Seeds of Survival
By David Kattenburg
In the early twentieth century, Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov identified Ethiopia as one of the world’s cradles of crop diversity. Several strains of wheat were born here, along with barley, sorghum, millet, flax and coffee.
Ethiopia is not only a “center of origin”– as Vavilov discovered – but also a major “center of diversification” where crops like wheat and barley have spawned scores of unique varieties, largely under the tutelage of women farmers – varieties renowned for their resistance to disease and drought.
Ironically – given its reputation in the news – Ethiopia’s seed wealth has become indispensable to the world. A new wheat rust codenamed ug99 is now creeping around the planet, threatening global human security like H1N1 never did. The thought of national wheat crops being wiped out – in developed and non-developed countries alike – has agronomists running to places like Ethiopia in search of fungus-resistant varieties.
This is where towns like Ejere, in central Ethiopia, fit in. Ejere farmers are storing their best performing seeds in a bank of their own. Addis Ababa-based NGO Ethio-Organic Seed Action (EOSA) is helping out. Listen here:
Ejere’s seed bank is housed in a sturdy building of metal and cement. Inside, seeds from dozens of varieties of legumes, pulses and cereals are stored in dark, tightly sealed, polypropylene bottles. It operates much as any bank would. Farmers grow crops that yield seed. Some of that seed is stored here. Member farmers can withdraw some if they want, but when the next crop is harvested they must re-deposit more seed than they borrowed. The most valuable banked seeds are those selected for their resistance to disease or drought.
Seeds of Survival, they might be called. This was the title of the project launched years ago by USC Canada, in collaboration with Ethiopian agronomists and crop geneticists. USC Canada continues to support EOSA’s work in Ejere and other rural Ethiopian communities.
Ethiopian farmers aren’t just banking their seeds. They’re studying the comparative qualities of traditional farmers’ seed varieties and so-called “modern,” “improved” seed. A half hour’s drive from Ejere, in a set of fields overlooking Ethiopia’s parched rift valley, several hundred men and women are growing their traditional varieties of wheat, side by side with “improved” varieties with higher yield, from Ethiopian national labs.
Unlike government and corporate seed developers, for whom high yield is the coveted trait, Ethiopian farmers select for a wide range of characteristics, including disease and drought resistance. And Ethiopian farmers love diversity. Over the past decades, Ethiopian farmers have turned to wheat monoculture, profitable in the best of times. These days, mono-cropped wheat has suffered from drought and fallen prey to the new stem rust. Ethiopian farmers know that their own highly adapted varieties of seed – and crop diversity – offer the best protection.