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The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience

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Commentary:Recommendations: A Way Forward for Agricultural Biodiversity

Pat Mooney is the Founder of RAFI (Rural Advancement Fund International)—later renamed ETC Group—and has decades of experience supporting civil society advocacy around development and trade issues. Much of Mooney’s work has centred on promoting agricultural biodiversity, with a more recent focus on the regulation of biotechnology. He is the author of several books on these issues, and is a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”).

After more than 40 years of documented, practical experience with farmers’ organizations and civil society groups in seed saving and plant breeding around the world, it is time to move beyond general statements of support to action. The following initiatives could be considered.

1.
Initiatives that facilitate seed access

“Farmers’ organizations not only need access to seeds, but also to practical information on seed pests and diseases, growing conditions, and future climate implications.”

Despite the rhetoric paid to farmers rights within the FAO ITPGRFA, the CGIAR gene banks system and national governments, farmers’ organizations generally feel disenfranchised when it comes to access to national or international gene banks. Part of the problem is language and cultural barriers, but part of it is also a lack of interest by gene banks in supporting farmer access. Farmers’ organizations not only need access to seeds, but also to practical information on seed pests and diseases, growing conditions, and future climate implications. These concerns have been raised with the ITPGRFA Secretariat as well as with the Global Crop Diversity Trust and some national governments. There is significant goodwill to work toward a solution.

1.1
The ITPGRFA should establish an Office for Farmer Seed Exchanges within the Secretariat in Rome.

This office should be capable of receiving requests from farmers’ organizations (including individual farmers) and forwarding these to appropriate national or international gene banks. The office should have the capacity to have requests translated into working languages of the United Nations and should be able to follow through on requests to ensure that they have been met as far as is practicably possible. The office should maintain an electronic list of all requests received and information about how they have been disposed. The existence of the office should be widely publicized through national governments, international and national farmers’ organizations and civil society organizations active in food and agriculture. Initially, the office may only require one skilled staff member but may eventually expand to two or three staff persons processing requests. The office should provide a website and basic information in multiple languages on the services provided. Print materials to this effect should be made available to farmers’ organizations, CSOs and governments. Funding should be available for an experimental three-year time period. The office may cost from US$100,000 to $150,000 per year, and the money will have to be found from sources external to FAO. All costs related to gene bank seed multiplication, shipment, phytosanitary regulation expenses, etc., should be borne by the gene banks involved.

The ITPGRFA Secretariat in Rome has established an officer responsible for farmers’ rights who is contracted to work with Indonesia and Norway who are the co-hosts for the farmers’ rights global conference that will take place in Bali, Indonesia September 27–30, 2016. This is an encouraging step.

1.2
The ITPGRFA, perhaps in collaboration with GCDT, should establish a farmer-friendly electronic information system characterizing gene bank accessions, including information related to pests, diseases and climatic conditions.

The database should also provide mapping information that would help farmers and their organizations evaluate the most appropriate germplasm sources given changing climatic conditions. This information should be available in all of the languages of the UN system and the ITPGRFA/GCDT office should, as far as possible, be prepared to assist in providing additional translations. France has expressed interest in facilitating such an initiative. The cost of this initiative could be relatively high, but should be supported by the same funders that have expressed interest in supporting other new germplasm database endeavours. In fact, the ITPGRFA should commit to spending resources at least equal to those provided directly or indirectly for other information systems of use to larger institutions.

One concern to address is that there is considerable alarm among both Global South governments and civil society organizations that the DivSeek (super database for gene banks and researchers) initiative being led by GCDT and the ITPGRFA Secretariat has not only got off to the wrong start, but is developing a high-tech system that will not be practically accessible to gene banks or farmers in the South. There is general recognition that DivSeek would be a good idea and an important contribution in responding to climate change if there were more trust in the germplasm community. From the outset, however, the initiative has been clumsy: (1) describing itself as a contribution to “climate-ready” agriculture, mimicking Monsanto’s Roundup Ready slogan and clearly worse than “climate-smart” agriculture; (2) in its goals, the initiative proposes to organize the policy for the many complicated intellectual property issues around germplasm information—an activity that requires national policy changes and even legislation well beyond the capacities of the initiative; (3) draft text for the initiative also proposes to encourage funders not to support any gene bank initiatives that don’t comply with the initiative, which is asking for trouble; and (4) most importantly, the initiative doesn’t begin with the obvious question: “What do our end users —farmers’ organizations—need and want?”

The GCDT technical staff agreed with this critique and wants to reframe the initiative to ensure that the access needs of farmers’ organizations are included in what might possibly be a wide-tech as opposed to a high-tech structure. They also recognized the polemics of the language that has been employed which had not occurred to them. We talked about convening a workshop or side event in Indonesia during the farmers’ rights conference, to discuss the initiative and seek advice. We discussed the options of either the GCDT itself convening such a meeting; the meeting being co-hosted with ETC Group or others such as IFOAM; or civil society organizations inviting the GCDT staff to present at a meeting to discuss information systems in Indonesia. We agreed that we don’t want to lose the initiative, we want to get the issues on the table and make sure that the end product has value for the South and farmers. Some financial support for a workshop in Indonesia, including travel for some panelists, might be helpful. Side events with food in Bali—from past experience—are excruciatingly expensive.

1.3
Either the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, the ITPGRFA or the GCDT should undertake a formal survey of major national and international gene banks to ascertain their current practices with regard to facilitating farmer access to their collections.

This survey should seek specific data on facilitated access to farmers since 2007 and should draw conclusions on the various financial or technical barriers that reduce farmer access. Importantly, this survey should include a study of barriers to farmer-to-farmer seed exchanges both within and across national borders. This information should be published and made available to the Governing Body of the ITPGRFA.

“There is general acknowledgement from Global Crop Diversity Trust technical staff that the scope and quality of information from national and international gene banks has declined in recent years, and less is known about who is accessing gene banks and for what purposes.”

There is general acknowledgement from GCDT technical staff that the scope and quality of information from national and international gene banks has declined in recent years, and less is known about who is accessing gene banks and for what purposes. Additionally, many gene banks treat access requests from the private sector as confidential business information which might be understandable at the level of accessions but should not be necessary at the level of species. There is general agreement amongst the staff that more information should be available, and that the barriers to farmer access are not clear and should be identified. Ideally, it would be good to have such a study underway or completed in time for the farmers’ rights conference or at least in time for the next meeting of the Governing Body in 2017.

2.
Initiatives supporting on-farm plant conservation

Farmers have been conserving crop genetic diversity for more than 12,000 years. Contrary to some assumptions, conservation strategies have assumed that seeds must be saved for several growing seasons, not just the upcoming season. However, given the impact of climate change on agriculture, farmers need to have secure access to their own seed supply for as long as possible. They also may need to conserve a wider diversity of genetic resources than customary. The following initiatives will strengthen their resilience:

2.1
Although there has been research into farmer strategies regarding seed storage by community, climate and crop, this research has been fragmented and generally ignores gender considerations. Further, the research has not been situated within the framework of climate change resiliency.

“It could be useful to farmers’ organizations to work with researchers to undertake a study of the systems and practices employed by different communities to determine not only how seed should be stored, but why and for what purposes. It would be important to understand how existing storage strategies might be augmented so that seeds can be kept for a longer time.“

It could be useful to farmers’ organizations to work with researchers to undertake a study of the systems and practices employed by different communities to determine not only how seed should be stored, but why and for what purposes. It would be important to understand how existing storage strategies might be augmented so that seeds can be kept for a longer time. The study might also disclose the need (if any) for enhanced strategies for new techniques. The study should also seek the views of farmers and their organizations on the need for longer or larger seed storage systems held by their communities or organizations. Is there, for example, a need to have access to a greater diversity over time? Does this diversity need to be stored locally? Because of the sensitivities involved, such a study should be conducted in conjunction with farmers’ organizations but could otherwise include the Global Alliance, ITPGRFA or the GCDT.

2.2
In tandem with the above survey, research is needed to evaluate new techniques for long-term seed storage under ambient or near-ambient conditions.

This research should include the extreme drying experiments pioneered by César Gómez in Spain as well as the innovative work using ceramic beads that can be used to both dry seeds and keep food. Some investigations are underway through the Dutch gene bank, Kew Gardens and the Brazilian gene bank, CENARGEN. It seems possible to store orthodox seed for 40 years or longer extremely inexpensively under ambient conditions (no electricity or cooling).

2.3
In cooperation with GCDT (and possibly other parties), it would be helpful to conduct a careful study providing data on the current and historic levels of funding available for in situ seed storage around the world.

This data should be contrasted with the available information on ex situ storage funding. Based upon this information, the GCDT and other potential sources of funding should be encouraged to respond to the survey and provide concrete proposals for support.

There is an enormous potential for enhanced collaboration and effectiveness among the many seed organizations and agroecology networks that operate regionally and globally. These could include the AgroEcology Fund, La Via Campesina, Oxfam International’s Sowing Diversity=Harvesting Security initiative, USC Canada, the Norwegian Development Fund, IUF (a federation of food and agricultural trade unions), International Foundation for Organic Agriculture (IFOAM), Slow Food International, The GAIA Foundation, URGENCY, and others that operate overlapping networks that espouse roughly similar goals. It is not unusual for two or more of these networks to function in the same country even in neighbouring communities. One network could host a capacity-building workshop in a country which would be very useful for partners in other networks within the same country. Several of the major networks have specialists in seeds, soils, or climate who could support the concerns of other networks. When these experts are engaged in the same countries or regions where other networks are also working, the need for cooperation is obvious. Further, networks working with different partners in the same country may have the same policy needs and could perhaps more easily work together to achieve policy changes at the national level. The Global Alliance could encourage more dialogue between these networks and possibly provide modest additional funding to make sure that the workshops and expertise available from one network are shared with partners in other networks in the same country or region.

3.
Initiatives to support appropriate seed policies
3.1
Create a Civil Society Mechanism for the Seed Treaty.

“With additional financial support that would ensure both the attendance and the preparation of farmers’ organizations and civil society, the Plant Treaty could have its own version of the Civil Society Mechanism and achieve a higher level of inclusiveness and participation in the negotiations.”

The 2009 reformation of the CFS (Committee on World Food Security) has proven to be one of the great governance accomplishments of the 21st century in food and agricultural policy. In particular, the formation of the CSM (Civil Society Mechanism) and PSM (Private Sector Mechanism) has been found to be uniquely effective. Since 2011, the ITPGRFA has contemplated similar restructuring; however, this is more difficult for a legally binding treaty than for a consultative process such as the CFS. Moreover, in 2015, the seed industry took a large and very active role in the governing body of the Plant Treaty. Their resources and influence on this issue has put farmers’ organizations at a disadvantage. With additional financial support that would ensure both the attendance and the preparation of farmers’ organizations and civil society, the Plant Treaty could have its own version of the Civil Society Mechanism and achieve a higher level of inclusiveness and participation in the negotiations. There is a high probability that such an initiative would be well received by governments and the secretariat. We estimate that an additional US$60,000 to $70,000 every second year (around the biennial meetings of the governing body) would allow for capacity-building as well as participation, and could yield increased support for farmers’ rights and in situ conservation.

3.2
Regional Ministerial Seed Dialogues could be organized during the biennial FAO Regional Conferences held in seven regions of the world including, incidentally, North America.

Currently, the biennial ministerial-level conferences serve little practical purpose, but the intent for some time has been to use these meetings to feed into processes such as the CFS. There is a move underway to restructure the regional conferences to emulate the CFS model, allowing the full participation of farmers’ organizations and civil society. With preparation, farmers’ organizations and their civil society partners could introduce seed and agroecology issues into these regional gatherings. This would not only influence the Governing Body of the ITPGRFA and the CFS but could have more useful impacts in ministries of agriculture in the region. As a rough estimate, this would amount to a biennial cost of US$20,000 per region. The Global Alliance for the Future of Food could provide capacity-building and participation for key organizations to attend the regional conferences in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia and the Pacific. This work could impact a wide range of national-level seed policies.

3.3
Farmer-Ready Agriculture: Farmers’ organizations could be supported to undertake their own independent evaluation of the preparedness of the Rome-based UN agencies and CGIAR to collaborate with farmers’ organizations on issues related to seed saving, plant breeding and (more widely) farmers’ rights.

A small team of farmers could undertake the evaluation on a regional basis in order to keep costs low and then representatives of each of the teams could meet in advance of the CFS in Rome to produce a global report. The report would explore the preparedness of gene banks to cooperate with farmers and the agencies and organizations to work on a range of issues. The report could be presented to the governing bodies of the organizations as well as to the CFS. This would be the first time in history that such agencies were evaluated by those they are supposed to support. Managed carefully and in harmony with other activities, the cost of this initiative could be approximately US$50,000.

Supplementary Notes

1.
History of civil society organizations and farmers’ organizations

The history of CSO/farmer engagement is in the eyes of the beholder, but the first formal and recorded initiative is the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) that was incorporated in Iowa, United States in 1975. The first global civil society discussions on seed policy were held by the International Coalition for Development Action (ICDA) in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1977. The first proposal that small farmers could be “seed curators” and collaborate with national and international gene banks came in 1983 with the publication of “The Law of the Seed” as a special report of the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation’s journal, Development Dialogue. This initiative was generally opposed by CGIAR, including IBPGR (the original name of Bioversity International), but received some support from Canada’s CIDA and IDRC. Based on the experience of the Ethiopian gene bank during the mid-1980s famine, RAFI published the Community Seed Bank Kit in three languages in 1985 and then convened a sequence of three regional conferences on community seed saving in Africa, Latin America and Asia in 1987. SEARICE in the Philippines began its community seed bank work at about the same time and USC Canada began working with the Ethiopian gene bank and partners in Zimbabwe and Mali in 1988. Throughout the 1980s, community level seed work was either ignored or opposed by the CG system.

At the conclusion of the Keystone International Dialogue on Plant Genetic Resources (1988–91) the Dutch gene bank and Noragric, Norway proposed the establishment of the Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation Program (CBDC) to SEARICE (Southeast Asia), CTDC in Zimbabwe, CET in Chile, GRAIN and RAFI (later ETC). Individuals in the CGIAR system—notably in CIAT, CIP, ICARDA and ICRISAT expressed support for the initiative but did not get formally involved. At that time, IBPGR became IPGRI and expressed some interest in the initiative, hosting one meeting of the consortium, but was not invited to participate. By and large, the development of civil society and farmer activities around seed saving and plant breeding arose in spite of—rather than because of—international organizations.

2.
Seed saving and plant breeding

“In general, the international scientific community continues to regard farmers as strictly “seed savers,” or as advisors in plant breeding programs. “Participatory Plant Breeding”, for many scientific institutions, means that farmers are invited to observe nursery trials; to multiply institutional seeds; or comment on breeding priorities—not to initiate, direct, or even collaborate as equals in plant breeding programs.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, civil society organizations, including ETC Group, emphasized the important role of community seed banks, but tended to downplay the role of farmers as plant breeders. However, by the 1990s, farmers organizations themselves made it very clear that farmers have been breeding new varieties and domesticating new species for 12,000 years, and that this work continues. Most recently, the international literature shows that farmers also nurture—and often cross so-called crop-wild relatives as an important source of breeding material. In general, the international scientific community continues to regard farmers as strictly “seed savers,” or as advisors in plant breeding programs. “Participatory Plant Breeding”, for many scientific institutions, means that farmers are invited to observe nursery trials; to multiply institutional seeds; or comment on breeding priorities—not to initiate, direct, or even collaborate as equals in plant breeding programs. It is now abundantly clear that farmers play a vital role in both conserving traditional plant varieties and also in crossing traditional varieties with varieties bred by public and private institutions to improve and develop entirely new varieties. The important distinction is that farmers not only preserve, but they also develop. Indeed, preservation is far from a curator function—it is part of a practical strategy to maintain diversity for future needs.

3.
Relations between research institutes and CSO/farmer initiatives

There continues to be a cultural disconnect between farmers’ organizations / civil society organizations (CSOs) and formal public sector research institutes. While farmers and CSOs are sometimes unnecessarily distrustful and fail to take advantage of collaborative opportunities with institutions, their experience has historically been painful and problematic and even well-intentioned institutions still fail to see both how they are perceived and how they perform. As in any endeavour, those who have resources and power tend to be so convinced of their knowledge and goodwill that they can’t imagine that others could presume otherwise or that they could perform otherwise. With rare exceptions, international institutions continue to see farmers and CSOs as tools toward an end. CSOs are welcomed mostly because they reduce the transaction costs of relating to farmers and local governments. Farmers and CSOs are not seen as initiators or experts in their field. This is dismaying since many farmers’ organizations have long-standing formal and informal access to conventional scientific advice, and increasingly, actually employ conventionally trained plant breeders, soil specialists, foresters and geneticists with Master’s degrees or PhDs from highly regarded universities. Farmers’ organizations and CSOs often employ lawyers and anthropologists. Several CSOs have employed scientists who previously worked in the CGIAR, for example.

It is also important to note that, partly because of the exigencies of funding, many civil society organizations such as Oxfam International and Action Aid are not merely administrators or funders but also co-participants in seed and plant breeding initiatives around the world. Many of these organizations have substantial in-house expertise that should not be overlooked. Organizations such as USC Canada and the Norwegian Development Fund, for example, are also able to share experiences between regions and cultures and promote farmer-to-farmer collaborations based upon their expertise.

4.
Genes and gender

One of the most important strengths of farmers’ organizations / CSOs is that the role of women in seed saving and plant breeding is an immediate practical reality. Women play a central role in seed saving, seed selection and plant breeding. Women’s goals in this work are different from men’s. Women tend to breed for such factors as nutritional quality and energy efficiency. Any studies that omit or discount gender realities should be treated with caution.