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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.