Farmer citizen scientists gauge climate adaptation of crops

Surat Parvatam

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.41 Published online 4 April 2019

Involving the farmers as data gatherers in seed trials ensured that they were more adoptive to new crop varieties.

© Biodiversity International

Climate change studies in India got a crowdsourced citizen science push when a programme involving local farmers assessed how different wheat varieties were performing in the face of the country’s changing climate1.

Crop varieties often need to be replaced by those better adapted to an evolving climate. However, in many cases, new varieties are recommended on the basis of trials that may not represent local geographic conditions. This means farmers often end up growing crops that may perform worse than the local varieties they previously grew.

In an elegant solution to this problem, a recent study conducted by researchers from several countries, including India, involved farmers to collect information on crop variations in response to climate change. Outsourcing the data gathering to farmers also stimulated their interest in new varieties and ensured immediate application of the knowledge to local conditions.

In the citizen science approach, the researchers randomly assigned each farmer seeds of three crop varieties. The farmers grew these varieties and chronicled their performance on a simple, rank-based feedback form. The researchers then collected and analysed all these independent observations.

“Usually when new methods are implemented, there is scepticism about the farmers’ acceptance of the trial methods. However, from the time the farmers received a small ‘un-marked’ 3-variety package, they were quite adoptive and interested to try out the new varieties,” Arnab Gupta, a member of the research team from Bioversity International, told Nature India.

The study was spread across different landscapes and seasons to capture the variations in space and time. The dataset included 10,477 plots of bread wheat in India, 842 plots of common bean in Nicaragua, and 1,090 plots of durum wheat in Ethiopia.

For Ethiopia and Nicaragua, the performance of different wheat varieties was related to lowest or highest night temperature. However, the performance of Indian varieties was related to the diurnal temperature range or the difference between maximum and minimum daily temperature.

Ambica Paliwal, another member of the research team, said the trials gave an insight into how different varieties adapt to climate from the perspective of farmers, the end users of the seeds.  A farmer in Bhatadasi village of Bihar, Leena Devi, says the exercise with the new trial varieties has been meaningful. The earlier rice varieties she grew gave better yield only if there were good rains. “The trial varieties perform well even under less rains,” she says.

The Indian Council for Agriculture research (ICAR), which funded the project, already uses the approach at some of its agricultural science centres (Krishi Vigyan Kendras) in central and north India to test the suitability of different crop varieties.

Citizen science projects are low on cost and do not strictly require technical personnel. A similar project SeasonWatch collects data about the impact of climate change on plants as volunteers observe and record the processes of leafing, flowering and fruiting changes. Such projects are gaining importance in countries like India where lack of resources can be an impediment in producing large-scale climatic analysis.


1. van Etten, J. et al. Crop variety management for climate adaptation supported by citizen science. Pro. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (2019) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1813720116