Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Challenges to Genetic Diversity and Implications For Food Security in South Asia

Suman Sahai

Genetic diversity in the field is the key to long-term sustainable food production. In agriculture and forestry, genetic diversity can enhance production in all agricultural and ecosystem zones. Genetic erosion is the loss of genetic diversity, which is being caused not just at the level of individual genes but at the level of gene combination, which is even more dangerous. The main cause of genetic erosion is varietal replacement. However, there are many traditional varieties that are extremely high yielding and that can in fact form a much bigger mix of varieties available in the field than this very narrow approach to increasing productivity would suggest. Genetic erosion is happening at a more rapid pace in developing countries because of the somewhat faulty planning to bring about change and increase productivity. Above all, agro biodiversity which is genetic diversity related to agriculture, is threatened not because of over use but because it is not used.

I Genetic Diversity and Agriculture
Genetic diversity in the agricultural system is recognised to be the foundation on which food, livelihoods and income security is based. It is the result of natural selection processes and the careful selection and inventive developments of farmers. Agricultural biodiversity, also known as agrobiodiversity or genetic resource, includes:
  • Crop varieties, livestock breeds, fish species and undomesticated (wild) resources within field, forest, and rangeland and including tree products, wild animals hunted for food and plants and animals in aquatic ecosystems;
  • Natural undomesticated species involved with production ecosystems that support food cultivators including soil micro-biota, pollinators, bees, butterflies, earthworms, and natural predators of pests;
  • Undomesticated species in the larger environment that are part of ecosystems that support food production. These could be agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic ecosystems.

Agrobiodiversity is the result of the interaction between the environment, genetic resources and management systems and practices used by culturally diverse peoples. Thus, agrobiodiversity encompasses the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are necessary for sustaining key functions of the agro-ecosystem, including its structure and processes for, and in support of, food production and food security. Local knowledge and culture can therefore be considered as integral parts of agrobiodiversity, because it is the human activity of agriculture that shapes and conserves this biodiversity.

Many farmers, especially those in environments where intensive agriculture cannot be practiced, rely on a wide range of crop and livestock types. This helps them maintain their livelihoods in the face of sub-optimal soils, biotic and abiotic stress like disease and uncertain rainfall, fluctuation in the price of cash crops and socio-political upheaval. Many minor or underutilised crops are frequently found in proximity to the main staple or cash crops. Yet they are neglected and little effort is made to either conserve them or mainstream them for domestic use or the market. During times of stress like drought or flood, such underutilised plants can play a very important role in food production systems at the local level. Plants that will grow in infertile or degraded soils, and livestock that will survive on little fodder are crucial to the survival strategies of communities.

Agrobiodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge
Indigenous knowledge is the information that people in a given community have developed over time. It is based on experience and adapted to the local culture and environment and is continuously developing. Indigenous knowledge is embedded in social structures. Different groups of people, ethnic groups and clans hold different knowledge. Women and men often possess very different skills and knowledge of local flora and fauna. Indigenous knowledge and gender differences within that knowledge, are key factors that shape and influence plant and animal diversity. Such knowledge can help increase the relevance and efficiency of agrobiodiversity management and conservation efforts at different levels. Indigenous knowledge continues to be an important asset for resource poor people to sustain their livelihoods.

The Value of Genetic Diversity in Agriculture
It is now well established that the traditional practice of maintaining genetic diversity in the field is the key to long-term sustainable food production. In agriculture and forestry, genetic diversity can enhance production in all agricultural and ecosystem zones. Several varieties can be planted in the same field to minimise crop failure, and new varieties can be bred to maximise production or adapt to adverse or changing conditions.

Newer strategies for stabilising production involve the use of varietal blends (a mix of strains sharing similar traits but based on different parents) or multilines (varieties containing several different sources of resistance). In each case, the crop represents a genetically diverse array that can better withstand disease and pests. Despite these efforts, genetic uniformity still places some crops at risk of disease outbreaks and in some regions, that risk is considerable. Some 62 per cent of rice varieties in Bangladesh, 74 per cent in Indonesia, and 75 per cent in Sri Lanka are derived from one maternal parent. From 1930 to 1980 in the US, the use of genetic diversity by plant breeders, accounted for at least half of the doubling in yields of rice, barley, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and sugarcane; a threefold increase in tomato yields; and a fourfold increase in yields of corn, sorghum, and potato.

As important as genetic diversity is to increasing yields, it is at least as important in maintaining existing productivity. Introducing genetic resistance to certain insect pests can increase crop yields, but since natural selection often helps insects quickly overcome this resistance, new genetic resistance has to be periodically introduced into the crop just to sustain the higher productivity. Pesticides are also overcome by evolution, so another important agricultural use of genetic diversity is to offset productivity losses from pesticide resistance.
Wild relatives of crops have contributed significantly to agriculture, particularly in disease resistance. Thanks to wild wheat varieties, domesticated wheat now resists fungal diseases, drought, winter cold, and heat. Rice gets its resistance to two of Asia’s four main rice diseases from a single sample of rice from central India, Oryza nivara.

Genetic Diversity and Livestock Breeding
Genetic diversity is becoming increasingly important in forestry and fisheries, and the use of genetic resources in livestock breeding has markedly increased yields. The average milk yield of cows in the US has doubled over the past 30 years, and genetic improvement accounts for more than 25 per cent of this gain in at least one breed. Although not as dramatic, Asia has also seen a rise in milk output due to the improved genetic stock of dairy cattle.

For a variety of reasons, genetic diversity has been less useful in livestock breeding than in crop breeding. Whereas one major use of the genetic diversity of crops has been in the development of strains resistant to specific pests and diseases, livestock husbandry has relied largely on vaccines since animals (unlike plants) can develop immunity to disease. Second, maintaining livestock germplasm is tougher logistically than maintaining the genetic material of plants: since animals do not produce anything comparable to plant seeds that can be stored easily. An additional problem is that many of the closest relatives of domesticated animals are extinct, endangered, or rare, and thus unavailable for breeding. This should be a priority area for germplasm conservation.

Genetic Improvement of Forest Species
Genetic improvement of forest species has also received less attention than crop improvement. Until recently, most timber was harvested from the wild and little attention was paid to breeding programmes. In addition, because trees are so long-lived, the rate of genetic improvement of tree species is quite slow. Tests and measurements of growth characteristics have been made for some 500 species (primarily conifers) over the years, but less than 40 tree species are being bred. Yet, impressive gains have been made with these species. In intensive breeding programmes, a 15 to 25 per cent gain in productivity per generation has been attained for trees growing on high-quality sites without inputs of fertilizer, water, or pesticides.

Fish breeding has not been widely utilised to enhance yields because most of the fish eaten is caught from the wild. An exception is aquaculture. In one case, the domestic carp (Cyprinus carpio) was bred with a wild carp in the erstwhile Soviet Union to enhance the cold resistance of the domestic species and allow a range extension to the north.

Maintaining Soil Biodiversity for increased agricultural production
Improvement in agricultural sustainability will require the optimal use and management of soil fertility and soil physical properties. Both rely on soil biological process and soil biodiversity. This implies management practices that enhance soil biological activity and thereby build up long-term soil productivity and health. Such practices are of major importance in marginal lands to avoid degradation, and in degraded lands in need of restoration.

Integrated Soil Management and Soil Biodiversity
Over the last few years, the concept of Integrated Soil Management (ISM) and Integrated Plant Nutrient Management (IPNM) has been gaining acceptance. It advocates the careful management of nutrient stocks and flows in a way that leads to profitable and sustained production. ISM emphasises the management of nutrient flows, but does not ignore other important aspects of the soil complex, such as maintaining organic matter content, soil structure and soil biodiversity.

Soil biodiversity reflects the mix and populations of diverse living organisms in the soil—the myriad of invisible microbes to the more familiar macro-fauna such as earthworms and termites. These organisms interact with one another and with plants and animals forming a web of biological activity. Environmental factors, including temperature, moisture, acidity and several chemical components of the soil affect soil biological activity. Clearly, for a productive sustainable agriculture, the complex interaction among these factors must be understood so that they can be managed as an integrated system.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation:
‘Soil health can be defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living system, within ecosystem and land-use boundaries, to sustain biological productivity and maintain their water quality as well as plant, animal, and human health. The concept of soil health includes the ecological attributes of the soil, which have implications beyond its quality or capacity to produce a particular crop. These attributes are chiefly those associated with the soil biota; its diversity, its food web structure, its activity and the range of functions it performs. For example, soil biodiversity per se may not be a soil property that is critical for the production of a given crop, but it is a property that may be vital for the continued capacity of the soil to produce that crop’ (FAO 2004).

Biological populations and processes influence soil fertility and structure in a variety of ways, each of which can have an ameliorating effect on the main soil-based constraints to productivity (See FAO 2004):

  • Symbionts such as rhizobia and mycorrhiza increase the efficiency of nutrient acquisition by plants;
  • A wide range of fungi, bacteria, and animals participate in the process of decomposition, mineralisation, and nutrient immobilisation and therefore influence the efficiency of nutrient cycles;
  • Soil organisms mediate both the synthesis and decomposition of soil organic matter and therefore influence cation exchange capacity, the soil N, S, and P reserve, soil acidity and toxicity; and soil water holding capacity;
  • The burrowing and particle transport activities of soil fauna, and the aggregation of soil particles by fungi and bacteria, influence soil structure and soil water regime.
Enhancing Soil Biological Diversity
Certain ecological principles are needed to enhance soil biological diversity and thereby increase agricultural production.

Supply of Organic Matter
Most soil organisms rely on organic matter for food. Each type of soil organism occupies a different niche in the web of life and favours a different substrate and nutrient source. Thus, a rich supply and varied source of organic matter will generally support a wider variety of organisms.

Increasing the Number of Plant Varieties
Crops should be mixed and their spatial-temporal distribution varied to create a greater diversity of niches and resources that stimulate soil biodiversity.
  • Create a diverse landscape: diverse habitats support complex mixes of soil organisms;
  • Rotate crops: crop rotation allows nutrient demand and rooting depth to be varied, thus reducing nutrient mining and hardpans. This encourages the presence of a wider variety of organisms, improves nutrient cycling and improves natural processes of pest and disease control.
Protecting the Habitat of Soil Organisms
Stimulate soil biodiversity by improving soil living conditions, such as aeration, temperature, moisture, and nutrients quantity and quality.
  • Reduce tillage;
  • Minimise compaction;
  • Minimise the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers;
  • Improve water drainage
  • Maximise soil cover.
Farming Practices to Change Soil Life
Direct methods of intervening in the production system aim to alter the abundance or activity of specific groups of organisms (inoculation and direct manipulation of soil biota). Indirect interventions are means of managing soil biotic processes by manipulating the factors that control biotic activity (habitat structure, microclimate, nutrients and energy resources) rather than the organisms themselves. Common constraints to the use of different soil biological management practices include labour and time costs, monetary cost, availability of inputs, for example planting material/inoculants and capacities, as well as social acceptability.

II Gender and Genetic Diversity
Men and women play important, but different roles, in the management and conservation of agrobiodiversity. There is a gender differentiation in the roles and responsibilities in agriculture. Gender relations are also affected by the upheavals in the management and conservation of agrobiodiversity and local knowledge. Cultural values continue to be the driving force of biodiversity management and conservation. Changing food culture and dietary habits can lead to the erosion of women’s knowledge of processing, preparation and storage. This ultimately leads to the erosion of plant diversity and family food security and health. Commercialised agriculture, modern technologies and innovations have created high external-input dependent systems. These often rely on introduced species and varieties, which have introduced changes in gender roles. Changes within the household composition affect available labour resources and have a profound impact upon agricultural management practices and agrobiodiversity. Shocks, such as HIV-AIDS, have an impact on gender relations and the interaction with other livelihood assets.
A gendered long-term strategy for the conservation, utilisation, improvement and management of genetic resources will require:
  • Acknowledgement that there are gender-based differences in the roles, responsibilities and contributions of different socioeconomic groups in farming communities.
  • Recognition of the value of men’s and women’s knowledge, skills and practices and their right to benefit from the fruits of their labour.
  • Equity in agricultural policies and implementation strategies to provide incentives for the sustainable use of genetic resources, especially through in situ conservation and improved linkages with ex situ conservation.
  • Appropriate national legislation to uphold the principles of equity and protect ‘threatened’ genetic resources for food and livelihoods, guarantee their continued use and management by local communities.
  • Ensure that any benefits accrued from the commercial exploitation of genetic diversity is dedicated for the use of local community.
  • Incorporate gender issues in legal instruments that regulate the management and use of biodiversity, at national and international levels,
  • Increase the access of farm men and women to land and water resources, to education, extension, training, credit and appropriate technology.
  • Participation of rural women and men in decision making.

III Policy Requirements Broadening Diversity in Crops
In order to increase agricultural production in the long term, the incorporation of a broader range of crops including non-food crops is a necessity. Innovative approaches in plant breeding for the purposes of domesticating new crops, bringing in as yet underutilised crops into the mainstream, the development of new plant varieties promoting genetic diversity on farms, such as planting mixtures of adapted varieties, are now recognised as a means for adding stability in agricultural systems and promoting agricultural production and food security.
Governments, intergovernmental organisations, research institutions, extension agencies, the private sector, farmers organisations and NGOs, should:

  • Develop programmes to monitor genetic uniformity and assess vulnerability in crops;
  • Review policies which may affect the level of diversity in agricultural systems, and specifically the degree of genetic uniformity and vulnerability of major crops
  • Increase heterogeneity by planting mixtures of adapted varieties and species as appropriate.

Funding agencies should be encouraged to support international agricultural centres, national agricultural research systems, and other relevant research bodies and NGOs, for work aimed at enhancing levels of genetic diversity in agricultural systems. The release by international centers of unfinished varieties to national programmes for further development, including on-farm improvement and the selection of high yielding landraces/farmers varieties are measures which could bring higher levels of diversity, adaptability and stability to crops.

Research systems should:

  • Increase their capacity to develop and use multilines, mixtures and synthetic varieties;
  • Increase their capacity to use integrated pest management strategies, including the use of race-non-specific (horizontal) resistances, the pyramiding of race-specific resistances, and the strategic deployment of resistance genes;
  • Encourage the strategic use of a broad range of varieties;
  • Use participatory plant breeding strategies to develop plant varieties specifically adapted to local environments;
  • Support efforts to identify those activities used in plant breeding, plant research and farming systems that foster on-farm diversity. Such research might include a review of non-homogenous farming systems such as those based on intercropping, polycropping, integrated pest management, and integrated nutrient management, for their possible wider applicability, as well as research to develop appropriate plant breeding methodologies.

At the national and international levels, systems should be put in place for:

  • Developing monitoring and early warning systems for loss of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture;
  • Supporting on-farm management and improvement of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture;
  • Increasing genetic enhancement and base-broadening efforts;
  • Developing new markets for local varieties and diversity-rich products.

IV Genetic Diversity and Food Security
Genetic diversity gives species the ability to adapt to changing environments, and combat biotic and abiotic stress like pests and diseases, drought and salinity. This diversity is the raw material for breeding new varieties of crops, which provide the basis for more productive and resilient production systems that are better able to cope with such stresses as drought or overgrazing and can reduce the potential for soil erosion.

Subsistence farmers, particularly in marginal areas are well aware of the relationship between the stability and sustainability of their production systems and the diversity of crops and crop varieties on their lands. This diversity is their greatest insurance against risk. Their management and use of a diverse range of varieties has helped them to survive under the most difficult conditions. Across Asia, farmers have classically planted a mix of varieties in the same field so that if some fell victim to pest and disease, others would survive, ensuring that atleast some grain could be harvested. Under monoculture conditions, the entire crop would be wiped out in the face of pest and disease, leaving the farmer nothing to take home. By growing a range of different crops, farmers have a better chance of meeting their needs and reducing their risk. These might be crops that mature at different times or mixed cropping, when two or more crops are cultivated in the same field. Crop varieties can also be selected for foods with a long shelf life to help to ensure a stable food supply throughout the year. Multiple varieties in the field provide a nutritionally balanced diet for farm families and diversify their income sources.

V Genetic Erosion
Genetic erosion is the loss of genetic diversity—both the loss of individual genes and the loss of particular combinations of genes such as those found in locally adapted landraces and farmer varieties. The main cause of genetic erosion is varietal replacement. The replacement of local varieties or landraces by high yielding, hybrid, genetically modified (GM) and exotic varieties and species is causing genetic erosion in all agricultural systems.

The genetic erosion of agricultural biodiversity is exacerbated by the loss of forest cover, coastal wetlands and natural, uncultivated areas, and the destruction of the aquatic environment. This leads to loss of the ‘wild’ or undomesticated crop plants and relatives important for the development of biodiversity and crop varieties. Also lost are natural foods available in fields and forests and fodder and medicinal plants that are so critical to rural and tribal communities as survival foods in times of crisis and for health and veterinary care.

VI Challenges to Agrobiodiversity
Expansion of Industrial and Green Revolution Agriculture
This includes intensive livestock production, industrial fisheries and aquaculture. Some production systems use genetically modified varieties and breeds. Moreover, 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.

Till the nineteenth and even early twentieth century, the agriculture sector had a sufficiently high autonomy vis-à-vis the other economic sectors. Today, the food industry which processes the raw foodstuff industrially is a highly concentrated trade sector and holds a dominating position. It demands standardised agricultural products that can be easily treated by machines.
With the industrialisation and intensification of agriculture, investments have escalated, and pressure has increased to compensate these costs by means of a higher productivity. This is being achieved through intensive land use systems, mechanisation, higher inputs of fertilisers and pesticides, monocultural cultivation and the breeding of high yielding crops and high performing livestock. These processes have caused massive ecological effects and unsustainable production and consumption patterns with impact among others on agrobiodiversity.

Globalisation of the Food System and Marketing
The extension of industrial patenting, and other intellectual property systems, to living organisms has led to the widespread cultivation and rearing of fewer varieties and breeds. This results in a more uniform, less diverse, but more competitive global market. As a consequence, there have been changes in farmers’ and consumers’ perceptions and preferences, marginalisation 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.

The Replacement of Local Varieties by Improved or Exotic Varieties and Species
Nearly all countries confirm genetic erosion is taking place and that it is a serious problem. Genetic erosion usually occurs as old varieties in farmers’ fields are replaced by newer ones. Genes and gene complexes found in farmers’ varieties are not found in the new varieties. The total number of varieties is reduced when commercial varieties are introduced into traditional farming systems. Few systematic studies of the genetic erosion of crop genetic diversity have been done so far.

Challenges to Local Knowledge
Local knowledge and local institutions managing this knowledge are particularly challenged by rapid socio-economic and environmental changes. Areas of very rapid population growth, or a concomitant reduction in resources by external pressures, may require particular adaptations of new agricultural technologies to increase food production and the diversification of livelihoods, leading to irrelevance of local knowledge. Immigration can mean that the repertoires of knowledge, for agricultural/pastoral production and environmental conservation, are out of focus with the new set of opportunities and constraints. Gradual environmental changes, such as climate change, widespread deforestation, or land degradation, challenge the resilience and adaptability of local knowledge systems. Rapid commercialisation and economic shocks can also undermine local knowledge.

Population Increase in Developing Countries and Agribusiness in the Developed World
With the vertical integration of the food chain and the linking of farmers fields to retail stores, companies began to standardise products, leaving no room for the banana that failed to measure to prescribed norms, the french beans that were too long or too short or wheat which did not have the prescribed gluten content. All this led to severe genetic loss since such crop varieties became gradually displaced from farmers’ fields.

Monocultures of crops to produce standardised fruit and grain and a few animal breeds with optimal food–product conversion effacing have starkly reduced genetic diversity. This has resulted in the neglect and marginalisation of small-scale, diversified food production systems that are based on a diversity of farmers' seed varieties and breeds of domestic animals, which may have low milk yields but can survive pests and disease and have a high ratio of fodder convertibility. These diverse gene pools varied with the eco-geography even within the same region and helped to maintain a broad genetic support base. A change in livestock production so that they are not integrated in arable production reduced the diversity of uses for which livestock are needed.

Catastrophes and Climate Variation
One need look no further than the recent devastation caused by the Kosi river shifting course in Bihar. Apart from the loss of human life and assets, the crops of the area have been swept away and along with them, the traditional varieties that were cultivated there. 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. Whereas stocks of seed of the 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 for ever.

Flawed Policies
Genetic diversity in animal breeds was starkly reduced in the 1960s and 70s when the livestock improvement programme started in India. This consisted of importing cattle to cross with indigenous breeds and a large scale programme of artificial insemination using imported cattle as one parent. During the artificial insemination programme, large numbers of bulls of indigenous breeds were culled or castrated to prevent them from impregnating the animals meant to be inseminated. This resulted in substantial loss of genes of less productive animal breeds, which had other traits like the ability to withstand extreme temperatures, resist diseases and survive in fodder scarce times.

In developing countries, loss of diversity has been reinforced by a donor policy that has promoted the import of exotic breeds and crossbreeding that threatens the survival of local breeds. Both the markets for agricultural inputs and for agricultural outputs have been increasing in size, thus feeding into a globalising food market that demands goods in huge consignments. In order to process them industrially, those agricultural goods need to be homogenous. Therefore, apart from the yields, it is the requirements of industrial cultivation, husbandry and processing (and to some extent consumer demand) that determine the breeding objectives rather then nutritional value, taste, improved stress resistance or adaptation to natural conditions.

Agrobiodiversity Loss through New Technology
Modern, highly selective breeding methods contribute to diversity loss, thereby leading to dangerous degrees of homogenisation. In livestock breeding artificial insemination, multiple ovulation and embryo transfer are applied to reproduce only a few top performers; a huge number of other individuals are thus excluded from breeding and the genetic distance within populations is correspondingly reduced. Hybrid breeding, with both animals (for example. poultry, pigs) and plants (for example corn, rice), and in the future, cloning, are methods used to reproduce genetically homogenous and high performing livestock and plant varieties. In the case of animals, impacts on the genetic pool are expected when traditional pure breeding gets replaced by modern methods. Also, since hybrid breeding produces infertile breeds and seed, farmers cannot use the material to continue breeding/growing according to their own selection preferences, they are forced to rely on commercially bred/grown livestock and seeds, which they have to buy again every year. In plant breeding, ‘Genetic Use Restriction Technologies’ (GURTs) have the same effect.

The economic and technological developments detrimental to agrobiodiversity were partly supported by policies and governance structures such as intellectual property rights (IPR) and sovereignty regimes that regulate access to genetic resources as well as seed and livestock breeding laws. These have encouraged high output and homogenisation, thus affecting the choice of plants and livestock.

At the coming into force of the WTO/TRIPs (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) IPR laws had to be enacted over biological resources in all countries. Patents and stringent Breeders Rights restricted the free flow of germplasm and contain it in compartments that are increasingly privately owned. Two major IPR regimes can be distinguished, which impact agrobiodiversity in varying degrees. The first is patents and the other is Plant Variety Protection (PVP), applying only to plants. Plant variety protection systems based on Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) are inclined to diminish agrobiodiversity.

The criterion for variety protection—the so called ‘DUS requirements’ (for Distinct, Uniform i.e. homogenous and stable), impacts on plant variability. Secondly, Plant Breeders Rights, like other IPRs have indirect effects on agrobiodiversity by restricting access to genetic resources. The uniformity criterion aims at minimising genetic diversity within a plant variety, because to qualify for a Plant Breeder’s Right, the variety must be distinguishable from other varieties. This physical distinctiveness and uniformity comes at the expense of genetic variability. In the field, uniform varieties are less able to withstand biotic and abiotic stress. At the same time, the uniformity criterion puts genetically diverse land races out of the purview of protection. The DUS criterion inclines breeders to develop varieties that have low adaptability and are highly adjusted to monocultural production systems for large markets.

VI Declining Diversity and Impact of Diversity Loss
Since the 1900s, some 75 per cent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have abandoned traditional varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties. 30 per cent of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction; six breeds are lost each month. Today, 75 per cent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species. Of the 4 per cent of the 250 000 to 300 000 known edible plant species, only 150 to 200 are used by humans. Only three—rice, maize and wheat—contribute nearly 60 per cent of the calories and proteins (FAO 1999).

Loss of robust crops and livestock breeds adapted to their ecosystem, and their replacement by genetically homogenous, high yielding varieties and high performance animals and birds makes inevitable the use of unecological inputs like chemicals, hormones and antibiotics, leaving an ecological footprint. The new varieties and breeds are not only more vulnerable, and prone to diseases, because of their narrow genetic base, they are dependent on high cost inputs like energy, and agrochemicals as well as pharmaceuticals in the case of animals. The loss of locally adapted traditional varieties and breeds also impacts on the surrounding eco-system and wild biodiversity by disrupting the interdependent system of survival of the ecosystem. The protection of landraces and indigenous livestock breeds is important despite their comparatively lower yields since they often possess valuable traits such as disease and pest resistance and are better adapted to harsh conditions and poor quality feed, which are qualities desirable for low-input, sustainable agriculture.

In terms of social impacts, the loss of genetic resources poses a threat to food security. Genetic resources, along with soil and water, constitute the foundation upon which agriculture and world food security are based. The destruction of the diversity of these resources not only increases vulnerability in terms of animal diseases, pests and harvest failures, but it also undermines the foundations of future breeding and development paths. Another social dimension of agrobiodiversity loss is the equity issue. It becomes relevant in relation to property rights, especially patents and stringent Breeders Rights, regulating the balance between farmers and agribusiness. It also becomes relevant in relation to the distribution of benefits between agrobiodiversity rich countries in the South and industrial countries in the North which appropriate the returns when utilising these resources.

Finally, agrobiodiversity loss also has economic impacts: the diversity at the genetic, species and agro-ecosystems levels protects against vulnerability to the vagaries of the weather, insect pests and diseases that can devastate a uniform crop. There are famous examples of economic disasters springing from ‘genetic monoculture’ such as the nineteenth century Irish potato famine and the US pest ‘Corn Leaf Blight’ in 1969. In the case of diminishing farm animals, genetic diversity impedes adaptation to diseases, parasites, or variations in the availability and quality of food. Thus, agrobiodiversity loss increases the economic risks for individual farmers and can undermine the stability both of agriculture and the food business.[1] Whereas traditional mixed farming systems produce modest but reliable yields, planting a single modern crop variety over a large area can result in high yields but the crop may be extremely vulnerable to pests, disease and severe weather.

VII Farmers’ Perception of Agrobiodiversity
Gene Campaign conducted a study in Bihar and Jharkhand in India to ascertain farmers’ perception about agrobiodiversity and their views on its conservation. The main goals of the study were to understand:

  • The perception of farmers about the erosion of genetic diversity with the coming of green revolution varieties;
  • The farmers’ opinion about the drawbacks of traditional varieties, if any;
  • Their response to the loss of traditional varieties;
  • The farmers’ views on efforts to preserve the large varieties of seeds that are a part of their heritage;
  • What the farmers want as material benefits in order to grow traditional varieties on a portion of their land.

The study found that:

  • Most farmers were nostalgic about the traditional varieties that were grown in their region in the past and have been replaced by the High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) over the years. They regret the fact that this has happened.
  • The farmers felt that there was an urgent need for local seed banks, offering both traditional seeds and HYVs.
  • In districts where HYVs are cultivated, primarily irrigated areas, farmers were of the opinion that the biggest drawback of traditional varieties is its low yield and the fact that seed is not easily available.
  • In districts where hardly any HYVs were cultivated, primarily rain fed areas, farmers do not have complaints against the traditional varieties, recognising that that do better under their conditions. They also complained about the difficulty of accessing seeds of these varieties. Neither seed stores nor government agencies provide such seeds.
  • Most farmers are of the opinion that the loss of traditional varieties is a negative development for agriculture.
  • A section of younger farmers are not sure if this loss is a negative development or it has actually been a positive development for the farming community, resulting in the overall development of agriculture.
  • Farmers acknowledged that HYVs fare better in terms of yield and marketability but traditional varieties are better in terms of the characteristics they offer, amount and quality of straw and disease resistance. The traditional varieties were said to be better tasting and important for festivals, ceremonies and rituals.
  • Most farmers are open to cultivating traditional varieties of crops, at least on a portion of their land. The main impediment to this is lack of seeds.
  • Farmers were open to changing over to cultivation of traditional seeds but wanted incentives to offset the loss of yield compared to HYVs. Some of the desired incentives were assured availability of water, link roads, assured supply of good quality seeds, fertilizers and pesticides and marketing facilities with price support.

VIII Rectifying the Situation
Public sector investments must be made to maintain genetic diversity and the livelihoods of the poor. Comprehensive characterisation of varieties and species should be done to document features like the agroecological niches occupied by plant types which are little known or regarded as weeds. The various economic characteristics of plants and livestock, including pest and disease resistance, their nutritional properties, and their complementarity with others in an ecosystem should be recorded.

Protect Genetic Diversity through the Public Distribution Systems (PDS)
The Public Distribution System (PDS) which procures grains for distribution to the poor can become a powerful tool to support genetic diversity, at the same time offer local people foods that they know. The government scheme procures only high yielding varieties and quality standards are set for the procurement of such varieties. This encourages farmers to grow just one variety, at best two, of both rice and wheat. Traditional varieties are not procured because there is diversity in these crops so the grains are not identical. Some varieties produce short, fat grains, others may have long, narrow ones, some dark, the others light in colour. This makes absolutely no difference to the quality of the food. In fact, traditional varieties usually have a better nutritional profile than the high yielding ones, but farmers are discouraged by the lack of a market.

Instead of rice and wheat from Punjab and Western UP, if the PDS would buy traditional varieties of crops locally from farmers it would be a great incentive for farmers, to continue growing these varieties and so called minor cereals like millets. Farmers in rainfed areas are still growing traditional varieties of rice, millets, pulses, oilseeds and vegetables. If there is a good price for these crops, the farmers will not feel the pressure to shift to high yielding varieties, which get them higher incomes. In irrigated areas where farmers have been practicing mono-cropping and intensive agriculture, the ecological impact of intensive use of agro-chemicals is becoming apparent. They would be happy to convert some portion of their land to traditional varieties but are hesitant to do so because there is no market for these crops.

Ensure Seed Supply of Traditional Varieties
In a study conducted in UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, Gene Campaign found that among other reasons, farmers tend to shift away from traditional varieties because seed of these varieties is difficult to obtain if they should lose their own seed. The formal agricultural system does not offer any support for traditional varieties and farmers cultivating older varieties are usually left to their own devices. They encounter difficulties at both ends, in the availability of seed and the lack of a market to sell their produce. Were this situation to change, farmers would be more willing to cultivate traditional varieties of rice, as also varieties of millets.

Agrobiodiversity Conservation: The Gene Campaign Experience
Gene Campaign elected to work on conservation of agrobiodiversity in Jharkhand because, along with Orissa and parts of Chattisgarh, this region of Eastern India is considered to be one of the primary centres for the origin of rice. The wealth of genetic diversity here is being eroded by the aggressive promotion of HYV and hybrid rice. There is no corresponding effort for the conservation of traditional rice varieties. The Seed Exchange Programme undertaken by the Government of Jharkhand is an official instrument for the systematic destruction of the genetic diversity of rice in its birthplace, the area where a large and varied genetic diversity is still found. The Seed Exchange Programme provides high yielding seed to farmers in exchange for their traditional varieties. Farmers bring in their traditional rice varieties and take back an equivalent amount of seed of HYV or hybrid rice seed. There is no programme for the conservation of the traditional varieties that are brought in, instead, they are milled and turned into rice, thus destroying large amounts of genetic diversity in a systematic way.

Gene Campaign started a few years ago to collect, characterise and conserve traditional varieties of crops, principally rice but also legumes, oilseeds, millets and vegetables. Gene Campaign’s activities to conserve the genetic diversity scientifically are as follows:

  • Collection of agro biodiversity of various crop plants, chiefly rice and its characterisation and processing for long-term and medium-term conservation in Gene/Seed/ Grain Banks
  • Ultradessicating seed samples for storage at room temperature and testing seed viability and germination every year for five years
  • Setting up Gene and Seed Banks in the village with proper storage conditions like water proofing, light proofing and pest control
  • Developing a community-based system for using and administering the material in the Gene/ Seed bank
  • Multiplication of seed samples to create seed source for farmers
  • Refreshing seed in field plots every year to retain the viability of the seed stored in the bank.
  • Characterising the collection of agrobiodiversity using standard forms and approved descriptors.
  • Maintaining the integrity of the seed collections by proper curating of the collection, weeding out mixtures, exact and accurate labeling.

Agrobiodiversity conservation in village level Gene-Seed Banks will help support local food security in a number of ways. The long-term conservation of genetic material will aid future breeding work and the genes contained in conserved agro biodiversity will not be lost as traditional varieties get displaced from farmers fields. These genes should be conserved so that as climate, biotic and abiotic conditions change/vary, breeders can use this kind of bank to access genes with specific properties, to breed new varieties. That is why it is important not just to collect but also to characterise the properties of traditional crop varieties.

In the short term the Gene-Seed banks have begun to serve as a seed source for farmers who can access seed adapted to local dry land conditions. Not all farmers can opt for HYV or hybrid rice cultivation and maintaining a diverse and secure seed source for such resource poor farmers is important to support their agriculture and local food security. The Gene-Seed Banks provide such locally adapted seed.

The Gene/Seed bank is also a repository of Farmer Varieties, which can be registered with the National Plant Variety Authority. According to the new IPR regime in India and the new legislation on Farmer Rights, Farmer Varieties can be registered once they have been characterised. This is to accord ownership rights to farmers over their genetic material and the IK inherent in its breeding and conservation. The collection, characterisation and conservation of traditional varieties in the gene/seed bank helps to get farmers their legitimate due both intellectually and materially. It establishes their claim to the benefits derived from commercialisation and provides an incentive to conserve such varieties.

To give the next generation a stake in conservation, village youth have been trained to collect traditional varieties, process them scientifically and characterise them. They are also trained to multiply the seed samples in plots, harvesting, drying and storing the samples in a carefully segregated fashion. Farmers are trained to maintain careful field protocols and plot designs as trained by the scientists. These farmers can multiply seeds for the bank on their fields. The longer term goal is to encourage farmers to restore some of the traditional varieties on part of their lands so that there is field level conservation. Bringing scientific conservation techniques to the field should help to arrest the rapid genetic erosion. This kind of work should be magnified and spread to all regions where genetic diversity exists.

Impact of Setting up Seed Banks
The seed banks have had several impacts. Traditional rice varieties to farmer’s fields have returned. The traditional varieties that were lost from the region are being cultivated again in many places. Farmers have been trained to participate in seed renewal and multiplication, thus creating viable source of traditional seed. Traditional varieties with cultural-religious significance have also returned to communities. Conservation of rice diversity is beginning to happen in its Centre of Origin and farmers again have the option to mix varieties which helps to distribute risk, especially when hybrid rice is being promoted.

Suman Sahai is Convener of Gene Campaign.

End Notes
[1] The Irish famine in 1846 due to the potato blight Phytophthera infestans, is well known. In 1970, the US corn crop suffered a 15 per cent reduction in yield and losses worth roughly US$ 1 billion when a leaf fungus (Helminthosporim maydis) spread rapidly through the genetically uniform crop. The loss of a large portion of the Soviet wheat crop to cold weather in 1972, and the citrus canker outbreak in Florida in 1984 all stemmed from reduction in genetic diversity.

FAO. 1999. ‘What is Happening to Agrobiodiversity?’, Accessed from: http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5609e/y5609e02.htm, accessed on 14 May 2010.
FAO. 2004. ‘Soil Biota and Biodiversity: the “Root” of Sustainable Agriculture’, Accessed from http://www.fao.org/ag/agl/agll/soilbiod/docs/SB-brochure-sept.pdf, accessed on 14 May 2010.

Source : South Asian Survey (2010), A Journal of the Indain Council for South Asian Cooperation, Sage Publication, Volume 17, Number 1, Page 111


  1. I am very much impressed by ur work to indigenous technology.

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