Community Seed Banks to Community Seed Enterprises: experiences from Centre for Sustainable Agriculture

Seed is one of the most critical input in farming. Earlier farmers used seeds saved from their own produce. With changing times, they have gradually become dependent on seed initially supplied by Government agencies, and later sold by private companies. Farmers who were traditional seed keepers, selectors and developed agriculture over cen- turies, had lost the habit of saving seed and making selec- tions.

The yield improvement in agriculture with new tech- nologies owes largely to the introduction of new improved varieties in major crops and efficient crop management tech- nologies. Government research institutes and public exten- sion work played a major role in developing and multiplying the seed. The development of hybrids marked a new era in agriculture. These seed cannot be reused for sowing, forcing the farmer to depend on the market every season. The seed companies prefer to produce and market only the hybrids, which cannot be reused to have a perpetual market. Only crops

like cotton, sunflower, maize, sorghum, pearl millet, castor and vegetables where hybrids are prevalent, have attracted the concentration of private companies. With the advent of Genetically Modified crops the problem further worsened as the few multinational companies have propri- etary control over the technologies.

Working on alternative institutional models

To restore the farmers’ habit of saving and using the seeds from their crop and to increase the access to good quality seeds, CSA has started community seed banks in 70 villages in Andhra Pradesh and 20 villages in Maharashtra since 2004.

Community Seed Bank: Community Seed bank (CSB) is the basic institution at the village level as part of the Village Resource Centre consisting of participating farmers. The CSB is managed by a committee which consisting of the five volunteers (three women and two men) from the village. The members of the seed committee are chosen by the villagers.

CSA in partnership with grassroot level NGOs, has begun work on establishing community seed banks in 2005 with the following objectives:

  • To establish community managed seed banks at the vil- lage level.
  • To revive and conserve crop and genetic diversity with special focus on food security
  • To document the productivity of agro diversity based cropping systems.
  • To scale up the successful experiences into larger area into ongoing programs.
  • To establish a state level network of the seed banks to share knowledge and resources.

Process of Setting of Community Seed Bank

As the first step, villages intended to initiate community managed seed work were selected with a help of local NGO. Farmers were called for a meeting to discuss problems faced related to seeds and they were brifed about alternative seed systems. Among the group intrested farmers selected to be part of seed banks. Need assessment would be done through focus group discussion. In order to execute various functions from planning to production and seed distribution, farmers were divided into groups such as planing group, production group and management group. Some of the seed banks were registered as Seed Growers Association. It is a village insti- tution registered under societies act. Membership is open to all the farmers. The members of these groups meet periodi- cally to discuss the plan of work.

Different Types of Support Provided to Seed bank

  1. Financial: For purchasing seed and storage structures, seed bank maintenance, etc. The amount is deposited in the separate bank account opened in the name of Seed committee.
    1. Technical support: CSA and NGOs train Seed

Committee members in identifying and mapping diversity, maintaining the diversity, seed production as per produc- tion standards specified for different crops. They are fur- ther trained on seed selection process, postharvest man- agement.

  • Monitoring: Seed banks were periodically monitored by a coordinator appointed to look after this programme.

The main functions of the CSB include

  • Revival of crop diversity and genetic diversity in locations characterized by monoculture of commercial crops with high exploitation of natural resources and higher external input use.
  • Conservation of crop and genetic diversity in locations still rich in diversity and which are facing the threat of chemi- calization and monoculture.
  • The CSBS map diversity in their village periodically and when they find some of the varieties have lost their purity and vigor, revival is taken up
  • Participatory varietal selection and Participatory plant breeding in specific crops like paddy cotton, groundnut, and vegetables which are facing serious problems due to erosion of diversity and seed becoming a major con- straint.
  • Organising Participatory Varietal Selection (PVS) in the village and select the varieties which are suitable for their local situations. The data for Value for Cultivation and Use (VCU) of each variety is documented in every agro-eco- logical situation.
  • Developing inventory of various seed varieties available with farmers (innovative farmers / seed savers) along with their performance.
  • Organizing sharing and exchange, conservation of crop and genetic diversity and networking with similar bodies at state and national level
  • Encourage farmers to reuse the farm saved seeds by adopting appropriate practices and replace the existing seed type if loss of purity found.
  • CSB also procures breeder seeds from the cooperatives

/ universities for farmers’ mainly in commercial crops and multiply and supply to farmers.

  • The CSB Committee assesses the seed requirement at the village level and make plans for production of the seeds.
  • Farmers are encouraged to produce / save / reuse seed carefully selecting from the crop. CSB will help the farm- ers to learn how to select and use farm saved seed.
  • Each Community Seed Bank will hold enough stocks to meet the contingent cropping requirement in case of crop/ rainfall failure particularly in the rainfed areas.
  • Currently the CSBS collectively have 400 varieties in vari- ous crops. In them VCU data is collected and published as catalogue in Telugu and Marati for use by farmers as ref-erence.

Farmers Perceptions on Traditional Seeds

A study done in 2010 on these Community Seed Banks indicated that in farmers’ perception ‘High nutrition value and Cultural use’ is the main reason in preferring traditional vari- eties. The other important reasons are Suitability to local con- ditions, Good palatability, high fodder, Drought tolerance, Re- sistant to pest and diseases, local market demand and good yield. When these are ranked, the results indicated that High nutritional value, cultural and resistant to pest and dieses are main driving force behind cultivation of traditional varieties (Table 1).

Table 1: Farmers Perceptions in adopting traditional varieties

Good yield2754VI
Suitability to local condition4998I
Resistant to pest and disease4182IV
Good taste4998I
High nutrition value50100I
Fodder use4998I
Local market demand3774V
Drought tolerance4488III
Cultural use50100I

Source: Raja Shekar G and Sandhya Shenoy (2010)

From 2007-08 onwards, the farmers are organised into producer organisations to aggregate and market their food. For some crops like paddy, soybean, chickpea, wheat, red- gram demand from farmers from neighbouring villages also started increasing and some of the CSBS entered into informal marketing of the seeds. As the farmers were already into marketing of grain, some of the seed producers were organ ised into seed growers association at the village level and collectively plan and market their seeds.


One time investment and commitment of farmers or Community seed bank group is not enough to conserve their traditional varieties for a longer time. It is important to contin- uously engage in collection, regeneration, multiplication and distribution of seeds in the long run updating to improved and needy varieties, also focus on rare endemic and endangered crop varieties that are more vulnerable than common and widespread ones.

Socio-cultural changes, access to electronic media coupled with hypes created by fromal seed sector/seed com- panies with fales promises resulted in shift from food crops to commercial crops. Crop failure due to abiotic factors also one of

Support needed from the public sector to strengthen the seed banks:

  • Restructure subsidy fund for direct farmer payment to en- courage farmers to use their own seed
  • Assist in revival of some of the traditional varieties which have eroded over a period of time.
  • Seed policy to favor the locally valuable farmers’ variet- ies. ? Evaluate traditional seed and its suitability for dif- ferent areas by generating data on Value for Cultivation and Use.
  • Government agencies can assist informal in many ways like providing access to the breeder and certified seed for seed growers on time for the seed producers and provid- ing guidance for the farmers for multiplication.
  • To enhance the small-scale entrepreneurs declaring a le- gal framework of marketing truthfully labeled seed and quality declared seed.
  • Forward and backward linkages with Government
  • Make the process simple and accessible registration of farmer varieties to claim rights and benefits under Plant Variety Protection and Farmers’ Rights (PPVFR) Act.
  • Educate farmers on reuse instead of more focus on seed replace

Seed Growers Association (SGA)

  • Seed Growers Association consists around 15 farmers, including 50% women.
  • At the beginning of every crop season, SGA prepare seed plan.
  • Based on the plan, they procure seed for multiplication from different sources and multiplication is taken up by the members.
  • During the crop season, members organize exposure visit to seed plot for monitoring for quality management.
  • At the end of the season, based on the requirements seed would be procured by SGA.
  • Procured seed will be stored in seed banks or it will be retain with farmers.
  • Documentation and catalogue.
  • Then, at beginning of the crop season seed would be dis- tributed to farmers.
  • Seed Growers Associations in Chowdarpally, Nalgonda dist, Enebavi, Warangal dist etc have become famous for the paddy and other varieties they produced.

Crop Harvest, Seed Storage and Seed Treatment Meth- ods Adopted by Seed Banks

For effective storage of the seeds, locally available con- tainers made by local resources (bamboo, earth pots, gunny bags and iron boxes) are used.

  • Groundnut: Healthy pods are selected during the winnow- ing time. These are stored in gunny bags treated with neem solution. Few farmers also hang the gunny bags contain-

ing groundnut to the roof. During sowing time, this seed is treated with Cowurine+Ash. This practice is per- formed by 21 of 50 sample farmers.

  • Pulses: (Redgram/Greengram/Blackgram): In case of farm saved seeds, pods from healthy plants are selected before harvesting main crops. These are winnowed and then are treated either with 1 per cent neem oil or mixed with ash+neem leaves. These are stored in earthen pots covered with cow dung. The seeds stored in this method be are viable for one year and free from storage pests.
  • Millets: Healthy ear heads are selected at the time of har- vesting. These spikes are thrashed manually and stored in gunny bags. If they found any storage pest infestation during the storage period, they will sundry between 11 am- 3 pm.
  • Cereals (Maize/Paddy): Maize farmers first identify the healthy plants with a cob situated at 5th Node. These cobs are harvested separately and store by hanging them to roof at the entrance of the house. During the sowing, they select the seeds from the mid portion leaving top and bot- tom portion of maize cob.
  • Vegetables: To prevent crossing, sample farmers cover the flower with a paper bag. At maturity, they are harvest- ed separately, seeds are separated from fruits dried in sun, Ash is added to the seed and store in cotton bags till sowing. Selected fruits are left on the plant till they ma- ture, then harvested and stored as seeds. They are ex- tracted from the fruits before sowing

Impact of Seed Banks

  • Increased Crop Diversity and Seed Access to Small and Marginal Farmers
  • Most of the small and marginal farmers are using their own seed or procuring from seed bank.
  • All the farmers were cultivating a variety of crops viz food, fiber, vegetables and oils seeds. They were sowing High yielding varieties, Local/traditional seeds, Hybrids (cot- ton) to some extent.
  • 22 types were of traditional varieties are in use in paddy, be millets, sesame and brinjal. Majority of millets grow by sample farmers were belonged to local types.
  • In rainfed areas like Ananthpur which experience regular crop failures due to erratic rains, farmers’ dependency on the seed banks for contingency crops is high. ?Network- ing of Community Seed Banks helped farmers to learn and exchange material from each other
  • The documentation of characters and performance (Value for Cultivation and Use) of the plant varieties in each situ- ation has helped farmers to make better and informed choices.

Building linkages/Networking

Community seed banks are mostly confirmed to local seed systems confirmed to a geographical area, based on local food needs, cropping pattern suits to specific Argo-cli- matic conditions including soil types and rainfall. Most of the seed production (produced by individual for others) would be planned to meet local requirements. For instance, the groundnut seed produced in Anatapur district is mostly intend to fulfill local needs, however, some part of the seeds would be shared with other network partners. Local NGOs, CBOS, SHGS facilitate such initiates. CSA organize state/National level seed fairs where all the concerns stakeholders will be invited which en- able them to share the material (seeds) and information/knowl-

edge. In a few cases, NBPGR and State Biodiversity Board have links with seed banks. In the states of Telengana, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, about 70 seed banks have formed two networks with the support of CSA. 20 seed banks feder- ated into seed cooperatives. Two cooperatives possess mo- bile seed processing unit and mar- keting license. Network of seed bank equipped with cold stage for storing germplasm. Thus, various institutions have direct or indirect linkages with community seed banks to exchange knowledge and seeds.

  • The CSBS are organised into a federation which help mu- tual strengthening.
  • All the representatives of the CSBS meet once a year in a mela organised by CSA and also participate in other seed melas and share/exchange and procure seeds which are suitable for their growing conditions. These would under- go a year of PVS cycle before taken up for cultiva- tion. Traditional varieties and varieties developed by farmer breeders are mostly transacted in such melas.
  • At state level a network of the Community Seed Banks was initiated in 2010 and is actively engaged in estab- lish- ing and managing the Community Seed Banks. This net- work would:
  • Evolve norms for sharing and exchanging the seeds, and prevent biopiracy.
  • act as pressure group to bring in positive policy changes which would helps in building the seed sovereignty at the village level.
  • bring out seed registers (catalogues) for sharing
  • develop plans to develop systems and generate re- sources to sustain the network after the project period.

Moving forward

  • In the last ten years of working with CSBS, the major learn- ings are
  • CSBS are successful in tribal areas where subsistence farming is predominant and in food crops, traditional vari- eties of crops
  • While exchange and sharing within CSBs is easier, be- tween CSBs the issues of quality etc comes up fre- quently
  • In areas high on commercial crops and monoculture, the utility of CSBs was minimal
  • Commercial crops and commercial cultivation needs to meet market demands
  • Uniformity of output
  • Maintaining productivity/production
  • Meet processing demands
  • Consumer preferences
  • Physical appearance-shape/color of seed/fruit/fiber)
  • In highly cross pollinated crops like Maize, Sunflower and crops with high heterosis like cotton the demand for hy- brids was high
  • Hence, standardising the data management and quality management are critical

Scaling up: CSA tried to scale up the learnings from the CSBS and SGAS to address the seed crisis faced by the farmers. However, for scaling up we need to address two very critical issues

  • Quality assurance
  • Financial support either from the governments in the form of subsidies or from the markets in the form of profit mar- gins.
  • Both these, need more formal systems of planning, pro- duction, processing and quality management.
  • Shift from informal seed system to blend of formal and informal seed system

Community Seed Enterprise (CSE): The Community Seed Enterpriseis the apex body of the Seed Growers Associations. Representatives of the SGAS will be in the gen- eral body and executive body of the Producer Company/Cooperative. While the SGAS are non-registered informal groups of farmers the producer company is a regis- tered body with all requisite li- censes and permits to breed varieties, produce seeds, brand and sell. This is a very impor- tant role that the seed producer organistion will play looking at the laws of the land. The main functions of the seed pro- ducer company would be as fol- lows:

  • Development of seed production plans based on the re- quirement of CSBS and SGAS demand projections.
  • Procuring and multiplying breeder seed in bulk and sup- ply to Community Seed Banks and Seed Seed Grower Associations.
  • Identifying Farmer Breeders and follow Participatory Plant Breeding processes to select crop varieties which are sta- ble and can withstand the ills of climate variation.
  • Own and run a Central Seed Bank and Processing Unit. The role of the Seed processing unit is to facilitate careful post-harvest management of the seeds-harvesting from

the field, threshing, cleaning, grading, and checking viabil- ity/germination. Since the seeds will be used only in the next season it has to be carefully stored at the central pro- cessing unit so that it does not lose its viability.

A federation of the seed growers was formed as a seed producer organisation ‘Naisargic Sheti Beej Producer Company Pvt Ltd (NSBPCPL), Wardha, Maharashtra’ in 2012. The NSBPCPL has 35 members and is involved in pro- ducing and marketing of soybean, wheat, chickpea, redgram, greengram and blackgram. During 2012-13 the NSBPCL has produced about 50 tons of seed in these crops and for the year year 2013-14 the production plan is 150 tons. Similarly, the 6 farmers cooperatives in Andhra Pradesh are also involved in seed production and marketing.

The members of seed producer organisations make a demand estimation both from the community seed banks and the local market and develop a business plan.

  • The seed producer organisations will procure the breeder seed (seeds which are 100 % pure and can be used for multiplication) from universities for the crops grown in the region and multiply them. The CSEs are also involved in maintaining foundation seed of farmer bred varieties like ‘Kudrat’ in wheat by Sri. Prakash Raghuvamsi and ‘HMT’ in paddy by Sri. Kobragade.
  • CSA published a catalogue of the seeds (of both indige- nous and improved varieties) based on the Value for Cultivation and use data generated from the Participatory Varietal Selection. This will help the farmers to make their seed choices.
  • CSBs/SGVS make indents to the cooperative for breeder seed in a season advance to enable production planning.

The seed cooperative also take indents from other farm- ers and Community Seed Banks organised else where by farmers, NGOs in region.

  • The farmers who have interest and skills to grow seed would be identified and trained in seed production. Quality Assurance: The cooperative maintains Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) for seed produc- tion to ensure quality. The PGS committee would consist of the seed growers and the representatives of the CSBs. The committee inspects the seed production plots and also conducts Grow Out Tests (GOT) after the harvest to check the quality.
  • The seed growers will be paid 10% over the market wholesale grain price seed if they pass through the GOT.

?The seeds would be stored for distribution during the next growing season.

  • The cooperative processes the seed packs and supplies through the CSBs and other farmers and others organisa- tions. The expenses and profit at the CSEs level would be around 15 %.
  • To further strengthen the system, a discussion on establishing an Open Source Seed Network has been initiated.