In fields or in gene banks

A photograph: a woman in a lab coat looks at a sample tube. She is in a long room completely filled with trays of glass sample tubes.
Gene bank at CIAT’s Genetic Resources Unit, Colombia. CIAT is part of the CGIAR – basically a global network of crop research labs funded by country governments, and by foundations and other private donors (for example, Bill Gates). The CGIAR is pretty much in charge of all non-for-profit crop research the world over, and they behave as though they were part of the United Nations, even though they aren’t. Photo by Neil Palmer (CIAT), Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Some 20 years ago, many of us were excited when the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Biosafety Protocol and the International Seed Treaty were signed. But none of them have contributed much to keeping diversity alive in the fields. The Seed Treaty is now almost exclusively focused on gene banks, and mostly serves corporate plant breeders. The Convention on Biological Diversity became a tool for governments to turn biodiversity into a commodity.

All of these agreements talk about the rights of farmers and indigenous communities, but these were never implemented, and never will be. Instead, in many parts of the world, governments are now pushing restrictive seed legislation that gives intellectual property rights to corporations while outlawing farmers’ traditional role in maintaining diversity on the farm.

Peasants are keeping agrobiodiversity alive, but their survival is under threat from the rapid expansion of industrial farming. Driven by the powerful food and agro-fuel industries, the world is turning over its fertile farmlands to grow commodities that don’t feed people. In the past fifty years the amount of land dedicated to just four crops – soybeans, oil palm, rapeseed and sugarcane – has tripled. They now use an extra 140 million hectares of fields and forests where small farmers used to live.

We can only save agrobiodiversity if we save peasant farming. Global farmer movements such as La Via Campesina are trying to do precisely that by advocating food sovereignty. Food sovereignty promotes the use of agro-ecology, biodiversity, local markets and indigenous knowledge. It pushes for agrarian reform, fights against the industrial food system and global trade and puts local food producers centre stage again.

– Excerpted from No agrobiodiversity without peasants, published by GRAIN