Local seeds have shown a decline in Southern Belize Print E-mail
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Friday, 14 June 2019 00:00

Across the World, there has been a decline of locally available seeds; as a result, this poses a threat to food security for countless of its inhabitants.  As an example and after about a year of work, two scientists, Anthony Peller and Catherine Smith working out from the Ohio State University and the University of Edinburgh, respectively,  confirmed to us two  weeks ago that the variety of local corn and bean in the Toledo District have dwindled considerably.

But how can Belize’s germplasm be conserved for future generations to enjoy, even though satellite images as far back as 1976 are showing that the cattle frontier in the South is ever encroaching?  Even as the experts are advising us to conserve our germplasm now before we lose it. Then there is the threat from externally sourced hybrid seeds, which can eventually eclipse our local seed materials.

Plant genetic resource conservation can be considered from two aspects. In situ conservation involves the establishment and maintenance of natural reserves where species are allowed to remain in optimal ecosystems with the minimum of management. On the other hand, ex situ conservation involves the use of botanic gardens, field plantations, seed stores and gene banks.

Under the stem there was once a seed and with that seed, we may come to rely on our joint food security.

“With every seed you get a plant and every plants will have its own seeds so you can proliferate seeds. One ‘Ix Pelon’ bean produces thousands of seeds, so if we really want to save the very seeds that have supported the people of this area [Mesoamerica] for so long and that are indigenous and are well adapted here, then that’s  the kind of thing we need to do,” says Dr. Anabel Ford, the President of Exploring Solutions, who has been following the 8000 year old tradition of Maya Horticultural practices in Western Belize for many decades and who now supports master forest gardeners in both Belize and Guatemala.

Dr. Elma Kay, the current Science Director for the Environmental Research Institute at the University of Belize believes that it is now time for Belize to “…look at a structure for making sure that germplasm remains intact both in the fields.”

“I think Belize has already some good things in place in terms of that for example, we currently have a moratorium on genetically modified organisms. You know that for example with corn, the introduction of genetically modified corn for example has been something that has caused the demise of the native germplasm and varieties of corn,” says Dr. Kay.

“But we need more frameworks like that are looked at in a holistic manner.  I think so that that germplasm can be safe both in situ and ex situ, not just in the fields, but also we do have to look at the idea of seed banks and the other thing that we have to consider. If we do not have the resources there is always partnerships that we could craft with other organization so the international partners for example some of the botanical gardens across the world,” she continued.

But in the conservation of seeds, we need to be careful warns  Dr. Ulric Trotz , the Deputy Director and Science Advisor for the Belmopan based Caribbean Community Climate Change Center.

“In situ conservation systems where you put in systems where the community can conserve that germplasm, [while] ex situ conservation take it out of the environment. Unfortunately, over the years once they get into the national seeds the ownership is for the public and big companies [like] Monsanto come to these, they have access to that seed material they carry their  genetic manipulations and they come with what they consider to be super crop, and the farmer has to pay the market price.”

Dr. Trotz, who is from Guyana, recommends though that communities develop local botanic gardens, whereby it is developed in the natural environment. Under their watchful eye, the community can place their ownership stamp on the germplasm so that any benefits from scientific work in the international arena is also returned to the community. “What is happening now is that the seeds get out into the international arena by the time they get back to the community they are unrecognizable and also unaffordable,” he reports.

Belize’s Chief Agriculture Officer Andrew Harrison agrees. “The long term is for food security and to lower the dependence from these big companies in providing the basic seeds for our food security”, he says.

In the South of the Country, Anthony Peller and Catherine Smith have been urging for seed exchanges among farmers. In that area, corn comes in about eight varieties and their interest has been in determining their time periods for growth spurts and flowering. With the help of the People of Santa Cruz, the Barilla Center, the Kin Ajaw Association and InFACT, these two scientists are now aiming to improve the diversity of corn.

At the Department of Agriculture there have been numerous meetings and workshops in planning to secure our germplasm. At the Central Farm Research Station in the Cayo District, fruit trees are carefully tended in the hope that their genetic diversity can be secured.

But setting up a facility for the long-term storage of seeds in cool temperatures is costly, a reason why “…most countries don’t have that in place,” says Andrew Harrison. However; even after some catastrophic event that would erase our germplasm, Belize will still be able to source materials from the potato, corn and rice germplasm banks in Peru, Mexico and the Phillipines, respectively. So, there is still a ray of hope in our existential crisis with original seeds and other plant materials.