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.
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.”…
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