7 July 2014

Ethiopia Cultivates Seed Banks to Lay Famine Ghost to Rest

Photo: Elizabeth Howard

Ejere Woreda — Thirty years after the famine that killed more than a million people in Ethiopia and shocked the world into belated action, the country's scientists and farmers are taking the fight against climate change and food insecurity down to the ground.

The famine was a product of both natural and human causes, but scientists at the state-owned national gene bank for seeds say that even at the time of the crisis they had identified a lack of multiple seed varieties adapted to changing weather conditions as a major factor in the failure of crops.

That conviction has been acted on in the past few years through the establishment of community-based seed banks and training centres for farmers. The most recent one was inaugurated at the beginning of June in the farming locality of Ejere, in the centre of the Oromia region.

Regassa Feyissa, director of Ethio-Organic Seed Action (EOSA), an NGO that promotes agricultural biodiversity and seed security programmes, says a failed planting season used to be a death sentence for farming communities. The centralisation of the national gene bank in the 1980s led to inefficiency and a slow response to the hunger emergency, he believes.

There are now 18 seed banks spread across Ethiopia's three most populous states - Oromia, Amhara and Southern regions. They have been created by EOSA and the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity, which oversees the national gene bank and is partly funded by Norway. There are plans to expand into more areas of the country.

"Climate change...is a problem that's complex and unpredictable," said Feyissa. "We're seeing an increase in heat, and a growing shift in the pattern of the seasons, which is confusing farmers."

One of the lessons learned from the famine was that farmers needed more information and greater variety in the seeds they sow to cope with the effects of climate change, he added. For example, different varieties of sorghum can be planted at different times of the year to lessen the impact of climate variability.

Local seed banks will eventually enable farmers to boost their food security by practising sequential cropping rather than mono-cropping, Feyissa said.

Melaku Worede, who was head of the national gene bank during the 1984 famine, believes that developing specialised seed varieties should not just be a matter for scientists in laboratories.

It is essential to combine scientific knowledge with local farmers' knowhow to meet their needs, giving communities ownership of the seed products, he argues, while acknowledging that this idea meets with scepticism from some local and international partners.

WOMEN COME OUT OF THE KITCHEN

Bayush Tsegaye of EOSA also sees the local seed banks as a way to ensure sustainable food security and democratise seed assets among the community.

Women and young people, who form the majority of the rural population, can only be included in rural economies if they're given access to adapted seed varieties to plant on their plots, Tsegaye said.

"We've seen an increasing incidence of farmers selling their lands and moving to urban centres, and it tends to have a disproportionate psychological and economic effect on the young and women," he added.

As well as providing seed varieties, the seed banks also serve as training centres for local farmers, including women, in beekeeping and horticulture, Feyissa explained.

Elsa Abate, a farmer from the northern region of Amhara, said having a local seed bank has allowed her community to plant seeds in more than one season without fear of crop failure. This frees up space and time for other activities, and has helped them diversify into poultry, livestock and vegetable gardening.

"We women used to not be visible outside of the kitchen, as we didn't have the means and access to seed varieties," said Abate, whose home province of Wollo was one of the epicentres of the 1984 famine.

That has now changed, enabling women like her to farm their own plots and get reliable harvests.

"The seedling process and knowhow is in our hands," said Abate. "What we need to do and are doing is using the organic seedlings wisely. That will ensure...famine doesn't happen on our watch."

E.G. Woldegebriel is a journalist based in Addis Ababa with an interest in environmental issues.

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