Participatory varietal selection takes into account poor farmers’ realities
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|Concepts and approaches of participatory varietal selection (PVS)|
‘Participatory varietal selection’ is a four-step approach that offers farmers a choice of crop varieties matched to their needs. It arose from the realisation that farmers weren’t using varieties developed and tested on research stations because they didn’t work in the real world. So farmers continued to grow old, unproductive varieties prone to pests and diseases. The approach has been proven – and refined to become even more client-oriented – in Ghana, Bangladesh, India and Nepal for rice, wheat, mungbean, horsegram, maize, chickpea, finger millet and sorghum. Improvements in quality and yield have been startling. The potential for participatory varietal selection is huge as it could be applied to all farming systems, all major crops, all types of farmers, and all countries.
Project Ref: PSP33:
Plant Sciences Research Programme. DFID India.
Relevant Research Projects:
R6748, R6826, R7323, R7281, R7324, R7409, R7542, R8099, R8221, R8269
The list above includes only those who were partners in the research projects. In addition there are many other collaborators involved in the scaling up of varieties identified by PVS that are too numerous to list here.
Outputs proposed: The PSP has developed and formalised a participatory research approach to the testing of new varieties with farmers called participatory varietal selection (PVS) that overcomes the limitations of traditional, on-station testing systems. PVS has four steps: (1) a participatory rural appraisal to identify client needs in new varieties, (2) a search for suitable varieties to match those needs, (3) on farm variety testing with farmers, (4) wider dissemination of farmer-preferred varieties. The wider adoption of this improved method of testing new varieties would change policy on varietal release and provide a greater choice of improved varieties for low-resource farmers that significantly improve their livelihoods.
When produced: The PSP research began in the early 1990s and built on pioneeringparticipatory research that began in the 1970s. The research has taken the original concepts much further by refining the methods and techniques and validating the usefulness and importance of the technique across a range of countries, crops and farming systems. The research culminated, in 2005, in a revised client-oriented model (Witcombe et al., 2005).
Problem addressed and description of outputs: Low-resource farmers were found to be growing either obsolete varieties (low yielding and disease susceptible varieties that were released often more than 20 years before) or landraces (Witcombe, et al., 1998). This was a major cause for low yields and consequent food deficits. Analyses showed this was because farmers had never been recommended varieties that were suitable. Through PVS a broader choice of varieties was offered (a basket of choices) that matched their needs in adaptation and quality traits. Varieties were those released elsewhere, pre-released and non-released varieties. Farmers adopted new varieties from this choice that were of a higher utility (a combination of improved agronomic traits, higher yield, improved quality) and most often these were not the officially recommended varieties for their area. As a result of this research, the PVS process was standardised in the form of on-farm mother and baby trial designs(Witcombe, 2002) and we developed appropriate formats for trial evaluation through farmers’ perceptions gathered from household level questionnaires and focus group discussions (Witcombe, 2002) and appropriate statistical analyses for quantitative and qualitative perception data (Virk and Witcombe, 2002). Adoption of PVS varieties by farmers increased on-farm biodiversity(Witcombe et al. 2001) and improved livelihoods of resource poor farmers (e.g., Joshi and Joshi, 2003).
The process of participatory varietal selection is not commodity specific and is applicable to all crops in all agricultural systems but has been extensively used in semi-arid systems, smallholder rainfed dry/cold farming system and wetland rice based system (Witcombe et al., 1996). It has been used in many crops including the following:
The steps outlined in the process of PVS are, in general, applicable to any NRM activity.
PVS involves the testing of a new intervention – a crop variety – with farmers in the farmers’ fields. Other interventions can be tested that are synergistic with new crop varieties such as improved crop agronomy, including seed priming (e.g., PSP30), and crop protection. Since farmers evaluate material for all traits including fodder quantity and quality then clustering with improved livestock nutrition would be an advantage.
Since this is applicable to all crops it is widely applicable to many outputs. It is an essential technique for client-oriented breeding (COB) (PSP34) and an essential component in participatory approaches to replacing rice fallows (PSP35). It is also synergistic with all RNRRS outputs relating to the provision of seed and can involve community based seed production (PSP36).
Below are some of the projects from other RNRRS programmes with which this can be clustered.
R8220, R8406, R8422, R8453, R7566, R8445, R8030, R6733, R8452, R8215, R8339, R7346, R8296, R8409, R8233, R7377, R8412, R8234, R7471, R8427, R8366, R7885.
How the outputs were validated:
How validated: In PVS, validation is always by the first of the end users of a new variety – farmers – in on-farm participatory trials with participatory evaluation (using many techniques e.g., matrix ranking, surveys, organoleptic assessment) of many traits important to farmers. The trials were always replicated to provide a test of statistical significance. Where grain quality was important end users such as millers, traders and consumers helped test post-harvest quality traits. Validation of yield increases was often done by government organisations in on-station trials. See also outcome assessments.
The final step of PVS – the wider dissemination of farmer-preferred varieties – tests the acceptability of a variety on a much larger scale. No variety found acceptable in PVS trials proved unpopular when scaled up.
Who validated: Validation was done by farmers working with researchers from many organisations who were involved in the validation process :
The target groups of male and female farmers were from all social groups representing resource rich, medium and poor farmers. Wealth categories (usually three) were determined through local informants using key proxies for wealth such as landholding size. Evaluation of PVS trials included participating farmers (with a representative proportion of women) and their neighbours, relatives and friends (this always included some women). The evaluation of the post-harvest traits always involved women.
Increases in productivity: Tremendous increases in productivity were achieved over the local cultivars in many crops across countries (see Table 1) and were associated with other improvements (Table 2).
 Examples are: India: State Agricultural Universities, State Departments of Agriculture and extension agencies; GVT, CRS, ASA, and SOTEC. CIMMYT
Nepal: NARC, DADOs; LI-BIRD, FORWARD, CEAPRED, CIMMYT.
Bangladesh: DAE, Wheat Research Centre; PROVA; CIMMYT.
Table 1. Examples of yield increase of new varieties given in PVS trials
Table 2. Examples of improvement in traits other than grain yield
Where the Outputs were Validated:
Thousands of farmers validated the PVS process in four countries (India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Ghana) over wide areas (For where and when see Table 3). The validation was done for many crops with a wide range of NGO and GO collaborators. The process was validated across very diverse farming systems ranging from marginal rainfed to high potential production systems.
The number of farmers involved in the PVS process was never below hundreds in any crop since the validation was done across at least three years (Table 3).
Table 3. Where (region and farming system) and when the outputs were validated and with whom.
Who are the Users?
The PVS process has been adopted by many NGOs to quickly identify suitable new varieties. In other cases PVS is used with most of the emphasis being on step 4, the scaling up of farmer-preferred varieties. However, GOs have not always adopted PVS in its true sense and often misuse the PVS terminology to describe their largely unchanged old-style adaptive trials of a few selected varieties with a few well-off farmers grown under the recommended package of practices. In India, GOs such as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and State Agricultural Universities (SAUs) and in Bangladesh GOs such as the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) have not adopted the process in its full form.
In India, the process of PVS has been adopted mainly by NGOs such as GVT, CRS and ASA. The latter has institutionalized the PVS process by incorporating PVS in its NRM activities in more than 14 districts of MP covering about 2000 villages under the World Bank funded project District Poverty Initiatives Project (DPIP).
In Bangladesh, the NGO, PROVA, and the GO, the Wheat Research Centre of BARI, have adopted the PVS process.
In Nepal, LI-BIRD, FORWARD, CEAPRED, SUPPORT Foundation, CDRC are some of the NGOs that are using PVS. The Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) has accepted the adoption of PVS process although the NARC Farmers’ Field Trials are conducted with a few selected farmers using the recommended package of practices. In addition, several of the small grant projects funded by National Agricultural Research and Development Fund (NARDF) have been using PVS. It is also being used by a small grant project funded by DFID through the Agricultural Perspective Plan Support Project (APPSP) in 20 districts of Nepal.
Where the outputs have been used:
The use of the process PVS in some form covers the most important South Asia countries for the RIUP including India, Bangladesh and Nepal (Table 4). The geographical areas of activity of these NGOs are very diverse in the four countries (Table 4). The process of PVS is being used in Ghana as a result of PSP research (PSP06).
There are many other countries in which PVS is being used and this has been influenced by the PSP research to varying extents. In west Africa, WARDA has an active programme in many countries inspired by the initial publications from the PSP. CIMMYT have a large network of PVS activities in maize in many southern African countries (although the PVS methods used are much more complex than those developed by the PSP). CIAT in South America also have some PVS programmes.
Some farmer groups and self help groups created by these NGOs in these countries have also continued procuring seed of new varieties from research stations for testing.
In Bangladesh, the Wheat Research Centre in association with CAZS-NR and CIMMYT have undertaken PVS that they intend to adopt in four districts of Bangladesh (Jamalpur, Jessor, Rajshahi and Dinajpur) where wheat is an important crop.
Table 4. Examples of areas of use of PVS by NGOs and others.
Scale of Current Use:
As a result of the last 10 years’ work of CAZS-NR and its partners in South Asia the term PVS is universally accepted although the process is less widely accepted. The scale of application in terms of how many institutions have adopted it is limited but when it is adopted the scale in which it is used can be very large and involve thousands of farmers. In all of the examples given in Table 4 thousands of farmers will be involved. Some farmer groups and farmer societies also practice PVS on their own in the three countries.
However, the use of the PVS process in the GOs is minimal or it is poorly applied. The GOs tend to label the on-farm trials in their linear extension model for transfer of technology as PVS.
NARC in Nepal has been the most positive towards PVS and is the first country to officially recognise the importance of PVS and modify its seed regulatory frameworks. However, in India and Bangladesh the adoption of the PVS process by GOs is incomplete.
The adoption of PVS methods was rapid (it has spread to non-project partners within three years). It is difficult to say how PVS as a process is spreading but the outputs from PVS (new varieties) certainly are.
Policy and Institutional Structures, and Key Components for Success:
All countries have varietal promotion and popularisation programmes, all of which involve various types of farmer field testing. For example, in India on-farm trials are called adaptive trials, frontline demonstrations and minikit trials while in Nepal and Bangladesh they are called farmer field variety trials and demonstrations and minikit trials. In all these programmes, run by National Research Institutes, Agricultural Universities and Departments of Agriculture at the district and village level, farmers are given seed of new varieties to test under a package of practices. All can be adapted to undertake PVS if capacity is strengthened in more farmer-oriented techniques. These programmes have strong institutional structures. In India, there is a coordinated crop improvement project system involving ICAR Institutes, Agricultural Universities, the Private Sector and State Departments of Agriculture. In Nepal and Bangladesh, national institutes (NARC and BARC) have the central role whilst, in India, it has been easier to work at the state level.
We have found in the linear research to extension system that it is extensionists (who deal normally with minikit trials) who have assisted the most e.g., DADOs in Nepal and the DAE in Bangladesh. The key factors in success have been in demonstration that PVS works and communication of these results in carefully targeted workshops.
NGOs that are oriented towards NRM also conduct on-farm trials and several have helped promote the PVS process and its products. Key factors have been raising the awareness of NRM and the importance of new varieties. The NGOs have worked with community based organisations, self help groups, village administrations (Panchayats and Village Development Committees) and the private sector.
Policies are unhelpful for the adoption of PVS as release proposals give such a high emphasis to research station trials, but in Nepal changes in policy have been achieved and on-farm participatory trials have equal status to research trials. A key factor was active lobbying with policymakers. Reluctance to modify the existing procedures is directly related to the degree of lack of awareness of new methods.
Lessons Learned and Uptake Pathways
Promotion of Outputs:
Promotion is currently taking place in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Ghana as a result of the RNRRS research. Both GOs and NGOs are involved in the use of PVS although activities may often be restricted to only step 4 of the PVS process i.e., the scaling up of farmer-preferred varieties.
NGOs tend to use the PVS process effectively because they are more familiar with participatory research and working with poor farmers and can be strong advocates of these methods. NGOs directly associated with the PSP funded research continue to advocate these methods to others.
Government research institutions have greater limitations in working with farmers and tend to be partners rather than advocates. However, within extension services there are individual that vigorously promote these methods.
The scale for outputs of PVS research is large (measured in 1000s of farmers) and detailed information on promotion of PVS-identified varieties is available in other clusters.
Potential Barriers Preventing Adoption of Outputs:
Organisations that have directly worked with RNRRS projects have adopted the PVS process but there has been a greater emphasis on using the process rather than spreading it. Hence, there is a lack of awareness of the new approaches particularly among the staff responsible for the day-to-day running of field activities. When organisations learn of PVS there is often, at first, a lack of awareness of differences between the PVS and traditional approaches as participation is simply equated with on-farm trials. (‘We are already doing on farm trials therefore we are already doing PVS’ is a common argument because there is no realisation that scientist-directed, on-farm research is not participatory).
Another barrier is the mindset of often GO staff who are very familiar with the transfer of technology approach. In this approach farmers are unrealistically asked to use the recommended package of practices that maximises yields but not profits or risk reduction. It requires a considerable change to accept that farmers’ practices are the correct target environment and that farmers often are wise not to adopt a package of practice approach that increases investment and hence risk.
Mindsets are reinforced by official policies on varietal identification, release and dissemination. The recommendation of varieties is highly formalised process that is regulated by both customary practices and by law (seeds acts) that conflict with the participatory technology development approach. For example, in Bangladesh GOs are only officially permitted to distribute seed of recommended varieties. Hence, they tend to provide a limited choice to farmers by giving varieties pre-selected in research station conditions.
How to Overcome Barriers to Adoption of Outputs:
The most important factor to remove the barriers are the changes in mindsets through wide scale training of GO and NGO staff in the PVS process to appreciate the differences between the traditional and the PVS approach. There is a limited human resource capacity, particularly in GOs, on participatory approaches to research. In NGOs, there is often a limited capacity on natural resource, seed related issues so that participatory organisations either believe this to ‘already done by the government’ or underestimate the impact that can be achieved by simply changing the variety a farmer grows.
The formal system needs to be appropriately modified to accommodate PVS. Policy makers in the NGO and GO sectors need to be brought into this dialogue but they are rarely involved. In Nepal, by a concerted effort PSP researchers were able to change the official proforma used under the seeds act for the release of varieties. In the revised document on-station and participatory data were given equal status. Hence, in 2006 (after the end of the RNRRS), participatory data was accepted in conjunction with research station data as a basis for release of the rice variety Barkhe 3004 and mungbean varieties, Kalyan and Prateeksha.
There needs to be changes in curricula in Universities to mainstream participatory approaches.
Using Rogers (2003) diffusion of information as a framework for the lessons learnt:
Hence training of scientists and extensionists and the production of seed become the most important factors in getting this research into use.
Impacts On Poverty
Poverty Impact Studies:
Financial analysis: As one example of economic benefit from PVS we may take up the study conducted by Joshi and Joshi (2003) in Lunawada, Gujarat (R7542). Taking the case of only one variety of rice (Gurjari) promoted by PVS they estimated a total additional gain of £1.7 million by 2010. In addition, farmers gained extra time due to earlier maturity of the variety and lower cost of production due to a lower water and fertiliser use and hence minimal impact on the environment. PVS promoted more than one variety in rice and many varieties in other crops. This means that the potential impact of PVS is huge. Many examples of financial analysis of the impact of PVS (and COB) are given in other PSP clusters that deal with individual crops and regions.
How the Poor have Benefited (including gender and other poverty groups):
The yield gains in all crops clearly show that the participating farmers benefited from the new varieties that were given in PVS with gains as high as 84% (Table 1). The effect of yield increases on the livelihoods of people was not apportioned in terms of assets (although all of the assets of the livelihoods framework have been considered in the many impact assessments). We have found that increased yields increased food security and reduced the need for cash purchases in the market. Some household became grain surplus or their surpluses increased. Hence, the purchasing power of the participating farmers improved because of the additional income from the extra grain. Outcome assessments by individual and group assessment showed improvements in health care, schooling, nutrition, physical capital, and reduced indebtedness.
The impact assessments are many and detailed so, for brevity, all of the examples below relate to rainfed wheat.
In the PVS studies conducted in Lunawada, Gujarat, India in wheat all categories of farmers replaced old varieties on almost equal proportion of their areas in a short period of three years. Hence poor farmers benefit from adoption of PVS varieties as soon as the resource rich farmers. Compared to the PVS villages there was no change in the varietal spectrum in the control villages after three years (Table 5).
Table 5. Percent of wheat area under old varieties released before 1985 in Lunawada PVS villages in comparison to control villages in 1997 and 1999
In Uttar Pradesh, India, PVS (from 2002-2005) was effective in replacing old and obsolete varieties such as HUW-234 that occupied about 2.5 million ha of land in eastern India. Project scientists estimated that by 2005 about 100,000 ha of eastern UP was occupied by new varieties identified by the project. Farmers reported yield gains of up to 60%.
In Nepal, following three years of PVS, there was significant adoption of new wheat varieties that farmers had preferred from the trials. They replaced old and obsolete varieties in the project villages reducing the disease vulnerability of the wheat crop. They yielded 30% more grain, an additional 0.56 t ha-1 (an added harvest worth $100 per hectare). New varieties contributed considerably to food sufficiency compared to the base year of the project.
In Bangladesh, the yield increase over the predominant variety, Kanchan, by the adoption of new varieties from PVS was 0.7 t ha-1 (32% more yield) without any extra inputs increasing harvest value by $146 ha-1. Three varieties identified by the project have now been released. There was considerable increase in varietal diversity as the new varieties replaced 37% of the area under Kanchan after only two seasons.
Direct and Indirect Environmental Benefits:
Adverse Environmental Impacts:
Any adverse environmental impact is unlikely in the present case as the new varieties are scale neutral and do not require any special cultural, management and production inputs.
Coping with the Effects of Climate Change, or Risk from Natural Disasters:
Earlier maturing varieties have increased the resilience of farmers by making available extra time for other operations, lower cost of production, and reduced use of water and nutrients,
Varietal diversification is a means of coping with climate change. For example, the staggered deployment of varieties that take different times to mature reduces the risks from drought, diseases and pests, and adverse weather (high winds, hail, and floods). The new varieties not only do well under both drought-stress (upland varieties) and limited irrigation (transplanted varieties) but also respond to better conditions thus increasing the resilience of farmers to cope with variation. If PVS increases the number of varieties in a farmers’ portfolio then this can reduce risk and increase options.
Annex 1. A number of international training courses on ‘participatory crop improvement’ have been led by CAZS-NR or have significant contributions from CAZS-NR staff
Abbreviations not found elsewhere in the text:
Annex 2. References.
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Relevant Research Projects, with links to the