Friday, December 10, 2010

The process or the parts?: Wild relatives of common foods and how they are a part of the future of food

I just read this article in the Globe and Mail with great interest:  "Wild relatives of common crops may hold key to future of food" (From Friday 10 December edition).  I was intrigued and heartened to see this topic being address in one of Canada's national newspapers.  Realising that we have bred out the resilience out of our food crops and that the challenges posed by a changing climate are not likely to be survived by our current, domesticated forms - The Global Crop Diversity Trust is seeking out the native, wild ancestors of our common food crops.

“All our crops were originally developed from wild species,” Dr. Fowler said. “We need to go back to the wild to find those relatives of our crops that can thrive in the climates of the future. And we need to do it while those plants can still be found.”

I applaud this recognition and effort - but, for two reasons, I question the next step: the sealing away the seeds of these plants in a vault or even keeping them growing in a few, elite labs around the world.  

As I wrote in my thesis ("Home Coming: An exercise in belonging by exploring ecological resilience and the farming communities of east-central Alberta"), I believe that keeping the seeds active, growing and in relationship with today's climate and environment will better serve tomorrow's growing conditions.  The seeds, the land, the climate and the people need to coevolve together and not develop separately.  Yes we need to capture and preserve the biodiversity that brought us this far and we need to nurture it into the future.

From page 48-49 of my thesis:

The word that I have found myself using to capture what it means to enter in and work with the processes and patterns that are present is to coevolve.  To grow together and through that growing together to create a real belonging.  Let me give an example that helped me understand this concept better.  

The importance of biodiversity seems to be gaining in understanding and recognition such that 2010 has been named the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity and over the last few years more projects have been initiated around seed banks and seed saving.  One of the biggest projects is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault based in Norway that seals dehydrated seeds into airtight containers and freezes them nearly 400 feet down in the Norwegian mountainside.  This vault can store around 4.5 million seeds and scientists from around the world are part of retrieving seeds destined for this ‘back up’ supply. Considering the extent of biodiversity loss that current ‘development’ is bringing along with it and the environmental chaos that is predicted to come along with climate change, it seems like a pretty good idea to be saving a diverse range of healthy seeds that we can rely on in the decades to come.  However as I start to consider how adaptation and change happens through the interplay of processes and components that make up a system, I begin to doubt the overall reliance and faith that seems to be given to the ideas of banks and vaults where seeds are being locked up.  Seeds are a part of life and the process of adaptation - shouldn’t our focus be on growing and keeping alive more seeds, and more diverse types of seeds?  If the environment and conditions are changing, shouldn’t we be allowing the seeds to coevolve with the environment and allow them to change with it?  I believe this is the method that Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya organisation works.  They work through a network of local seed banks across India where seeds are grown and nurtured under diverse growing conditions.  The seeds are catalogued and conserved for their growing properties, some kept and some kept into production for the next year.  It is an approach to seed saving that stays within the dynamics of life, an approach where the seed, the environment, the farmers and the communities continue to change and develop together. 

The growing needs to happen in various locations, in a decentralised, democratic manner.  A few scientists growing these varieties in a few research stations around the globe means that when these seeds are needed - we will be at a point vulnerable to a power struggle in terms of who owns the seeds and who decides when they are used.  And by the time that decision is made or power struggle won, it is likely that the people most in need of the seeds will be at such an emergency point that their concerns will be beyond growing food.  The challenges we face as a global community are great enough - we don't need to create another set of resource wars and famines because we were too centralised with our seed supply.

If this makes sense to you - you may want to read more about Earth Democracy:
10 Principles of Earth Democracy - click here
Earth Democracy and Navdanya - click here 
and to look into the work of the Land Institute in Kansas - click here

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