More from IIED on landraces and climate change

Jeremy took IIED researchers to task a few days ago over their antipathy to GURTs, as articulated in a recent press release. One of the researchers quoted in that release, Krystyna Swiderska, is now the subject of an interview. GURTs don’t come up, but Dr Swiderska is clearly not completely against GMOs in principle:

If GM crops were produced with the people who need them and who will plant them, and they are specifically addressing their needs, then maybe they can be helpful.

Her main concern is to safeguard the rights of farmers.

We need to recognize farmers’ rights to maintain genetic diversity. We also need to protect land rights, cultural and spiritual values, and customary laws. Traditional knowledge is dependent on genetic diversity and vice versa and those two are dependent on farmers having rights to land and plant varieties.

Asked if traditional farmers could feed rising populations in a warming world, she points out that “there are technologies based on traditional seed varieties that can increase yields.” These technologies mainly turn out to be participatory plant breeding. I would have liked to see more discussion of this topic.

I’ll try to follow up on some work on genetic erosion I was not aware of:

Our research on rice in India’s eastern Himalayas, on potatoes in the Peruvian Andes, and on maize in southwest China, found significant reductions of traditional varieties in the last 10 to 20 years. There used to be 30 to 40 varieties of a crop being planted but now there are maybe 5 to 10 varieties.

2 Replies to “More from IIED on landraces and climate change”

  1. Farmers can feed people, but expecting farmers to feed rising populations indefinitely is like asking property companies to keep subdividing land for a rising world population. In both industries, limits exist. What can society do to reduce the demands made on farmers and farm land? And how can GM crops, land-races, and traditional seed varieties help us?

    Limiting human population growth often seems to be a taboo subject, when in fact there may be morally and socially-acceptable ways to limit overall growth while leaving latitude for individual, local, regional and national freedoms to choose different ways of living.

    Farmers have a responsibility to feed people, but people also have a responsibility not to ask farmers for too much, or for the impossible. We all have responsibilities to think about how to achieve a dynamic, creative balance in our relationship with the world.

    The role of agriculture is not to produce more food indefinitely, but to produce what it can in sustainable, adaptive, resource-enriching, and creative ways. The apparent need to “feed rising populations” seems to create an mental panic that stops us thinking creatively about what farmers can do, and what agriculture can be.

    I do not believe our world population will keep rising indefinitely; we will find ways to limit our own growth, both nicely and horribly, and nature will do the job for us, both nicely and horribly. Even Borlaug recognised this. He was not naive about the ultimate limits to the Green Revolution. He did his best to create a space for society to change and adapt – but as a plant scientist he could not work on all fronts simultaneously.

    If we could see all the good and bad things happening around the world now, simultaneously, I expect that it would all add up to a vision of global restraint and constraint that is already happening.

    In agriculture, we need to prepare for all contingencies (global warming, global cooling, population growth, population decline, etc.), which is why I would emphasize the need for science and society to give the adaptive, creative and cultural aspects of agriculture as much attention as the productive aspects.

    “Asked if traditional farmers could feed rising populations in a warming world, she points out that “there are technologies based on traditional seed varieties that can increase yields.” (Dr Swiderska, cited above)

    True, but increasing yields might not be the most important role for traditional seed varieties.

  2. I recently discovered this blog, and will be an assiduous reader, and more.

    The bottom line here is that an entity supposed to, or pretending to, work for development has shot against an international conference whose purpose was to promote improved access by farmers to quality seed and thereby improve their livelihoods. It has done so using the tricks that are standard tools for the many non-governmental organisations, private businesses incorporated as non-profit organisations and academics who profess, in the final analysis, that the future lies in the past.

    In this particular instance there was scaremongering based on the reference to GURTs. Yet the IIED cannot ignore that there are no GURT varieties on the market and that they are the subject of a moratorium under the CBD. Furthermore, if the IIED had a minimum of understanding of agriculture and agricultural socio-economics, they would not ignore that GURT varieties are unlikely to be taken up by poor farmers (as a matter of fact, a GURT variety must incorporate an enormous improvement over ‘conventional’ varieties for the GURT system to be profitable for the breeding and seed industry and acceptable to farmers; and even then, it will have to compete with non-GURT varieties showing the same improvement).

    There was also a deliberate lie with the “Western governments and the seed industry want to upgrade the UPOV Convention”, for there is no plan to tinker with the Convention.

    We could write pages and pages on the fallacies they put together to get their point across. Here are two:

    1. “…while the international treaty on the protection of new varieties of plants – known as UPOV – protects the profits of powerful private corporations it fails to recognise and protect the rights and knowledge of poor farmers.” The UPOV Convention does not “protect the profits…” but provide the basis for rights accruing to breeders, whether “powerful” or tiny (note that “corporate” is the enemy); and it does not “fail to recognise…” simply because that is not its purpose.

    2. “Small-scale farmers rarely benefit when outsiders such as corporate plant breeders make use of their traditional seeds to develop new varieties, because the plant breeders acquire the intellectual property rights when they test and register the new varieties.” One would need to look here at “small-scale farmers rarely benefit”, at the notion of “outsider”, again at the reference to “corporate”, at the alleged causation link and, if you wish, at the reference to variety registration (which in Europe and other parts of the world refers to the lists or catalogues of varieties admitted to trade) creating rights.

    Krystina Swiderska’s interview flagged in this post is also fraught with such fallacies, and with outright errors (consider for instance: “Minerals or vitamins in traditional crops, Vitamin A for example, are being lost”).

    As to GMOs, she said that: “If GM crops were produced with the people who need them and who will plant them, and they are specifically addressing their needs, then maybe they can be helpful.” A careful analysis of her statement reveals that it does not match the “Dr Swiderska is clearly not completely against GMOs in principle”. It is a long version for the short ‘no’. Consider the language: GM crops “maybe” … “can” be helpful if “they are specifically addressing [the relevant farmers’] needs”. Sloppy writing and nonsense unworthy of a researcher and professional writer. And since they will never be produced “with the people who need them” – but, as everybody knows, for – she will never accept them.

    We actually should write pages and pages because this kind of rhetoric pollutes the debate and the policy-making process, to the detriment of poor and small-scale farmers who are thereby maintained in a poverty trap.

    One particular issue here is the “there are technologies based on traditional seed varieties that can increase yields”, supposedly referring to ‘participatory plant breeding’. To be politically correct these days, one must ardently support and promote ‘participatory plant breeding’. Yet, this has considerable snags.

    This, first of all, is a subtle way of opposing the modern structure of agriculture which has entrusted plant breeding to specialised entities (public or private; small or large; family-owned, corporate or co-operative; and with a local, regional, national or international base); and seed production to specialised farmers. In short, agribusiness.

    Incidentally, we would be extremely surprised by the result of a poll among the advocates of the rights of farmers, indigenous people, etc. as to how, in their opinion, modern varieties are bred and where their seeds are produced. Robin Willoughby, for instance, writes in another flak shot against the World Seed Conference that “…the type of seeds that are promoted and sold to poor farmers by the global seed companies (and protected by IP rights) are often ‘hybrid’ in form, meaning that they have been bred in a lab from two parent lines.” Krystina Swiderska herself spoke in her interview of “manufacturers of modern seeds”!

    What ‘participatory breeding’ means is somewhat nebulous. If it is to allow a farming community to pick and choose from an assortment of lines or near-lines, then it comes pretty near to time-honoured extension work. Except that it usually presupposes that breeding is conducted by a public entity (exclude the ugly corporate profiteers…) and that the farmers in the community would then produce their own seed; this should not be equated with ‘maintain the variety’: the n+1th generation of seed will be the progeny of the nth generation and will have accumulated all the accidents of the successive cropping seasons. It may also mean that an existing diversity is replaced, over the entire territory of that community, by a single variety… not very good for diversity.

    If it goes along the lines being advocated by IIED and its likes, then it is a recipe for, at best, extremely slow progress, in short, in view of the challenges ahead, disaster. What the so-called ‘farmer-breeder’ is doing in, say, wheat or rice is separating a rather large fraction of his crop for use as seed in the next planting season. His selection pressure is close to nil and certainly not oriented; natural selection may be haphazard and, in terms of the farmer’s interest, even counter-productive; and the typical selection basis is narrow, being an assemblage of similar lines with a small number of segregating individuals. In the case of maize, Krystina Swiderska refers in her interview to Chinese farmers wanting to “improve crop varieties more quickly than they can traditionally”. One must wonder how, and at what speed, they improve a cross-pollinating crop.

    Finally, Krystina Swiderska’s final remark that “rather than the usual process whereby plant breeders obtain traditional varieties and the farmers get nothing, here breeders are giving farmers a share of the benefits” testifies to the nature and magnitude of the problem: ignorance about the realities of modern agriculture or refusal to acknowledge them, idealisation of the so-called ‘traditional agriculture’; undue generalisation from anecdotal experiences in marginal areas or with particular crops.

    When plant breeders use traditional varieties to produce a new variety, what the farmers do get is the new and improved variety.

    What is required is not a system that maintains the poorest farmers out of this virtuous circle, but one which integrates them into the economy.

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