Climate change: Diversity the mother of invention?

by Jeremy Cherfas on April 1, 2007

Our man with the factor 30 sunscreen and the big umbrella writes:

Climate change is the new black. Everyone’s talking about, if you haven’t experienced it, well frankly you haven’t lived. We’ve heard this week that 39% of the world will have novel climates in 2100 (via Eco-Justice Blog). The concept of “novel” climates is a little abstract, but the authors of the study did a good job of bringing attention to the fact that new solutions are needed to adapt to climate change. It’s not always just a question of transferring existing technologies and practices. Without alienating the good people who invited me to write this, I’m afraid that for these areas conventional crop improvement of some of the hardiest crops is perhaps the most rational means of confronting this. (No alienation here: Ed.) Either that or give up on agriculture in these regions and intensify in the less affected regions.

But the study leaves 61% of climates where change is predicted, but to a climate already found currently on the earth. That’s a calming thought, as long as of course we have faith in the conventional climate models and hope the doomsday scenarios don’t come true. This opens up a world of opportunities for agricultural biodiversity, where an eternal optimist like me could even think something good might come of it. After all, adversity is the mother of invention. Perhaps the building blocks for agriculture adapted to the Brazilian cerrados will come from landraces used by farmers from the Sahel belt in Niger.

What do we need to do?

We need to get out of the abstract paradigm that we’ve constructed of ex situ collections, leading to crop breeding of blanket solutions, followed by a less than optimal delivery of new seed technologies. Farmers have exchanged seeds informally for millennia, and the rich diversity of landraces is testament to the fact that this works, especially in the face of change. We need to go back a hundred years, and direct all our 21st century advances in international diplomacy and treaties, communication technologies and truly use our ex situ collections to redeploy diversity and stimulate a diversification of agricultural systems.

Why? Well for starters studies point to climate change impacts being highly localized. To over-simplify, deploying a new seed technology across an entire region would result in improved adaptation for some, but a failure to capitalize on an opportunity for others. Of course, that’s the flip side of diversity: how to avoid sub-optimal use of diversity? How can we help a farmer to use the most adapted seed, maximizing the opportunity without being over-exposed to risk? Plenty of valid research questions.

Of course, we need to do a lot more and diversity is unfortunately not capable of confronting climate change alone. But I’m interested to hear ideas of how we might operationalise the redeployment of agrobiodiversity, especially in marginal areas.

From Andy Jarvis. If you have ideas, leave a comment.

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Ron April 4, 2007 at 2:45 pm

I agree completely that we need to get the ex situ collections into the field and into farmers hands. Saving seeds is not enough, there must be continual selection by farmers in the field to maintain the viability of crop varieties.

Of course for there to be seed exchange and selection, there must be farmers. Maintenance of seed varieties is a community process involving many small farmers linked in regional networks. For this to work, we need to have healthy, viable rural communities. The agribusiness, globalized-trade policies of today do not encourage such communities, on the contrary. So part of “what we must do” is reorient policy to favor smallholder farmers and their families.

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