With food and climate change, policymakers risk betting on the wrong horse

Governments are ignoring a vast store of knowledge - generated over thousands of years - that could protect food supplies and make agriculture more resilient to climate change, says a briefing published today by IIED.

News, 31 October 2011

It urges negotiators at the UN climate change conference in Durban later this month to give stronger support to traditional knowledge and address the threats posed by commercial agriculture and intellectual property rights.

The paper includes case studies from Bolivia, China and Kenya that show traditional knowledge and local farming systems have proved vital in adapting to the climatic changes that farmers there face.

This includes using local plants to control pests, choosing traditional crop varieties that tolerate extreme conditions such as droughts and floods, planting a diversity of crops to hedge bets against uncertain futures, breeding new varieties based on quality traits, and having systems in place to protect biological diversity and share seeds within and between communities.

But the paper warns that government policies tend to overlook such knowledge and fail to protect farmers’ rights to grow traditional crops, benefit from their use and access markets.

“Policies, subsidies, research and intellectual property rights promote a few modern commercial varieties and intensive agriculture at the expense of traditional crops and practices,” says the paper’s lead author Krystyna Swiderska, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

“This is perverse as it forces countries and communities to depend on an ever decreasing variety of crops and threatens with extinction the knowledge and biological diversity that form the foundations of resilience.”

The paper says that while modern agriculture and varieties may increase productivity, environmental stress and climatic variability mean the survival of poor farmers depends on more resilient and readily available traditional varieties.

“It is because of famers’ intimate knowledge of nature that traditional farming practices have persisted for thousands of years and overcome climatic threats,” adds Swiderska.

“To sweep away all of that knowledge and the biological diversity it relates to in favour of a limited set of modern seed varieties means putting the private interests of commercial seed corporations ahead of the public interest of sustaining food and agriculture.”

The paper says traditional seed varieties that have been developed locally are better suited to the prevailing local conditions – such as soils and pests -- even with climatic changes like drought. They are also cheaper.

“In Guangxi, Southwest China, most farmer-improved varieties survived the big spring drought in 2010, while most of the modern hybrids were lost”, says Dr. Yiching Song from the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy, Chinese Academy of Science.

Similarly, in coastal Kenya farmers have gone back to using traditional varieties to cope with changes in climate. “Traditional knowledge, crops and resource management practices are an essential element of local adaptive capacity, ”says Doris Mutta, senior researcher at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute.

More important, with traditional varieties farmers can select and save seed themselves for the next crop season, and this is a more self-reliant and sustainable farming system for adaptation.

Modern varieties on the other hand have to be bought each season, depend on market availability, and are often protected by intellectual property rights which can restrict their use. They also require costly inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides, which many indigenous farmers cannot afford.

“In the last few decades, there has been a rapid spread of hybrids at the expense of local landraces for most staple food crops in China,” says Dr Yiching Song, of the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy. “In fact, modern agriculture, like hybrid seeds, has made poor farmers in remote areas more vulnerable by increasing their reliance on external resources.”

The paper adds: “The capacity of the world’s poorest and most affected communities to adapt to climate change ultimately depends not only on traditional knowledge or on individual ecosystems, but on both — on the interlinked bio-cultural systems from which new innovations can develop and spread, and on the landscapes, cultural and spiritual values and customary laws that sustain them.”

Download the paper [PDF]