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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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IIED Brief Urges UN Climate Negotiators to Promote Traditional Sustainable Agriculture Practices

November 9, 2011 |

United Nations climate negotiators seeking accord on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol agreement on climate change action in Durban later this month are largely ignoring a wealth of readily available information that could protect food supplies and make agriculture more resilient to climate change, asserts a briefing paper from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

Those aiming to negotiate a consensus agreement on climate change in Durban need to pay greater attention, and give more support, “to traditional knowledge and address the threats posed by commercial agriculture and commercial property rights,” according to an IIED press release.

Entitled, “Adapting Agriculture with Local Knowledge,” the briefing paper includes case studies from Bolivia, China and Kenya. In many instances, traditional knowledge and local farming systems have stood the test of time and “proved vital in adapting to the climatic changes that farmers” in the respective regions face, the brief’s authors state.

Select traditional agricultural adaptations that local farmers practice include the following: using local plants to control pests; planting a diversity of crops to hedge against failure of any one; breeding of new plant varieties based on quality traits and; having systems at hand to protect biodiversity and share seeds within and between communities.

Such traditional knowledge and measures are threatened by industrial agriculture and the extension of corporate-owned intellectual property rights to plant genomes and seed varieties, which are typically enforced by Free Trade Agreements or private commercial contracts. Encroachment by large scale agriculture robs local farmers and nations of their traditional agriculture knowledge and resources, says the briefing.

“Policies, subsidies, research and intellectual property rights promote a few modern commercial varieties and intensive agriculture at the expense of traditional crops and practices,” according to the paper’s lead author Krystyna Swiderska, a senior IIED researcher.

“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.”

While modern, commercial agricultural methods and resources may increase productivity of a limited number of staple crops, they are based on monoculture and the use of additional industrial inputs, such as pesticides, fertilizers and fuels derived from fossil fuels, which are likely to become increasingly expensive and in the long-term result in diminishing returns as they degrade soil and farmland productivity, as well as the quality and quantity of water resources.

Environmental stress and climatic variability means that the survival of poor farmers depends more on having resilient and readily available traditional varieties, the report’s authors assert.

“It is because of farmers’ 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 favor 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 researchers involved in putting together the report also collected data on the production and maintenance of local seed varieties by traditional farming communities around the world. They note that in addition to enhancing climatic resilience to drought, changing soil conditions, and pests, such traditional practices are cheaper than modern, commercial alternatives.

They note that while in one instance most modern hybrid seed varieties failed to survive a severe spring drought in southwest China’s Guangxi province, most of those developed in the traditional manner by local farmers in the same area survived.

Such practices also make local farmers more self-reliant by affording them greater flexibility to adapt more sustainable methods and resources to changing climatic conditions, they added.

“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,” said 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 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,” the authors add.

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