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Climate change is an important issue today, and the people arguably most affected by unpredictable weather patterns are farmers.
Each year, they must purchase and plant seeds that will survive appropriate weather conditions and eventually yield a healthy harvest. An unexpected cold spell or heavy rains can seriously damage crops, financially ruining a farmer.
In order to combat this problem in developing nations, some scientists are turning to crowdsourcing. As part of its Seeds for Needs initiative, for example, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) has been looking at how to turn farmers into citizen scientists.
Seeds for Needs, according to CCAFS’s Jacob van Etten, is a “series of projects… to give farmers more access to crop varieties and landraces to help them adapt to climate change.” As part of that initiative, the CCAFS is currently running a program in Vaishali, a district in India’s northeastern Bihar state, to test wheat varieties.
Variety is key here: each kind of crop has unique traits, and some particular crop types may be more suitable than others to a region. Wheat, for example, is highly sensitive to heat during flowering, writes van Etten, so planting varieties of wheat that flower earlier and later than usual can ensure that at least part of the harvest is safe.
Here is where the crowdsourcing aspect of Seeds for Needs comes in. To find out which crop varieties perform best, CCAFS is turning farmers into citizen scientists by asking them to evaluate the harvest. Van Etten describes the project thus:
Each farmer grows a combination of three varieties drawn from a broader set of ten. The farmer then ranks them according to different characteristics such as early vigour, yield, and grain quality. The idea is to make things as easy as possible for the farmers, and then we, the researchers, use some nifty statistics methods to combine the rankings and share the results with the farmers. With this information, farmers can then identify the best varieties for their conditions and preferences. Farmers become citizen crop scientists, actively contributing to science with their time, effort and expertise. In India, 800 farmers are now testing wheat varieties as citizen scientists.
Van Etten laid out his plan for a project like this in a 2011 paper titled “Crowdsourcing Crop Improvements in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Proposal for a Scalable and Inclusive Approach to Food Security.” While that paper focused on another region, the underlying process is the same: distribute seeds to a large number of farmers, have them report the harvest results, analyze the data, and share the information among their communities. Adding gamification elements would incentivize participation, the author writes. Farmers in areas with low internet penetration could report their observations through mobile phones.
The goal is to make the crop improvement process cheaper and faster, van Etten claims. The early results in Vaishali have been positive enough for CCAFS to plan two similar programs in East Africa and Central America.
We reached out to van Etten to learn more about the project and will update our readers when we hear back. In the meantime, check out the presentation below to learn more about Seeds for Needs.