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Seed diversity key to weathering the storms ahead

Source: Gaia Foundation - Fri, 25 Oct 2013 12:45 GMT
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A farmer holds out grains of wheat in his hands during a harvest on a field in the El-Menoufia governorate, about 9.94 km (58 miles) north of Cairo on April 23, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
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If the now-daily incidences of extreme weather events around the world weren’t enough to convince us that climate change is getting worse, the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gives bleak confirmation.

Indeed, one of the most serious concerns is how this will affect food production. As temperatures and rainfall patterns change, food crops around the world will need to adapt to give humanity a chance of growing enough to eat.

Sadly, the bad news gets worse. Most regions are unlikely to face just one form of extreme weather. Countries such as Kenya are already dealing with extremes ranging from drought, heavy rains and unprecedented cold, all in concurrent seasons.

The unpredictability of climate change means that farmers do not simply need to adapt their agriculture to hotter temperatures. To spread their risk and breed new varieties, they will need to grow a wide range of crops that can deal with everything including heat, cold, flooding, drought and salinity, as well as new pests and diseases.

Seed diversity is, and will be, key to our food systems weathering the storms ahead, and yet the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimate that 75 percent of global crop diversity has disappeared in the decades since the so-called “Green Revolution” of the 1960s.

Marketing and lobbying have steadily increased agribusiness corporations’ sales of hybrid and genetically modified seed, alongside policies that discourage, prevent or even criminalise farmers saving and exchanging seed. Monsanto’s genetically modified soya now accounts for 93 percent of soy grown in the United States; such monocultures are devastating diversity.

For 10,000 years of agriculture, farmers around the world have saved and bred an unimaginable wealth of seed diversity to meet their many different challenges. But as corporate seed and chemicals replace farmers’ own ingenuity, this diversity is steadily disappearing, and farmers’ indepth knowledge of how to save and adapt seed is going with it.

AGRI-CULTURE TO AGRI-BUSINESS

What was once agri-culture is increasingly becoming agri-business. The industrial food system is thus undermining what little chance agriculture has to adapt to climate change.

As Christine Campeau of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA), and fellow author of a report released this week by EAA, the Gaia Foundation and the African Biodiversity Network points out, “Too many farmers grow the same one or two varieties of purchased seed. But if the rains come too early or too late, too much or not at all, the entire crop may fail. As climate change increasingly hits agriculture, farmers are realising that the seed varieties that they grew, saved but then abandoned decades ago are the very varieties that they now need.”

The report “Seeds for Life: scaling up agrobiodiversity” gives a stark warning that food systems will be unable to adapt to climate change without seed diversity, reminding us of the disastrous legacy we are leaving for future generations.

It highlights the need for action and policies that bring back seed diversity and seed-saving knowledge in farmers’ hands, and that ensure this is passed on to the generations to come. Policies need to recognise the valuable role of the world’s small-scale farmers – the ones who continue to keep seed diversity alive, and who provide 70 percent of all food eaten globally.

It should shock us all to think of the wealth of crop diversity that our generation has inherited from our farming ancestors, and how we have carelessly squandered this incalculable gift in just a few decades. If we do not take action to revive seed diversity and seed-saving knowledge in farmers’ hands, we will be leaving a dangerously narrow gene pool from which future generations will struggle to farm and eat.

Teresa Anderson is international advocacy coordinator for the Gaia Foundation. 

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