Sowing a Culture of Interdependence
We need seed savers in every community
Some 12,000 years ago, agriculture began when farmers started to gather seeds from wild plants and began sowing them to grow food. Over the past 12,000 years, farmers in these areas selected and domesticated all major food crops on which humankind survives today.
Thousands of different and genetically distinct varieties of our major food crops owe their existence to thousands of years of evolution and to careful selection and improvement by our farmer ancestors. This diversity protects the crop and helps it adapt to different environments and human needs.
Just a handful of major crop species (especially rice, wheat, maize, barley, sorghum/millet, potato, sweet potato/yam, sugar cane and soybean) supply most of the energy humans derive from plants. 103 species contribute 90% of the world's plant food supply. However thousands of species contribute to the food supply of the other 10%, which have considerable importance from a nutritional viewpoint. Not only cultivated species found in the farmers' fields, but also the genes from wild relatives are enormously important to invigorate cultivar gene pools.
Today, much of this diversity is being lost. Many unique varieties are disappearing and becoming extinct. "Genetic erosion" refers to the loss of genetic diversity between and within populations of the same species. The FAO estimates that since the beginning of this century, about 75% of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost.
Over the past 30 years, plant breeding in the industrialized world has become increasingly commercialized. In the marketplace today, plant breeding, agricultural biotechnology and commercial seed sales are now dominated by transnational seed and agrichemical corporations. Privatization of plant breeding in the industrialized world led to the development of "Plant Breeders' Rights," a system of patent-like protection that gives formal breeders private monopoly rights over the production, marketing and sale of their varieties for a period of up to 25 years. Many governments in the industrialized world adopted Plant Breeders' Rights as a mechanism to promote innovation in plant breeding and to allow seed companies to recoup their investment by collecting royalties on proprietary plant varieties. In recent years, intellectual property systems have been expanded and strengthened to afford the biotechnology industry greater control over seeds and germplasm. But intellectual property systems have evolved with little consideration for the impacts on farmers, food security and plant genetic resources. Intellectual property regimes increasingly deny farmers the right to save and propagate their seed, prohibit researchers from using proprietary germplasm (even for non-commercial purposes), and thus profoundly restrict access to and exchange of germplasm.
The tendency to focus on a small number of species masks the importance of plant species diversity to the world food supply. If agricultural development policies and conservation priorities center on only this handful of commodity crops, then we run the risk of undermining food security through loss of genetic diversity. The primary reason for the loss of crop genetic diversity is that commercial, uniform varieties are replacing traditional varieties. When farmers abandon their community-bred varieties to plant new ones, the old varieties become extinct.
The "Green Revolution" refers to the development of high-yielding grains that were introduced by international crop breeding institutions beginning in the 1950s. The spread of new varieties was dramatic. In the process, new and uniform cultivars from both the public and private sectors replaced community-bred varieties on a massive scale. To maintain pest and disease resistance in our major food crops, for instance, or to develop other needed traits like drought tolerance or improved flavor, plant breeders constantly require fresh infusions of genes.
Industrialized agriculture favors genetic uniformity. Vast areas are typically planted to a single, high-yielding variety or a handful of genetically similar cultivars using capital-intensive inputs like irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides to maximize production. A uniform crop is a breeding ground for disaster because it is more vulnerable to epidemics of pests and diseases. A pest or disease that strikes one plant spreads quickly throughout the crop.
The Green Revolution's universalistic approach to high-input, high-yielding plant breeding has been largely unsuccessful in less hospitable, site-specific farming environments. For the majority of the world's farmers, therefore, self-reliance in food production depends on adapting technologies and germplasm to a wide range of poor production environments
Crop genetic diversity is the key to food security and sustainable agriculture because it enables farmers to adapt crops suited to their own ecological needs and cultural traditions. Without this diversity, options for long-term sustainability and agricultural self-reliance are lost. The type of seed sown to a large extent determines the farmers’ need for fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Communities that lose community-bred varieties and indigenous knowledge about them, risk losing control of their farming systems and becoming dependent on outside sources of seeds and the inputs needed to grow and protect them. Without an agricultural system adapted to a community and its environment, self-reliance in agriculture is impossible.
Ultimately, farming communities hold the key to conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity, and to food security for millions of the world's poor. They are the innovators best suited to develop new technologies, germplasm, and management to their diverse ecosystems.
(Adapted from "Human Nature: Agricultural Biodiversity and Farm-based Food Security" by Hope Shand, an independent study prepared by the Rural Advancement Foundation International [RAFI] for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [December 1997].)
The role of community seed libraries
Seed libraries, often located in public libraries or other community gathering points, are institutions created for the purpose of sharing seeds. The idea is that a library patron can “check-out” seeds to grow themselves, let “go-to-seed”, and then return seeds to the library to share with other community members. The seeds circulated at lending libraries are usually regionally-adapted and heirloom (unlike most commercial “hybrid” seeds, so that the next generation of seeds will produce plants similar to the parent plant). The purpose of most seed libraries is to provide an alternative to genetically modified seeds, increase biodiversity and plant resilience, and reconnect local people with their food systems.