Tuesday, 22 May 2007

STARTING WITH THE SEED – BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY, CLIMATE CHANGE AND FOOD SECURITY


By JOHN THOMPSON, STEPS Centre member

Each year, the 22nd of May is celebrated as the ‘International Day for Biological Diversity’. This year’s theme has been designated as ‘Biological Diversity and Climate Control’. The links between biodiversity and climate change run both ways: biodiversity is threatened by human-induced climate change but, biodiversity resources can reduce the impacts of climate change on people and production.

For example, the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity can strengthen ecosystem resilience, improving the ability of ecosystems to provide critical services in the face of increasing climatic pressures. Moreover, the conservation of habitats can reduce the amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere. Currently deforestation is estimated to be responsible for 20 per cent of human-induced CO2 emissions.

One area of particular concern in the interactions between biological diversity and climate change is the conservation of stress tolerant crops, which can reduce the disastrous impacts of environmental shocks and stresses, such as drought, insect pest infestations and crop diseases. The biological diversity found within each crop is the raw material that enables plant breeders and farmers to develop higher yielding, more nutritious, and stress-resistant varieties. Thus, it represents the cornerstone of successful adaptation to climate change in many risk-prone farming environments, such as those found in Sub-Saharan Africa. But much of this diversity, held in developing country gene banks, is threatened by decades of under-funding and neglect, as well as by wars and natural disasters.

Thus, it should be welcome news to anyone concerned about biodiversity, climate change and food security issues to hear that the UK Government announced today that it is donating £10 million (US$20 million) to the Global Crop Diversity Trust an independent international organisation which exists to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide. This follows an even larger donation of nearly £15 million (US$30 million) to the Trust from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. To date, the Trust has received pledges of over £67.5 million (US$135 million).

Among other things, these crop biodiversity preservation grants are meant to fund programmes to conserve so-called ‘orphan crops’ – such as sorghum, millet, yam, cassava and cowpea. These are crops that are important to poor people, but largely neglected by modern plant breeding because of their limited commercial value, but which have the potential to fill seasonal food shortfalls, provide essential vitamins and micronutrients, produce reasonably high yields in unfertile, acid soils, and tolerate drought conditions.

Until recently, the majority of the world's seed collections have been operating on extremely tight budgets. Many developing countries find it difficult to keep the electricity running, let alone support the activities needed to ensure the safe long-term conservation of the crop diversity they hold. Yet this diversity is critical in the fight to improve food security, particularly at a time of rapid environmental change and growing uncertainty. But there can be no food security without first securing the basis of our food production – the genetic diversity of every crop.

The initiative announced this week by the Global Crop Diversity Trust and its partners aims to secure over 95 percent of the endangered crop diversity held in developing country genebanks and aid the implementation of the new UN Food and Agriculture Organization's International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources. Some of the funds will finance research into inexpensive conservation techniques for crops that are difficult to cultivate and reduce conservation costs by 75 percent, improving the security of the collections of such crops. The grant will also fund a global information system allowing plant breeders to search genebanks worldwide ― including existing banks in Ethiopia, Rwanda and the southern Africa region ― for strains that can survive diseases and cope with climate change. The facility will include 4,000,000 samples of more than 2,000 species of more than 150 crops, amounting to 85 percent of the diversity of all agricultural crops.

By providing access to crop genetic information, plant breeders in developing countries may be able to adapt their crops to varieties that will grow in different climate conditions. Investing in this future may help improve the resilience and capacity of agricultural systems to adapt to climate change.

What appears to be missing from this new international initiative – at least from the press releases and associated news bulletins – is a clear role for the very people who have helped create the tremendous agricultural biodiversity that scientists are now seeking to conserve – the farmers. Decisions about what agricultural biodiversity is to be conserved, how it should be managed and for whom, should be based on an understanding of local livelihoods and people’s own definitions of well being. Most agricultural professionals have tended to project their own categories and priorities onto local people and their agricultural systems. In particular, their views of the realities of the poor, and what should be done, have generally been constructed from a distance and sometimes for professional convenience. This implies the need for the adoption of a learning process approach in the management of agricultural biodiversity and its functions.

This will involve mobilising farming communities, including indigenous and local communities, to help them develop, maintain and apply of their knowledge and practices in the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and encouraging developing countries to set up and maintain local level forums for farmers, scientists and other stakeholders to evolve genuine partnerships to identify, conserve and develop seed varieties that meet the needs of the poor.

To achieve this, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and its partners need to use some of their substantial new funding to help:
• ensure inclusive and equitable representation (gender, class, ethnic origin, age) in the selection of crop varieties and setting of priorities
• provide capacity building for technical and scientific personnel to foster the participatory skills, attitudes and behaviour needed to learn from farmers and rural people
• organise institutional space and incentives for professionals to understand social and cultural complexity as well as the origins of agribiodiversity
• support joint problem-solving, participatory research agendas and co-management agreements between local people, scientists and others
• promote the participatory monitoring and evaluation of national policies, land use plans, and production technologies to include the perspectives of all stakeholders
• encourage the use of local indicators and criteria in monitoring and evaluating projects, as well as guiding subsequent technical support, policy changes and allocation of resources for agricultural biodiversity conservation and management.

John Thompson
Co-Convenor, STEPS Food and Agriculture Domain
Research Fellow, Knowledge, Technology and Society Team, Institute of Development Studies
j.thompson@ids.ac.uk .

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