In October 2018, 93 people gathered for a strategic convening on resilient seed systems hosted by the Global Alliance, in Oaxaca, Mexico — a globally important centre of origin for corn and other crops. The combination of a diverse group of participants with deep expertise related to resilient seed systems, and the influence of Oaxaca’s landscape, farms, culinary traditions and unique biocultural history, led to important discussions, insights, and ideas.
Over the course of four days, the group explored principles for resilient seed systems, a common narrative, and engaged in small group discussions with the intent of drafting a shared action framework and identifying opportunities for coordinated action to support and enhance seed systems resilience. Building upon The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience, A Compendium of Perspectives on Agricultural Biodiversity from Around the World published in 2016, the convening was part of an ongoing process to work with diverse partners and stakeholders across sectors and geographies to protect and support agricultural biodiversity and seed systems, as cornerstones of agroecology and sustainable food systems.
“Mexican campesinos and farmers have the knowledge and practices that enable and foster evolution under domestication, as well as biological diversity at the agroecosystem and species levels. Landscape and evolutionary approaches help us re-think and value the historic contributions of small-scale farmers to agricultural biodiversity.” – Dr. José Sarukhán Kermez, CONABIO
Issues and challenges for resilient seed systems
At this moment, more than ever, there is a need for resilience in the context of climate change, and a need to transition to agroecological food systems and healthy, diverse, and culturally appropriate diets. Rapidly declining agricultural biodiversity means that, as a global community, it is imperative that we take concrete steps to create change and amplify the important benefits of resilient seed systems. Access to quality, locally adapted seed varieties, and the genetic diversity that contributes to pest and disease resistance, will be central in the face of climate change. The economic benefits related to seed exchange and sale and the diverse businesses that support seed systems need to be strengthened and supported to improve local livelihoods. Food and nutrition security, and sustainable, culturally appropriate diets, as well as strengthened social, cultural, and culinary traditions are key to improving health outcomes globally.
Complex challenges related to seed systems and agricultural biodiversity were identified and discussed by participants, such as the need for seed legislation and policy that does not hinder resilient seed systems. Farmers’ Rights and recognizing the role farmers and communities play to conserve local varieties were key themes. The complementarity and interrelationship between ex-situ/in-situ, formal and informal seed systems were noted, as was the need to move beyond false binaries to recognize “trans-situ” linkages. Challenges related to Intellectual Property Rights were discussed, as well as potential for alternative approaches, such as open source seed systems. The need for innovation, science and research in support of resilient seed systems surfaced as a key priority; in particular, science, research and innovation that includes farmers and communities as partners and collaborators. It was also acknowledged that power is a central issue related to resilient seed systems – biopower and the encroachment of state, science, and industry, as well as power issues related to colonial legacies and intersectional inequality.
Emerging opportunities to strengthen seed systems
Although the full set of opportunities and ideas emerging from the Oaxaca discussion are in the process of being compiled, five opportunities were identified and discussed by the participants.
1. New ways of thinking: Participants challenged each other to move beyond the dichotomies inherent in seed systems — in-situ, ex-situ, formal and informal — and recognize the complementarity between these systems. Resilient seed systems are embedded in socio-ecological, political and biocultural systems and need to be approached through a systems perspective.
2. Strengthen local, regional and farmer-managed seed systems: Participants suggested increasing support for seed guardians, farmer-to-farmer exchanges, and community seed banks. The importance of seed companies and their role in resilient local seed systems was emphasized.
3. Connecting resilient seed systems with the global policy agenda: There is increasing awareness about the importance of seed systems and the need to strengthen, protect, and improve these systems at all scales (local to international). Resilient seed systems are directly connected to a number of global policy priorities, including the Sustainable Development Goals, the Convention of Biological Diversity, the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the Paris Climate Agreement, Farmers’ Rights, Indigenous People’s Rights, and the New Urban Agenda. It is important to support the participation of farmers in meetings where global agreements are being negotiated, and that farmers’ voices are heard at the global level.
4. Advocating for favourable policies and legislation: Advocating for policies that enable resilient seed systems, and mobilizing against policies that restrict farmer seed systems was emphasized as a priority. This is perhaps the most contentious issue, with areas of disagreement between participants related to Intellectual Property Rights and new technologies.
5. Facilitating multi-actor collaboration: Participants proposed platforms across scales – local, regional, and global – as fora to exchange critical information going forward about climate change, agroecology, food sovereignty, best practices, and tools. The need for changing the narrative, amplifying positive experiences, telling stories, convening diverse actors, and influencing decision-makers was stressed.
“Communicating the positive impacts of resilient seed systems that are rooted in peasant farming, through stories and creative communications is an important way to connect seed leaders and compel decision-makers to act.” – Tejasvi Dantuluri, Deccan Development Society, India
For more information about our work on agroecology, please see our recent publication “On Agroecology & the Future of Food.”