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09 February 2012

Adapting to climate change

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Traditional crop varieties of indigenous people could prove even more important than modern agriculture in adapting agriculture to climate changes.

Compared with modern hybrids, traditional crop varieties are not only cheaper and easier to access but also more genetically diverse and therefore more resilient to environmental stress such as lack of water or nutrients. This is the conclusion coming out from the recently released results of research commissioned by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and carried out in South West China, Bolivian Andes and Coastal Kenya, all areas where poor farmers  living in harsh natural environments are facing severe consequences of climatic change for crop production and food security.

Krystyna Swiderska is a senior researcher at the IIED, an expert on Traditional resource rights and biodiversity governance, commissioner of the research and co-author of the paper ‘The role of Traditional knowledge and Crop Varieties in Adaptation to Climate Change and Food Security in South West China, Bolivian Andes and Coastal Kenya’ (summary of the findings at The study identifies five types of traditional knowledge (TK) useful for adaptation in agriculture, namely knowledge about: resilient properties, plant breeding, wild crop relatives, resilient farming and resource management practices and climate forecasting. 

Could you give me concrete examples of the traditional knowledge identified?
Where knowledge about resilient properties is concerned, in the big spring drought in China in 2010 for instance, most of the maize and rice landraces (local varieties of a domesticated animal or plant which have developed largely by natural processes) survived whereas most of the hybrids were lost, which shows that the first ones are more resilient to drought than the latter.

Knowledge about plant breeding is evident from the fact that there are thousands of traditional varieties, many of which have been developed or improved by local farmers. In 2000 a Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) initiative began in SW China to develop varieties of maize and rice with better adaptive characteristics (i.e. drought and pest resistance). The idea was to establish cooperative relations between the previously separate formal and farmers’ seed system. Based on 10 years of experimentation six farmer-preferred PPB varieties have been selected and released in the neighbouring villages while five landraces from the trial villages have been improved. Moreover farmer incomes have increased by about 30 per cent and women (the majority of farmers since most men have migrated to the cities) are participating more in decision-making.
An example of knowledge about wild crop relatives is drawn from a previous research is the Potato Park, Cusco Peru (whose six Quechua communities hold about 1500 of the 4000 native potato varieties found in the world). There the wild crop relatives are used by the farmers to breed better varieties because they are often where the most resilient genes are found.
Since climate models often provide information at a scale too large to be of use at a farm scale, in coastal Kenya the Mijikenda tribes’ TK system has become a source of crucial information on weather forecasting for farmers.
Especially where traditional farming systems have been maintained, farmers are already using TK to adapt to climate change. In Eastern Himalayas, for instance, farmers have adopted varieties grown at lower altitudes in response to rising temperatures.

The study also highlights that traditional knowledge and crop varieties depend one on the other since ‘maintaining and transmitting traditional knowledge relies on the use of diverse biological resources while the reintroduction of traditional crop varieties has revived related traditional knowledge and practices”.
What we found in an earlier project in China, Kenya, India, Peru and Panamá is that when farmers plant a variety of different crops and different varieties of each crop they maintain the related knowledge about each one and similarly they maintain knowledge about the wild relatives, because the more diverse resources they use (whether they are crops or medicinal plants) the more knowledge is maintained. For example in China they use a traditional variety of maize (waxy maize) in traditional ceremonies such as weddings, so that the knowledge of its use and planting is sustained.

The communities of the Potato Park have set up an agreement with the gene bank (the international potato park), which has returned some traditional varieties that were collected from that area 40 or 50 years ago; Returning them has brought back also the knowledge and culture associated with them (e.g. recipes). All that knowledge has come back when the seeds have come back to the communities, where the elders still have memory of it. This shows that the seeds are not just a biological but also a cultural resource and that if you shift from using a diversity of crops to using only a few crops -such as it happens in modern agriculture- then you lose all the related knowledge as well as the crops.

Moreover the report states that traditional knowledge and crop varieties are also sustained and influenced by many other factors, including traditional landscapes, cultural and spiritual values and customary laws. I am interested in the role of customary laws…
Perhaps the most important customary law is reciprocity, that is equal exchange; it is the basis of the seed system and promotes sharing and exchange among farmers: You have to share in order to receive and the more you share and the more you receive, the more diverse crops you have. That sharing is really vital for adaptation by farmers, particularly poor ones who cannot afford to buy seeds from the market.
Reciprocity, equilibrium and duality are the fundamental customary laws. Equilibrium means balance in society and in nature while duality is like yin and yang. In all the customary laws there is a strong conservation value and that also contributes to sustaining biodiversity and related knowledge.

What are the main threats posed by intellectual property rights (IPRs) to traditional knowledge and crops?
Modern varieties protected by intellectual property rights spread very rapidly and the IP rights are helping them spread in the more remote areas, which are the remaining pockets of crop diversity. We have seen evidence of that for instance in the Guangxi province in China, where one hybrid maize (Zhenda 619) has wiped up half of the remaining maize landraces in less than 10 years, which is quite worrying indeed.

The problem with the IPRs is that they take ownership of plant genetic resources away from the communities and into the hands of companies or whoever has got the IPRs. Essentially what happens at the moment is that the farmers who have these landraces maintain them on their farms, conserve them and improve them through their knowledge system and then scientists from gene banks come, collect them, use them to develop new varieties, patent them and make money from them but the local farmers get nothing. IPR systems limit sharing and prevent the saving of seeds for use in the next season, which is a big problem for poor farmers.

In this regard you report a lack of incentive and responsibility for enhancing germplasm among governments, public research institutes and farmers...
Government policies and laws provide no or very little incentive for conservation of diverse crops and crops varieties.
In some cases, government agencies and public breeding institutes are themselves acting as commercial breeders by entering in partnership with private companies and getting joint IP rights, thus promoting these modern varieties that are spreading so fast. They are using
the incentives that the IP rights provide for commercial breeding but they have no incentives for conservation as there are no laws that allow them to gain anything from conserving crop varieties.

As a possible solution to that the paper mentions reforming IPR regimes so that farmers are rewarded for conserving traditional varieties. Who should reward them?
Whoever generates the profits from those traditional varieties, i.e. the patent holder-. Such a system already exists in the International Treaty on Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, where anyone who gets a patent on a new variety or plant breeder’s right has to pay one percent  into a common fund which goes back to the farmers; That system is not working very well because there is nothing which is forcing governments to enforce it. Nevertheless the Convention on Biological Diversity has recently adopted a legally binding international protocol, the Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit-sharing of genetic resources,, and countries will have to respond to that.

Can you think of any good practice of resilience before IP rights threats to TK at local level?
The plant breeders involved in the Participatory Plant Breeding initiative have been setting up contractual agreements with the farmers they are working with to reward them for conserving the landraces and share the benefits they derive with the farmers.
Similarly in the Potato Park in Peru part of the agreement signed with the international potato center is that none of the traditional varieties collected from the area can be subjected to IP rights.

The conclusions state that policies and regulations must create incentives and encourage responsibility for managing agricultural germplasm as a common good, which includes changing plant breeding criteria such as DUS (distinctness, uniformity and stability), which lead to an increasingly narrow genetic base. Could you explain it better?
At the moment in order to get IPRs on a new variety you have to prove that it meets these DUS criteria. The need for uniformity and stability is a problem because if you take a wild variety or a landrace it will have a wide range of genes inside it. Nevertheless with these criteria when a plant breeder wants to develop a new variety he/she will breed a more uniform variety which will have a narrower set of genes, because that will make it more stable. For commercial farming in good agricultural lands these criteria are good, since they make things more predictable,
for instance you will always produce round tomatoes and these will perform better. Nevertheless, in remote rural areas where the conditions are very variable they don’t perform so well and these criteria are making plant breeders focus on uniformity and stability in all of their plant breeding. Rather than sustaining diversity they are reducing it.

Would this paper’s assumptions also apply to Europe or is it a completely different setting?
Yes, they would. I suppose the difference is that here we have less diversity, we have already converted a lot of our agriculture into a commercial one but at the same time that makes it even more important to ensure that the remaining small pockets of diversity are sustained. In Europe there is a strong push to get IPRs stronger and stronger because all the big commercial seeds companies are based in Europe.

Why do you think there is a tendency to focus on intensifying production through modern agriculture as the key to adaptation and food security if evidence suggests that TK and crop varieties might play a more important role in adaptation?
It is partly because of a strong private sector push behind agricultural investments in developing countries, who are also very much influenced by the dominant US and European model,  i.e. commercial agriculture. Most developing countries see smallholder agriculture as something unprofitable and backwards that needs to be replaced by a modern system. Moreover traditional agriculture is also very important for poverty reduction and prevention and unfortunately a lot of developing country governments don’t really care about their poor people. They believe in trickle down (the idea that economic benefits provided by government to businesses and the wealthy in general will in time benefit poorer members of society) because people who influence them and vote for them are the businesses and they want commercial agriculture. Whereas traditional farming is directly helping the poor it is not as much of interest because governments cannot make so much money from it.

So is protecting TK and crop varieties only beneficial to poor people?
No, because in the long run we all rely on the diversity that is conserved by farmers. Once this runs out there will be nothing left because the genes and crops held in gene banks are no longer evolving nor adapting, that is why we all need the traditional varieties and landraces in the field to ensure that we can feed ourselves in the future. provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.