Friday, March 21, 2014

Conservation of landraces

This is a brief article about a scientist farmer, Debal Deb, who has dedicated himself to preserving, improving, and sharing traditional peasant landraces of rice in India.  His approach of maintaining a diversity of germplasm, in living fields as opposed to cold storage seed vaults, is different from the reigning modern agricultural paradigm in at least two major ways. 

First off is Deb's focus on diversity, as opposed to conventional farming's uniformity.  Conventional modern agriculture opts for using a few high-yielding varieties of any given crop, as opposed to maintaining genetic diversity through a plethora of varieties (each itself genetically heterogeneous, too).  This conventional approach, like most aspects of a modern industrial economy, could be said to be efficient but precarious.  Efficient in that it squeezes out the maximum yield by using only the most productive germplasm.  But precarious in that such uniformity makes it more vulnerable to any shock, like a disease outbreak or an extreme weather event.  Conventional agriculture puts all its proverbial eggs in one basket.  Everyone recognizes this, and so as a sort of safeguard, the modern agricultural paradigm maintains ex situ seedbanks, great vaults in which seeds or other planting material is maintained long-term in dry, cool, controlled conditions.  When a new problem that threatens the agroindustrial monoculture presents itself, plant breeders can look for useful genetic traits in the stored germplasm that they can breed into the prevalent high-yielding varieties and thus theoretically overcome the threat. 

This brings us to the second salient difference in Deb's approach.  By maintaining plant varieties in situ, which is to say by re-planting them every year and harvesting the seeds, Deb differs in another key way from the dominant agroindustrial paradigm.  As compared to ex situ storage in refrigerated conditions, in situ preservation maintains seed viability, and also maintains gene flow in varieties.  Ex situ gene banks figuratively (and literally, too!) freeze a variety.  It is conserved as in a museum, separated from daily use and the outside world.  This is cheaper than planting a variety in the field and harvesting it every year, and it also has the potential to get rid of nasty things like viruses and fungal infections that can creep into seed over time.  But, as with the efficient yet precarious practice of high-yield monocultures, the ex situ gene bank model has its problems.  Seeds kept in an ex situ bank are stuck in time--they don't evolve.  In contrast, varieties maintained in situ continue to adapt and change according to farmer preferences and prevailing conditions.  Another very real problem with ex situ seedbanks, and one that Deb explicitly (and perhaps a bit exaggeratedly) calls out in the article, is that they are not as safe and sound as proponents would make them out to be.  A fairly large proportion of ex situ-kept seed becomes inviable (read dead) over time, and if a given variety is stored long enough without planting in the field, it is lost from the seedbank, and possibly from the face of the earth, forever.  Furthermore, keeping a bunch of germplasm in one location means that it is vulnerable to the vagaries of politics, disasters, and funding.  Time and again entire seed banks have been lost as funding ran out, or responsibility for them became unclear.

It's probably clear from this post that I sympathize a lot with people like Debal Deb and his quest to maintain traditional landraces.  I also recognize the criticisms that one could make of his approach.  For one, preserving local landraces for productive use in real farmer fields means that those fields will often not be producing as much yield as they could if they were planted to an improved modern variety in monoculture.  As with most traditional practices, if all farmers in the world planted only landraces, we probably wouldn't be able to feed everyone.  This is basically due to the fact that the production levels of pre-modern agricultural practices were adequate for pre-modern conditions, which is to say when the world had a fifth or a tenth of its current and future population.  They no longer suffice as an exclusive approach today.

But here is where I see the real value in the efforts of Deb and many others like him throughout the world.  They are not calling for a monopoly of method, for everyone's converting to their way of preserving traditional knowledge or germplasm.  Even if they were calling for such a monopoly, it's obvious that there is little risk of their forcing their way on the rest of the world.  No, the preservation of traditional farming wisdom, techniques, and seeds is precisely a call against monopoly, against uniformity, in favor of diversity and pluralism.  Beyond my own sentimental or intellectual preference for diversity of thought, it is becoming increasingly clear (if it was ever unclear) that the status quo cannot ensure the future of our world.  Indeed, the current way of doing agriculture (and production and consumption in general) will ensure precisely our destruction as a planet and as a species.  We need a multiplicity of ideas and approaches and resources to steer us away from our destructive practices, while maintaining the burgeoning production necessary to sustain billions of human beings, not to mention all the rest of the earth's species.  Preserving traditional crop varieties must be part of that multiplicity, a dyke against the flow of destruction and irrecuperable loss.

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