Seeking New Agreements for Working with Nature through Enhancing Agricultural Biodiversity

In this first article in our new column, Agroecology in Motion: Nourishing Transformation, Patrick Mulvany, (HRF, CAWR), makes a call to radically foreground a more robust and transformative understanding of agricultural biodiversity, especially the need to enhance the agricultural biodiversity embedded within all seeds, breeds and agroecosystems, making these more heterogeneous and resilient. This approach could herald new ways of agreeing how we should work with nature, led by peasants, Indigenous Peoples and other food producers as the everyday experts, stewards and champions of agricultural biodiversity. This call to action will help tune activists, researchers, policy-makers and other actors into the need to democratise and transform the governance of agricultural biodiversity.

Confronting the Biodiversity Crisis

Biodiversity, the variety of all life on Earth, including ourselves, is in dangerous decline, especially in the huge rural and peri-urban areas where people live and work. Here, we need new agreements for how we can work with Nature. The priority for conserving and restoring biodiversity – the engine of the biosphere, the Earth’s life support system – should be, in situ, in these areas, with a lesser focus on the conservation of iconic species in limited reserves, botanic gardens, zoos and genebanks, although these have intrinsic value. 

In rural and peri-urban areas, the dominant sub-set of biodiversity is agricultural biodiversity, the variety of life above and below ground and in waters, which people use and depend on, particularly for their food. 

But agricultural biodiversity is disappearing rapidly, as industrial agriculture, forestry, livestock and fisheries expand their control over ever more territories and waters. These industrial systems use homogeneous, proprietary seeds, trees, breeds and aquatic species, scientifically bred and genetically modified to include limited traits, which are useful to industry. They are grown in simplified agroecosystems that are heavily contaminated with biocides and other agrochemicals. 

Industrial production and harvesting systems take their toll of agricultural biodiversity, not only of the species we use directly but also of those species which support production, including pollinators, predators, soil biota (including fungi) and aquatic organisms. 

It’s worth recalling that in its plantation monocultures and industrial livestock and aquaculture production, the industrial food system uses relatively few varieties and breeds of very few species. For example, only four crop species – maize/corn, wheat, rice and potatoes – dominate the industrial food system. And, by the way, work on these four species absorbs the majority of agricultural research investment, with, as Pat Mooney points out in ‘Blocking the Chain’, “almost half of all private sector agricultural research concentrating on one single crop – maize”. This reductionist production system is unsustainable, unsafe and needs to be dismantled before it destroys all of Nature.

When food systems depend on limited agricultural biodiversity, they can no longer adapt to new stresses such as climate change and its impacts. They can only adjust to these stresses if resilience and adaptive capacity is inherent within them i.e. that the agricultural biodiversity in these systems is highly heterogeneous (highly (bio)diverse) at all levels. To achieve this, there is an urgent need to find new ways that will explicitly embed heterogeneous agricultural biodiversity within all seeds, breeds and agroecosystems.

Zimbabwe Seed Fair: colourful seeds, fruits and vegetables are only part of the vibrancy of Agricultural Biodiversity
Credit: ITDG

Agricultural Biodiversity is much more than seeds

As intimated above, agricultural biodiversity is much, much more than diverse, multi-coloured seeds, though peasant seeds are a tangible first link in a biodiverse food system making them emblematic of the struggle for food sovereignty by the peasant movement, as Via Campesina attests. In addition, agricultural biodiversity comprises all the genes, species and agroecosystems, above and below ground, in soils, and in waters, which directly provide, or support the production of, food, fodder, fuel, pharmaceuticals and many other goods and services that people derive from Nature. 

The scope of agricultural biodiversity was succinctly summarised in the report of a workshop organised jointly by FAO and the Secretariat of the Biodiversity Convention (CBD): “Agricultural biodiversity encompasses the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms which are necessary to sustain key functions of the agroecosystem, its structure and processes for, and in support of, food production and food security”.

Agricultural biodiversity includes about 7,000 plant species and, within these, more than 2 million named varieties and crop populations; around 40 domestic livestock species represented in thousands of livestock breeds; and intensely biodiverse forests and fisheries. These depend on the agricultural biodiversity within countless species in the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems which support production. Agricultural biodiversity also has important spiritual, cultural, spatial, temporal and scale dimensions. 

Over millennia, agricultural biodiversity has co-evolved with, and has been selected and dynamically managed by, peasants, Indigenous Peoples and other knowledgeable small-scale food providers – pastoralists, fishers, forest dwellers, gardeners etc. – using their knowledge, innovations and practices. Their biodiverse production provides food for more than 70% of the world’s peoples.

Peasant seeds are endangered. Yet tampering with our seeds is akin to tampering with our food and our food sovereignty. It is also an attempt to erase the social memory of living beings, as seeds contain the history, collective vision, knowledge and practice of peasant communities the world over. This is why peasants everywhere are fighting for their preservation.
Via Campesina.
Credit: Zin TV. View video here.

Biodiverse Agroecology

High levels of agricultural biodiversity within complex agroecosystems underpin biodiverse agroecology, rooted in the framework of food sovereignty. Agricultural biodiversity provides biodiverse agroecology with prodigious self-regulating capacity and the ability to adapt to new environments, requirements and challenges, including improving its ability to sequester carbon so that food production, currently a major producer of greenhouse gases, no longer contributes to climate change

But, to optimise the adaptive capacity of agricultural biodiversity, it needs to be intentionally heterogeneous in all its dimensions i.e. it needs, as a consequence of its dynamic management by large numbers of small-scale food providers, to have high levels of heterogeneous agricultural biodiversity explicitly embedded within it at all levels: within heterogeneous peasant seed varieties and populations, livestock breeds, forest and aquatic species; within heterogeneous support species; and within heterogeneous agroecosystems in gardens, fields, pastures, forests, watersheds, landscapes and coastal waters [See Box 1, below]. Small-scale food providers nurture biodiversity by ‘working with Nature’.

Biodiverse agroecology is the antithesis of the simplified, unsustainable industrial production systems that seek to control Nature. Many international actors and corporations are not only set to expand and intensify their highly mechanised, biodiversity-eroding industrial monocultures, livestock factories and industrial fisheries, but are also seeking to further expand their control over food production in the areas where small-scale food producers currently live and work, undermining their collective rights to these territories, seeds, food and livelihoods. 

Industrial monocultures use genetically uniform, homogeneous, seeds dependent on biocides which also destroy agricultural biodiversity above and below ground, and in waters.

For example, in Africa, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), using approaches such as Climate-Smart Agriculture, enables “new pathways to turn smallholders into sustainable agribusinesses”. These so-called ‘development’ programmes partly succeed in luring small-scale food producers into a revamped Green Revolution by promises of increased income even if this may still result in further corporate control, loss of territories and livelihoods and biodiversity-eroding practices. But if the economic incentive is not enough, they are coerced by unjust laws and regulations, into making their production systems, and even their ‘Farmers’ Seed Systems’, less biodiverse and more uniform, by criminalising the use of farm-saved seeds and enforcing the use of homogeneous seeds and external inputs, with ill effects. 

I suggest that new research is required to address this challenge. The priority for this research is not, I believe, so much about practices that could be used to enhance the heterogeneity of agricultural biodiversity, already well known to the small-scale food providers who dynamically manage it. The challenge is more about changing governance processes and structures – the systems of social and political decision making – needed at all levels, to ensure that these practices can be sustained and can be extended to all agroecosystems. These changes would transform the rural and peri-urban areas where people live and work from being the areas in which biodiversity is most at risk into areas that contribute to restoring global biodiversity and conserving Nature.

What is needed, I think, are new forms of inclusive, cooperative and ecologically-rational governance, with peasants and other small-scale food providers as equal partners. These could be blueprints for new agreements about how humankind works with Nature.

New Governance Imperatives

There’s accepted urgency to reset priorities and introduce ‘green’ measures but an unwillingness to transform governance so that it can reduce corporate power. The international governance of agricultural biodiversity has, hitherto, been ineffective in reducing losses and is increasingly hostile due to lobbying by the powerful agribusiness corporations which are primarily responsible for the biodiversity crisis. Hence there’s an eagerness in many governments to introduce restrictive seed laws that recognise patents or plant breeders’ rights, as required by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) and as promoted by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and their agribusiness members. 

These organisations primarily defend proprietary ownership of a limited number of protected, homogeneous varieties and genes of very few crop and animal species, while outlawing the saving, use, exchange and sale of peasant seeds. The loss of Peasant Seed Systems is seemingly accepted as ‘collateral damage’ in the international governance of seeds. 

In contrast, the more prolific and biodiverse peasant seed systems, adapted to diverse, local territories, are governed communally by peasants themselves, respecting their collective rights and for the common good. 

Senegalese farmers tending their biodiverse garden.
Credit: BEDE

Democratic, new governance measures are urgently required. These need to ensure that there are high levels of heterogeneity not only in seeds, livestock breeds, trees etc. but also in all dimensions of agricultural biodiversity and the agroecological systems it underpins, at all scales – from home gardens to landscape levels and in fisheries. Researching, with the organisations and social movements of small-scale food providers, the modalities and processes needed to achieve more effective governance at all levels is a priority. 

Two overarching proposals come to mind:

1.         Finding ways to improve international governance of agricultural biodiversity so that it would put primacy on heterogeneous seeds, breeds and agroecosystems. Priorities for this governance would include respecting and fulfilling Farmers’ Rights (Article 9 of the International Seed Treaty) and the Rights of Peasants (UNDROP), and putting control of heterogeneous seeds, livestock breeds and wider agricultural biodiversity back in their hands. 

Civil Society can mitigate and minimise the harm done by many governance processes and lobbying efforts have been useful in raising awareness amongst specialists, politicians and the public. And there have been some notable successes over the years, including the measures noted above. 

2.         Finding appropriate local governance measures for policy and practice, framed by food sovereignty, that would prioritise enhancing explicitly the heterogeneity within seeds, breeds and agroecosystems. As a start, these measures could be developed in all relevant programmes and processes promoted and practiced by social movements and the Civil Society Organisations and academics which support them. 

These would embrace research and development programmes working on seed systems, livestock breeds, agroecology, food sovereignty and localised food systems and so on. In these programmes, new governance measures would need to include goals of explicitly enhancing the heterogeneity of agricultural biodiversity within production systems: in-field, in-garden, in-pastures, in-forests, in-waters, etc.. 

This proposal is more immediately achievable but, in parallel, the governance measures will also need to address the significant task of keeping at bay the spread of uniform monocultures; homogeneous, hybridised or genetically-modified seeds and breeds; and the use of associated biocides and other agrochemicals.

To know if these approaches are effective, researchers could work with knowledgeable small-scale food providers to find ways of assessing collectively the degree of heterogeneity of seeds and breeds, and other agricultural biodiversity above and below ground, in soils, and in waters within different types of agroecosystems, at all levels, and the causes of change over time. 

Using the degree of dynamically-managed heterogeneity of agricultural biodiversity within production systems as a dominant metric in the governance of biodiversity, environment and food production, at all levels, as well as in the governance of markets and trade, could prove refreshingly revolutionary.

Finding effective governance measures that enable knowledgeable food producers to embrace food production systems with enhanced, and highly heterogeneous, agricultural biodiversity embedded within them, could also herald new ways of working with nature and restoring biodiversity, especially in rural and peri-urban areas. 

BOX 1 – Heterogeneity in Agricultural Biodiversity 
This heterogeneity needs to be expressed: 

within the plant varieties and seed populations, breeds of livestock and aquatic organisms being cultivated, raised or harvested, and within the sub-species of ‘associated biodiversity’ of support species that provide essential ecosystem functions and support production 
(i.e. intra-varietal and inter-varietal biodiversity)

in the biodiversity of species of crops, livestock and the ‘associated biodiversity’ of support species, above and below ground and in waters, such as soil organisms, pollinators, predators and microbiota, including fungi, in soils, rumens and digestive tracts; 
(i.e. intra-specific and inter-specific biodiversity)
; and 

in the biodiversity of the surrounding agroecosystems as well – from within gardens and fields and pastures and forests, and out to landscape, watershed and marine ecosystem levels 
(i.e. agroecosystem biodiversity)


This Blog is based on my Chapter ‘Sustaining Agricultural Biodiversity and Heterogeneous Seeds’ in ‘Rethinking Food and Agriculture’ edited by Amir and Laila Kassam. The book can be purchased here.

Thank you to Barbara Van Dyck as the primary reviewer and editor and to Colin Anderson for their support in producing this blog.

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