Saturday, April 11, 2009

Agrobiodiversity : Key to Food Security

Suman Sahai

Government agencies and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) have no provisions for conserving seed of traditional varieties. Therefore, many traditional varieties could be lost forever.

For some years now, agrobiodiversity has been acknowledged internationally as the foundation on which food, livelihoods and income security is based. Unfortunately this is not yet internalised at the national level. India has a particularly bad record of agrobiodiversity conservation. Whereas government systems have elaborate plans to make available high yielding and hybrid seeds, and plans to conserve them, there is little attention paid to the conservation of traditional germplasm. The last 10 years or so have been particularly bad in India, with the ICAR institutions chasing the mirage of genetic engineering and hybrids accompanied by the utter neglect of the genetic variability found in crop varieties.

The genetic diversity found in crop plants is man made. It is the result of the careful selection and innovation by farming communities over the years. Rice and wheat plants are not found in the forest; they are not natural products. Indigenous knowledge is an integral part of genetic diversity. In fact, they are interdependent; the destruction of one leading to the destruction of the other. The gender dimension is important here—men and

women have different kinds of knowledge and roles to perform, which are equally important for the management and conservation of agrobiodiversity.

Agrobiodiversity is, broadly speaking, the genetic diversity found in agriculture and includes the diversity of crop plants and animal breeds. Genetic erosion escalated after the Green Revolution and the spread of industrial agriculture along with monocultures and contract farming. It is reaching critical proportions now and there is an urgent need to save this diversity since it is the foundation for ensuring long-term sustainability in agriculture and food production.

Genetic erosion or the loss of genetic diversity is happening not just at the level of individual genes but also at the level of gene combinations that have been bred into varieties to confer a combination of desirable traits. For instance, a good rice variety could have the properties of disease resistance, drought tolerance and aroma or good grain size. If this variety is lost, this combination of traits is lost.

Genetic erosion usually occurs as new varieties replace old varieties in farmers’ fields. There is very little systemic analysis of how this is happening and to what extent; which crops it is affecting and in which regions. The common belief is that the only way to increase productivity is by increasing the replacement of traditional varieties with high-yielding varieties. The replacement of local varieties or landraces by high yielding, hybrid, genetically modified (GM) and exotic varieties and species is causing genetic erosion in agricultural systems across the world.

However, there are many traditional varieties that are high yielding and that can, in fact, contribute to a mix of varieties in the field. Genetic erosion is happening at a more rapid pace in developing countries because that is where the genetic diversity is the maximum and because of the faulty planning for increased productivity.

Globalisation of the food system and marketing

The extension of industrial patenting and other intellectual property systems (IPS) to living organisms has led to the widespread cultivation and rearing of fewer varieties and breeds. This results in more uniform, less diverse, but more competitive products for the global market. As a consequence, there has been marginalization of small-scale, diverse food production systems that conserve farmer varieties of crops and breeds of domestic animals; reduced integration of livestock in arable production, which reduces the diversity of uses for which livestock are needed; and, reduced use of ‘nurture’ fisheries techniques that conserve and develop aquatic biodiversity.

It needs to be remembered that agrobiodiversity is threatened not because of over use but because it is not used.

Challenges to agrobiodiversity

Expansion of industrial and Green Revolution (GR) agriculture without commensurate efforts to conserve traditional germplasm poses a great challenge. This includes intensive livestock production, industrial fisheries and aquaculture. Some production systems use genetically modified varieties and breeds. In industrialised agriculture, relatively few crop varieties are cultivated, in monocultures and a limited number of domestic animal breeds, or fish, are reared or few aquatic species cultivated. These processes have caused massive ecological effects and unsustainable production and consumption patterns with impacting agrobiodiversity among others.

Climate change and global warming are important aspects to consider both as a threat to genetic diversity and also to underline the fact that it is in fact the diversity in genetic resources, which are the best bet to counter climate change impacts on agriculture. The greater the amount of diversity we are able to conserve, the better equipped we will be to be to deal with the effects of climate change on agriculture.

One need not look any further than the recent devastation caused by the Kosi River shifting course in Bihar. In the coming days of global warming and climate change, cyclones and hurricanes will increase and with that will increase the probability of loss of genetic diversity.

Because seed stocks of High Yielding Varieties (HYV) and parental lines of hybrids are carefully maintained, these can be restored but government agencies and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) have no provisions for conserving seed of traditional varieties. Therefore, many traditional varieties could be lost forever.

Declining diversity in food

Losing diversity means losing broad based systems of food production. Today, 75 per cent of the world’s food is generated from 12 plants and five animal species. Of the 300,000 known edible plant species, humans use only 150 to 200. Only three—rice, maize and wheat contribute nearly 60 per cent of the calories and proteins.

Centres of Origin are locations where rural and tribal communities developed food and cash crops from wild plants in the forest. These are regions where the wild relatives of crop plants are found and where the genetic diversity of that crop is the highest. Mexico is the centre of origin for corn, Peru for potato, China for soybean and the war torn Iraq, is the centre of origin for wheat, Ethiopia is the centre of origin for barley and India is the

centre of origin for rice (see map). Therefore, India needs to conserve rice diversity. If we do not do that, then we are going to deal a body blow to the future not just of our food security, but global food security.

Jharkhand which is the birthplace of rice in India has a seed exchange programme. Farmers are asked to bring in their traditional varieties and in return they get either high

yielding or hybrid seeds. There is no programme for the conservation of traditional varieties that are brought in. Instead, these are milled and turned into rice, thus destroying large amounts of genetic diversity in a systematic way.

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