The real roots of security

The real roots of security


argues that local control of biodiversity is
the best way to achieve food security

field, boat and manBiodiversity is increasingly recognized as a cornerstone not just of the lives of local people but of major economic markets and of the balance sheets of transnational corporations. The key struggle over who controls biodiversity, and who benefits from it, lies near the centre of the debates over trade, and food production and distribution.

Little more than 150 of the world's 248,000 reported higher plant species are under commercial cultivation. About 20 crops provide 90 per cent of the world's food: just four of them - rice, maize, wheat and potato - supply more than half its daily Calories. But, nevertheless, diversity - both within and between species - is the basis of most small-scale farming systems. It allows them to withstand vagaries of climate and disease that can undercut productivity, and enables people to benefit from a richer diet. Farming communities in developing countries employ diversity for food and economic security through a complex array of home garden designs, agroforestry systems and integrated lowland farming.

Local initiative

Examples abound. Tropical home gardens and shifting cultivation practices perhaps provide the most outstanding deployments of diversity within and between crops. Complex home garden systems are veritable experiment stations where farmers - including women, children and the elderly - conduct rigorous trials in plant introduction, selection and cropping patterns. A popular Filipino folk song names 18 species of vegetables commonly found in a traditional kitchen garden. In West Java, Indonesia, home gardens contain hundreds of species within a single village. What appears to be a chaotic mess of annuals and perennials is actually a highly sophisticated mixture of species and varieties which provide food, animal feed, fuel, medicines, building materials and cash crops. Many such crops, fulfilling diverse needs, are grown with rice (usually the main crop in the rainy season) in many parts of Southeast Asia, while the keeping of animals adds even more diversity. There are many other examples from Latin America, Africa and small island states.

The message is clear. Farmers have painstakingly developed resilient and bountiful agricultural systems based on biodiversity, and on their knowledge of how to work successfully with them in equally complex cultural settings. These systems are time-tested and locally adapted. They have nurtured growing populations on scales comparable with today's. But we are fast undermining this link to food security.

There are perhaps three major biases in current governmental thinking which propel the destruction of biodiversity and of local peoples' food security systems. The first is the commodity bias. The Green Revolution heralded the trend to feed the world with a few crops, through a few 'miracle seeds'. This strategy has undermined local farming systems and instilled tremendous vulnerability in agriculture, making farmers dependent on toxic crop chemicals and artificial fertilizers. Last June, more than half the 150 countries attending the International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources, sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Leipzig, Germany, reported the replacement of local crop varieties as the primary cause of genetic erosion in their food systems. The trend towards increasing uniformity within crops is hardly questioned by governments, and the push to reduce agriculture to a matter of commodities and mere business logic militates against the security that people derive from diversity.

men selling pineapples

Reductionist approach

The second bias can be called the gene bias. An extreme form of reductionism has taken hold in institutional crop improvement strategies and dominant biodiversity conservation schemes over the past few decades. Mainstream agriculture has become dependent on relatively few breeders, on few breeding strategies, and predominantly on ex situ genebanks for new seeds for its ever-changing needs. These breeding or conservation strategies are excessively focused on single gene logics of pest and disease resistance, high yield and adaptation to chemicals. This bias in genetics towards single characteristics reinforces the decline of diversity in agriculture because it leads us to accept that a few tricks - this variety, that gene, the spray over there - will pull the world's food supply through. Modern advances in biotechnology, especially genetic engineering, only reinforce the seductive logic of reductionism.

The third bias is the survival-of-the-fittest mentality which dominates the drive to liberalize trade and extend intellectual property rights regimes to all manifestations of biodiversity. In essence, countries are struggling to win or impose artificial niches in the globalizing economy so that their citizens can maintain jobs and decent incomes. This ignores the reality of gross inequalities and corners many developing countries into bargaining off their indigenous biodiversity to the highest bidder. As biotechnology heightens the chance of finding a cure for cancer in a handful of tropical soil, developing countries are being pushed into accepting Western intellectual property regimes as the incentive for research and terms of fair trade, be it through the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) provisions of the World Trade Organization or the Convention on Biological Diversity.

People are increasingly being pushed into a dangerous level of dependency on governments to rationalize and address the food security issue - which first and foremost is an issue faced day in and day out by individual households. Poverty and inequality are being forgotten in the scramble to forge a new international status quo and declare the issue of food supplies resolved: yet they are prime obstacles both to conservation and to any aspiration to economic security. And the forces undermining people's opportunities to benefit in the long term from biodiversity are largely outside their control, making local development a more difficult challenge than ever.

There is a glaring need to reorientate economic policies and scientific support programmes in favour of achieving food security through local control over biodiversity. Innovative approaches to agricultural research and development can move away from reductionist paradigms and embrace far more promising agendas. This means de-emphasizing technology transfer models and 'super-gene' solutions in favour of research on complex farming systems, carried out by farmers and professionals working together. Local people must increasingly become the central focus of any consideration of food security programmes. And communities will only benefit from solutions if they have the means to generate or sustain them on their own terms and within their own capacities.

Global economic gain

Making biodiversity an organizing principle of food security forces the downplaying of the commodity approach to agricultural development programmes. Farming systems will not long survive if they are based on chemical crutches and narrow genetics, on rural poverty and landlessness. Both community livelihoods and the international economy can benefit far more from a wider deployment of biodiversity in agriculture, including the use of wild species and currently underutilized crops.

We have to stop paying lip service to local communities and their knowledge and instead aggressively help to empower them to reap benefits from the potential of biodiversity. Instead of narrowing the resource pool and forgetting about local actors, we should put simple mechanisms in motion to enable farmers to continue working with a wide array of resources. This will improve the basis for food and livelihood security at its very roots.

Dr. Oscar B. Zamora is based at the Department of Agronomy of the University of the Philippines, Los Baños.

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