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11 January 2016AfricaGraham Dutfield

Healthy farms, healthy planet

Innovation in the agricultural sphere has never been as important for humanity as it is today. For this to be apparent one just has to think of the scale of human population and its continued growth, increasing urbanisation, and pressures on the environment.

What may be less obvious is the vital importance of biodiversity in the face of anthropogenic climate change. Agri-biodiversity contributes to mitigating climate change by enhancing resilience to extreme climatic events. As a resource base it affords small farming communities wide scope to adapt their cultivation practices to changing conditions, often on marginal lands that are unsuitable for modern intensive agriculture.

It is also a source of valuable genetic material for plant breeders, enabling them to respond to demand for high-quality crop varieties able to thrive wherever they are cultivated.

Small-scale farming systems which rely on local agricultural biodiversity to cultivate a wide range of crop species and cultivars provide services for high-input industrial agricultural systems. By continuously using agri-biodiversity, they keep it in existence. Further, so-called traditional agriculture does not require large volumes of resource-intensive agricultural chemicals such as industrial pesticides.

Industrial agriculture has led to massive increases in global food production, but it also contributes negatively to climate change. On the other hand, there is a tendency to write off traditional small-scale systems as being obsolete, maladaptive and generally unproductive.

One of the main reasons we fail to respect traditional agriculture is perhaps that the word “traditional” implies a rootedness to the past as if that were its only defining feature. In fact, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) refers to the “knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities”. It is unfortunate that “innovations” has largely been left out of the discourse. To suggest that traditional knowledge is old and therefore lacks novelty is an unhelpful presumption.

Working together

We would be wrong to see the wholesale replacement of traditional agricultural systems with industrial ones as progress having no negative repercussions. Indeed, there is no reason that industrial science-based agriculture and traditional agriculture cannot operate in a mutually beneficial way. In some respects they already do. Just as plant breeders can identify useful traits in landraces (or local varieties) and insert them into their crop improvement activities, traditional farmers often cultivate modern varieties alongside their local ones and select the best specimens for replanting.

Large-scale and high-input monocultural agricultural systems certainly have advantages in terms of food security for urban populations, even if nutritional quality may sometimes be compromised in favour of sheer quantity.

But that is not how all agriculture should be done. Low-input localised production systems have a role to play as long as they are open to innovation, which they often are. For example, in a small area of the Peruvian highlands inhabited by just five villages, the Quechua-speaking farmers cultivate 1,400 varieties of potato, some of which are local but others having been acquired from elsewhere.

In this place, known as the Potato Park, which comprises only about 10,000 hectares, local people do not specialise in a few productive varieties for the simple reason that in such mountainous areas, where altitudes vary considerably, micro-environments vary radically. As the farmers are vulnerable to radically changing climatic conditions from year to year, it would be reckless to depend solely on a small number of genetically uniform cultivars.

More than 400 of the varieties they grow were acquired through a reciprocal agreement with the International Potato Center (CIP), one of the international agricultural research centres of the global CGIAR (Consultative Group in International Agricultural Research) system.

Others came from other indigenous farmer organisations in Peru. These are not just ‘old’ varieties inherited from the ancestors: these farmers experiment by crossing and selecting—not just mass selecting as human communities have done for millennia. In exchange, the Potato Park has deposited samples of local varieties with the CIP and also with the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway for the future of humanity. If seed is technology, this is two-way technology transfer.

One must not be romantic. Indigenous peoples and local communities need an income in order to sustain their agricultural systems and adapt them as they see fit. They also need to acquire resources and technologies from elsewhere. Under fair and equitable arrangements they are willing to share the ones they have, which as I have suggested are important to global agricultural systems more generally.


How can intellectual property rights help to valorise agricultural biodiversity and associated knowledge, innovations and practices for the benefit of small farming communities around the world? Patent licensing is the conventional approach to exchanging new technologies. But patents are not really usable for such groups and communities, and are not in fact needed anyway for exchanging plant material and low-cost practical techniques. Patents and plant variety protection seem more appropriate in large-scale modern agricultural settings than among the types of communities discussed above.

Access and benefit-sharing schemes are required under two international instruments: the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, and the Nagoya Protocol to the CBD. However, they seem unlikely to channel much in the way of financial support to the local level, although they may encourage appropriate technology exchanges. Indeed, the Potato Park initiatives, some of which are supported by the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, essentially put the principles behind these instruments into practice, albeit without the communities in question being parties to them (obviously, as they are non-state actors).

If communities need an income, they must have something to sell. Products which embody customary practices based on the wise use of biodiversity or whose sale otherwise encourages the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity can be better marketed through the wise use of trademarks and geographical indications (GIs).

The Potato Park has its own very appealing trademark comprising the phrase ‘Parque de la Papa’ (potato park in Spanish) with a background depicting local farmers working in their fields, a local lake, two mountains and a rising (or setting) sun. The mark is used on product packaging and labels on goods ranging from teas to textiles.

GI dilemma

What about GIs? These present something of a challenge. A product comprising entirely local ingredients and sold under the name of the place it is made in can attract customers and generate a steady income even when production is low in volume. But here we have a potential conflict. On the one hand, the consumer expects a product to have integrity with strict rules regarding content, geographical source, and production methods. On the other, this might encourage a preference for monoculture and a rejection of local innovations and practices.

Tequila is an example of a GI-protected product where the specification does not promote agri-biodiversity. This is because, for the convenience of the large international corporations that market tequila and gain most of the income, only one agave species is authorised for use, despite the existence in the region of a diversity of agave species and varieties well known to local people, at least some of which could probably also be put into production without diminishing product quality.

Moreover, industrial mass production processing techniques are undermining the ‘localness’ of the product. It is obviously important that the sourcing and the quality of raw materials be strictly regulated, and production methods be controlled. Nonetheless, it appears as though insufficient effort has been made to investigate the possible use of agaves other than the approved one without compromising product quality or identity. Nor are traditional preparation practices being used.

This of course points to the vital importance of fully involving the local cultivators, who could gain more from use of other agaves and of their own skills and practices in drawing up the specification if a GI-based marketing strategy is to be employed at all.

One can reasonably scoff at the idea that by drinking more tequila from more diverse sources one is going to help save the planet. Nonetheless, a serious point should be made here. Once we accept that agri-biodiversity maintained in its in situ conditions is necessary for mitigating climate change while contributing to food security, the ones doing the maintaining need to be able to make money out of it. There have been many criticisms of companies using IP for extracting value out of biodiversity without anything going back.

Collective and certification marks and GIs are not a panacea and a lot of smart thinking must go into finding ways to use them in order to benefit the local communities. Nonetheless, there are some good reasons to be hopeful that they can be used to valorise biodiversity and associated knowledge and innovations.

This can happen only if local people are fully involved in all the decision-making, and if the protection of agricultural biodiversity and sustainability are given priority over short-term gain and the convenience of those at the end of the value chain who may operate in very distant locations.

Graham Dutfield is a professor of international governance at the  University of Leeds. He can be contacted at: g.m.dutfield@leeds.ac.uk

This article is based on a presentation by the author at a roundtable organised by the French Industrial Property Institute held in Paris on December 8, 2015 during the 21st meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

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