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Smallholder farmers backbone of seed diversity

By Song Xin | China Daily | Updated: 2021-10-18 08:05


Editor's Note: In the wake of the biodiversity conference in Kunming, which concluded on Friday, China will draw up a national action plan to strike a balance between biodiversity conservation and economic and social development. What are the measures will the country take to conserve biodiversity? Four experts share their views on the issue with China Daily:

Agricultural biodiversity is a vital part of biological diversity, which is essential to maintain the health of the planet, and includes the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels that sustain the ecosystem structures, processes and functions in and around production and re-generation systems that provide food and non-food agricultural products.

Principally managed by farmers, fishermen and forest dwellers, agrobiodiversity provides stability, adaptability and resilience, and is a key element of the livelihoods of rural communities across the world.

As such, agrobiodiversity is crucial for sustainable food systems and sustainable diets, and can contribute to food security, nutrition security and livelihood security. It is also critical to seed diversity and security, as well as climate adaptation and climate mitigation.

However, the erosion of the farmers' seed systems and lack of good quality seeds are hindering the development of local initiatives toward food and nutrition security, and the sustainable development of agriculture, which includes the production and consumption of healthy, nutritious and diverse types of foods, for which the demand across the world is increasing due to food safety problems and growing environmental concerns.

China's rich agrobiodiversity is under unprecedented strain because of the loss of many valuable local varieties of crops that were cultivated and nurtured by smallholder farmers for centuries, and many wild relatives of cultivated staple crops face the threat of extinction. In order to control the sharp decline in crop diversity and quantity of agricultural germplasm (seeds or tissues) resources, the Ministry of Agriculture has set up a "Seed Project" for enlarging the national gene bank conservation facilities.

In fact, apart from the formal gene bank system, there exists a nationwide "seed system" for the in-situ conservation and sustainable use of agrobiodiversity: it is made up by about 500 million rural population. These smallholder farmers are not only seed savers, but also provide very important evolutionary services, which are a public good and upon which plant breeding depends.

On-farm and in-situ conservation and utilization are closely linked to local farmers' everyday life and embedded in their traditional farming and knowledge systems, which has been going on for thousands of years in China. However, this community-based farmer seed system has largely remained unrecognized and unsupported by the formal system.

Based on this, over the past 20 years, the Farmers' Seed Network (FSN) has carried out a pilot project on smallholder farmers' conservation and sustainable utilization of seed diversity and building a multi-stakeholder innovation platform for communities, scientific research institutions, social organizations and policymakers to better collaborate in strengthening farmers' seed systems and local food systems. Several fruitful results have been achieved in promoting the conservation and utilization of community seed diversity and building a multistakeholder platform.

The FSN has helped research institutions to cooperate with farmers in community-based participatory plant breeding, varietal selection, crop improvement, repatriation and seed production; assist smallholder farmers to improve local varieties and cultivated more than 10 participatory plant breeding varieties with remarkable resistance potential and stable yield; meet the demand of farmers and markets; and conserve more than 1,000 rice, maize and other crop varieties.

The FSN has supported 12 rural communities to set up community seed banks to conserve local plant genetic resources; enhance access, availability and utilization of local crop diversity; add value to seed and ecological produce; and build formal farmer seed system linkages and foster collaboration.

The FSN has also participated in the revision of the Seed Law, and organized multi-stakeholder policy dialogue and given recommendations based on research results to international platforms such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The author is a coordinator of the Farmers' Seed Network, a nonprofit social organization focused on enhancing smallholder farmers' capacity through multi-stakeholder action research. The article is based on the organization's group research.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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