined as misappropriation, then using it without permission, without respect, and without benefit sharing is not illegal. It is not a crime:

  1. If something is independently discovered, it is not misappropriation: Ok. But much traditional knowledge is not like the concept of “the wheel,” and is complex enough that independent discovery is suspicious. Better have an audit trail.
  2. If it is reverse engineered, it is not misappropriation. Hmmmm. If I can get my hands on the latest Samsung, the world is my oyster?
  3. If it has been published, it is not misappropriation. This amounts to claiming that any traditional knowledges that are published are part of the public domain. Anyone reading the paper can use any of the information for whatever purpose they want, without the need for permission from or control over by indigenous peoples (no FPIC required).
  4. If indigenous peoples have not taken appropriate steps to protect their traditional knowledges, it is not misappropriation. Begging the question of that constitutes “appropriate steps,” this amounts to imposing a Western style “trade secret” requirement on indigenous peoples who must change their ways to meet the requirements of the Western system. Most of the sharing under the social contract approach would likely be counted as not taking appropriate steps.

The US is also proposing (with Canada, Japan, South Korea, and a few others) a proposal to compile a large-scale international database of traditional knowledges to combat bad patents under the concept of “defensive protection.” In patents, if you can show something is already known, i.e. in the public domain, it can’t be patented. It can’t be protected either. The public domain is open to use by all, without much restraint (well, there are security issues, criminal issues, but not the cultural and spiritual issues that often concern tribes).

There are a few more wrinkles, as I pointed out at Rising Voices a few years ago. If the US government has a copy of sensitive traditional knowledge, unlike the seeds themselves, it cannot currently be protected against Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, except in narrow cases related to the 2007 Farm Bill (sacred site information on US Forest Lands). State governments have their own laws, and some may be able to protect exchanged traditional knowledges that have not been made public. But once made public, the US Patents and Trademarks Office and US Copyright Office step in.

I am all for creating indigenous alternatives to the intellectual property system. Indigenous peoples have the sovereign right to exercise their sovereign authority. This is what I assert at WIPO, the CBD, Nagoya Protocol and other negotiations I have participated in with indigenous colleagues from the seven regions. The rights are there, have always been there, never granted by the United Nations. On the other hand, the rights still lack full recognition and respect.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with open source, sharing and exchanges. Sharing can be the right thing to do, provide mutual benefits, promote understanding and peaceful relationships, much else that is good for the future of indigenous peoples, non-indigenous peoples and the planet. I just urge to be a little cautious when making decisions, mindful that there may be legal and cultural consequences to sharing knowledges that have been safeguarded and stewarded since time immemorial.

Some tribes, for example, have been sharing their traditional seeds with heirloom groups. This is not necessarily a bad thing. From the intellectual property standpoint, however, it is possible that they have given away all rights to control the use of the germplasm. The problem (if there is one) will get harder as their tribal germplasm mixes in with other’s germplasm. Once combined, they cannot be separated. And the tribes, in doing so, have indicated their intent to make it freely available, a decision that cannot be undone if there is later regret.

I have also heard the argument that some things, like seeds and plants for food and agriculture, and perhaps climate change information, must be shared to protect people and planet in peril. That may be true. We are in a bad situation. But again, risks should be weighed. The partners we often work with – scientists, NGOs, environmental agencies – are often some of the weakest in terms of power to influence and control outcomes (i.e. relative to trade and commerce departments). If indigenous peoples share knowledges from time immemorial and the spirit world, what guarantees are there in place to ensure the protection of their values and aspirations? The concern of some with the new Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform at the UNFCC could become a vehicle for misappropriation of traditional knowledges that are being sought to solve a problem indigenous peoples did not create. Of course, many indigenous peoples want to contribute to solve the most perilous situation humankind has ever faced. But their contributions should be effective, and there should be assurances that they are not being opened up to new forms of exploitation.

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If and until modern, climate-adapted varieties reach the most remote farmers, existing — yet perhaps overlooked — crop diversity can reduce risk, as van Etten’s work shows. “Our study demonstrates the enormous potential of citizen science to help farmers adapt to climate change,” he says.