Implications For Conservation Of Agricultural Diversity

Miracle Farm Blueprint

Organic Farming Manual

Get Instant Access

Ex situ and in situ strategies for genetic resource conservation are increasingly viewed as complements rather than substitutes.21 Ex situ conservation is geared toward a relatively small number of known plants. Ex situ conservation also "fixes" the genetic material of the plant at the time that it enters the germplasm bank, although genetic drift may occur over time. By contrast, in situ conservation can be aimed at larger collections of species, some of which may not even be known. Thus, protecting a rain forest is a form of in situ conservation. A virtue of in situ conservation is that it allows adaptive, evolutionary processes to continue and natural prebreeding processes to occur.22 Since the risk of extinction due to some natural or anthropogenic process is greater in situ, ex situ collections serve an insurance purpose.

Prospects for in situ conservation are likely to vary by species (Dempsey, 1996) and are hotly debated for cultivated crops, on both biological and economic grounds. For domesticated species or subspecies, in situ conservation implies farmer management of a diverse set of crop populations in the systems where the crops evolved (Bellon et al., 1997). Conservation in this context refers more to maintenance of key parameters in evolving systems rather than to conservation. Although the historical role of farmers in shaping the evolution of crops and their diversity has long been

20 It is not clear, however, why individual farmers would not choose to "free ride," in other words, to rely on others to maintain the (unproductive) stocks of traditional varieties. Given that other farmers are continuing to grow traditional varieties, an individual farmer has an interest in not growing them. Instead, we might expect him or her to grow only modern varieties, secure in the knowledge that the varieties will not disappear from existence. If all farmers behaved this way, of course, the traditional varieties might in fact be threatened.

21 In common usage, in situ conservation involves the conservation of genetic materials in a natural habitat or under cultivation. By contrast, ex situ conservation is the conservation of genetic materials in a specialized storage facility (whether in an arboretum or botanical garden, or in a deep freeze, or in a gene bank). In general, ex situ collections are intended to conserve genetic material outside of environmental influences, whereas in situ collections are intended to conserve genetic material in its environmental context.

22 Of course, in some cases, evolutionary processes may lead to the loss of genetic material and, hence, may be undesirable from one perspective.

recognized, rigorous investigations of the complex socioeconomic and scientific issues involved in such farmer-managed conservation efforts have only just begun.23

Major Economic Questions Related to On-Farm Conservation

Several economic questions of importance are raised by the prospect of farmer-managed conservation of diversity. First, economic analysis of the costs and benefits of conserving the intraspecies diversity of cultivated plants requires a different conceptual approach than that proposed for in situ conservation of wild species. For wild species, geographical areas may be isolated and contained in reserves, and human populations paid or compensated for not harvesting, not grazing, or not otherwise disturbing the plant populations.

The evolution of cultivated crops cannot be separated from that of humans, however. Even in a center of origin and diversity, the crop genetic systems managed by farmers are "open," and their diversity relies on infusion of new genetic material through seed exchange and varietal introductions, at least in the case of an outcross-ing crop like maize in Mexico (Louette et al., 1997). Direct payments or other forms of compensation to farmers for continuing to grow certain landraces have not yet, in general, been proposed.

Conservation and Economic Development

The relationship of conservation to economic development is unclear. Many have argued that on-farm conservation implies arrested development or, at least, cultural stasis. Identifying conservation methods that would allow crop populations to evolve without arresting economic development or penalizing farmers seems a laudable goal (but it is by no means clear how to achieve it). Questions have been raised about whether or not conservation can coexist with the integration of communities into commercial markets.

Certainly the replacement of landraces with modern varieties is not an inevitable process (Brush et al., 1992); farmers often continue to grow landraces even after adopting modern varieties on part of their land. If farmers' seed selection performs a stabilizing function, then experimentation with introduced varieties, seed replacements, and maintenance of landraces and their characteristics can coexist (Louette and Smale, 1997).

Incentives for In Situ Conservation

Even if development is compatible with conservation under some circumstances, what are farmers' incentives to maintain the diversity they grow? From an institutional

23 At IRRI, the project "Safeguarding and Conservation of the Biodiversity of the Rice Genepool, Component II: On-Farm Conservation"; in Mexico, the McKnight Foundation project "Conservation of Genetic Diversity and Improvement of Crop Production in Mexico: A Farmer-Based Approach" and, at CIMMYT, the project "Maize Diversity Management and Utilization: A Farmer-Scientist Collaborative Approach"; in Turkey, the project "Ecology and Ethnobiology of Wheat Landrace Conservation in Central Turkey"; a longitudinal study undertaken by the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in France; see other initiatives for Ethiopia and Andean crops described in Maxted et al. (1997).

perspective, Qualset et al. (1997) discuss various forms of direct and indirect incentives for local conservation efforts. The research by Meng et al.24 is an attempt to identify feasible policy incentives that support the management of genetic diversity by Turkish farmers. In the Philippines, Bellon et al.25 were able to identify with multidisciplinary methods a cluster of rice varieties that were both genetically diverse and highly regarded by farmers in terms of consumption characteristics, disease resistance, and other characteristics. These varieties were still cultivated in the rain-fed system but had been "discarded" in the irrigated system. In this case, when both the private and public benefits of growing the traditional varieties are high, the aim of an on-farm conservation program would be to reduce the opportunity cost of growing them, by, for example, shortening their growing cycle. This might be accomplished through rice breeding.

On-Farm Crop Improvement as an Incentive

In recent years, "participatory" plant breeding has been proposed as a means of providing economic incentives for farmers to continue cultivating genetically desirable crop populations (see Eyzaguirre and Iwanaga, 1996). According to this point of view, certain techniques used by professional plant breeders may assist farmers to become more efficient in meeting their own seed selection criteria. Closer farmer-breeder collaboration could promote yield increases or other improvements in marginal environments where modern varieties have not been adopted for agronomic, social, or economic reasons. Proponents of this approach argue that while professional plant breeders have conventionally sought to develop fewer varieties adapted to a wider range of environments, on-farm improvement can support the maintenance of more-diverse, locally adapted plant populations — while including farmers who had been "left out" of the development process.

Such approaches may only make sense in "marginal environments," or, more specifically, when the private benefit-cost ratio associated with growing traditional varieties as compared with modern varieties is high. This would be true when farmers do not have the choice of adopting an introduced cultivar that produces more benefits (with respect to yield and/or any other combination of characteristics) than existing, local cultivars — either because seed systems (formal or informal) don't deliver them or because their own materials perform better with respect to a range of characteristics. Such a scenario appears to be the case in the Perales et al.26 study of maize landraces in the Amecameca and Cuautla valleys of Mexico.

24 See Meng, E., Taylor, J. E., and Brush, S., Incentives for on-farm crop genetic diversity: evidence from Turkey, paper presented at the symposium The Economics of Valuation and Conservation of Genetic Resources for Agriculture, May 13-15, University of Rome Tor Vergata, 1996.

25 See Bellon, M. R., Pham, J. L., Sebastian, L. S., Francisco, S. R., Erasga, D., Sanchez, P., Calibo, M., Abrigo, G., and Quiloy, S., Farmers' perceptions and variety selection: implications for on-farm conservation of rice, paper presented at the International Workshop on Building the Basis for Economic Analysis of Genetic Resources in Crop Plants, CIMMYT and Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, August 17-19, 1997.

26 See Perales, H., Brush, S., and Taylor, E., Agronomic and economic competitiveness of landraces and in situ conservation in the Amecameca and Cuautla valleys of Mexico, paper presented at the International Workshop on Building the Basis for Economic Analysis of Genetic Resources in Crop Plants, CIMMYT and Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, August 17-19, 1997.

Since most of the approaches to on-farm crop improvement are labor-intensive, the opportunity cost of labor is likely to play a decisive role in their attractiveness to farmers. Labor is likely to be a factor in the attractiveness of selection techniques for farmers. Rice et al. (1997) suggest that seed selection practices introduced for maize competed for labor with coffee. Referring to a labor-intensive, on-farm selection program to improve seed quality and resistance to disease in beans, Sperling et al. (1996) reported that the yield advantage of 14% was "not very convincing for those who had to do the extra maintenance." Zimmerer (1991) has argued that acute labor shortages resulting from seasonal migration have undermined the management of multiple crops and varieties in a traditionally complex cropping system in Peru. In an Oaxacan community in Mexico, García-Barrios and García-Barrios (1990) identify "diversity management" as first in a list of three agronomic characteristics of pre-Hispanic maize systems that labor migration seriously threatens.

Research Impact

Even if a feasible innovation that is attractive to farmers can be identified, what will be its research impact? Recommending strategies for on-farm maize improvement or modified seed selection practices raises some very familiar issues related to the adoption and diffusion of any agricultural technique, such as

1. Who adopts the practice and who does not?

2. If we observe farmers only for several seasons, can we conclude that they have adopted the practice?

3. Is the practice adopted on both traditional and modern varieties?

4. Is the practice diffused from farmer to farmer or by other means?

5. Does adoption of the practice affect members of the farm household differentially?

6. Does the adoption of the practice generate any observable economic benefits, and if so, for whom?

The benefits from any innovation depend on the way it diffuses among farmers and the longevity of the innovation. Consider, however, the difficulty of assessing the benefits of something like a new seed selection practice. To discern the benefits of such a practice, we are concerned with the diffusion of new seed for the same variety rather than new seed for a new variety. The conceptual frameworks and analytical models social scientists use to analyze the factors that affect seed flows (within varieties) among farmers are not nearly as well developed as those commonly used to analyze the adoption of varieties. Further, as compared with the adoption of variety, the adoption of a seed selection practice affects the characteristics of the germplasm itself. To develop sensible approaches or models, we need answers to basic questions, such as

1. How does seed flow among farmers, and to what extent is seed saved from generation to generation or exchanged among farmers?

2. If seed is exchanged, what social "infrastructure" affects the direction and magnitude of its flows?

An appropriate analytical model must be based on the identification of the essential social unit of seed conservation — which is not likely to be an individual farmer or an individual household.

The research conducted by Aguirre,27 Louette et al. (1997), and Rice et al. (1997) in Mexico demonstrates the high frequency of seed loss, seed replacement, and seed introductions, both for seed of the same maize variety and for new varieties, including both modern varieties and landraces. These studies, conducted in different regions of Mexico with different research methods, reveal that only a subset of farmers actually retains seed year after year (in spite of common stereotypes). Some farmers replace the seed for their landraces deliberately, explaining that the seed is "tired" or needs to be "rejuvenated." Such practices have been cited in other literature, for other crops (see Wood and Lenné, 1997). Other farmers mix seed from their own and other sources, in search of "vigor."

These findings are fundamental to understanding the genetic composition of a crop and its diversity, and to understanding the diffusion and impact of techniques to improve crops on-farm. They imply that the impact of on-farm improvement is likely to be diffuse and difficult to observe, predict, and measure. To do so, we will need to understand better the "social infrastructure" that shapes seed and information flows, since in the diffusion of innovations of this type, the seed system is based entirely on farmers and their interactions. The investigations of Ashby et al. (1995), Sperling et al. (1996), and Almekinders et al. (1994) are examples of related research.

Property Rights and Conservation

An alternative approach to promoting in situ or on-farm conservation of diversity is to invoke changes in property rights regimes that would allow farmers to claim legal compensation when outsiders make use of landraces, traditional varieties, or other genetic resources that have been developed by farmers. Farmers and indigenous people have, in many respects, created the array of genetic diversity for agriculture that now exists. But at present, international property rights regimes allow private sector firms to claim property rights over plant varieties created through "scientific" breeding methods but make it impractical for traditional farmers to claim comparable rights.

Several previous studies have documented the present system of property rights for plant genetic resources and have surveyed the alternative forms of protection that might be extended to indigenous peoples and to farmers in poor countries. Specifically, Brush (1992), Gollin (1993a), Swanson (1994), and Walden (1995), among others, offer overviews of current property rights regimes and analyses of alternatives; Pray and Knudson (1994) investigate the impact of intellectual property regime shifts on the composition of U.S. wheat production.28

27 Aguirre's findings are reported in Analisis Regional de la Diversidad del Maiz en el Sureste de Guanajuato, draft Ph.D. thesis, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Facultad del Ciencias, Mexico, D.F., 1997.

28 See also a comprehensive review in Wright, B. D., Intellectural property and farmers' rights, paper presented at the symposium The Economics of Valuation and Conservation of Genetic Resources for Agriculture, May 13-15, University of Rome Tor Vergata, 1996.

A number of changes in property rights regimes have raised the prospect that farmers may soon be able to claim increased compensation for the use of traditional varieties. Under pressure from developing countries, the 22nd session of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) arrived at an "International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources" in 1983. This document declared that there is a "universally accepted principle that plant genetic resources are a heritage of mankind and consequently should be available without restriction." This principle was held to extend even "to newly developed varieties and special genetic stocks (including elite and current breeders' lines and mutants)." As Reid et al. (1993) note, "[N]eedless to say, few developed countries with established seed industries supported the Undertaking." In 1989, an FAO Conference rejected the previous formulation and reached a compromise arrangement. Under the compromise, it was accepted that property rights could legitimately be extended to breeders' lines. At the same time, the concept of "farmers' rights" was recognized as a form of communal rights "arising from the past, present and future contributions of farmers in conserving, improving and making available plant genetic resources, particularly those in the centers of origin/diversity" (cited in FAO, 1996).

Subsequently, the Convention on Biological Diversity, which took force at the end of 1993, recognizes "the sovereign rights of States over their natural resources" (cited in FAO, 1996). The convention also called for unspecified national measures that would require signatories to share "in a fair and equitable way the results of research and development, and the benefits arising from the commercial and other utilization of genetic resources" with the countries providing the genetic resources. The mechanisms by which such sharing would take place are not specified and are taken to be worked out at the discretion of each pair of countries. It is unclear at this point how far the convention actually extends; the U.S., for one, has not yet ratified the convention. But it appears that the convention will work in the direction of strengthening property rights protection for genetic resources (Gollin, 1993b).

The Convention on Biological Diversity specifically identified farmers' rights as an outstanding issue in need of resolution through the FAO Global System.29 Farmers' rights are defined in an FAO resolution as "rights arising from the past, present and future contribution of farmers in conserving, improving and making available plant genetic resources, particularly those in the centres of origin/diversity. These rights are vested in the International Community, as trustees for present and future generations of farmers, for the purpose of ensuring full benefits of farmers and supporting the continuation of their contributions."30 The FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is at present active in delineating the scope of these rights, and it is likely that at some point a statement of farmers' rights will be proposed as a protocol for the Convention on Biological Diversity. At present, it appears that if (when) farmers' rights are given full international force, mechanisms will be set up to provide compensation to farmers for the use of genetic materials based on varieties that they have developed. There is currently much active debate

29 See Esquinas-Alcazar, J., Farmers' rights, paper presented at the symposium The Economics of Valuation and Conservation of Genetic Resources for Agriculture, May 13-15, University of Rome Tor Vergata, 1996.

30 Ibid.

about the mechanisms through which such compensation would be paid. Key issues include the actual recipients of the compensation; the assessment of value; the determination of genetic content; and the means by which "sharing of benefits" is actually implemented.

Wright and Gollin31 suggest, however, that systems of farmers' rights may in fact provide little net compensation to farmers in developing countries. Many farmers in developing countries are net "borrowers" of varieties from other parts of the world and hence would lose rather than gain from a system of international compensation. Moreover, the difficulties of implementing compensation systems are formidable. For the purposes of on-farm conservation, it is unclear how monitoring would proceed or how individual farmers (rather than governments or groups) would collect compensation for the conservation or use of traditional varieties. Thus, on-farm conservation may not be greatly enhanced by changes in international legal systems.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment