FEATURE: New research shows that traditional farming systems are essential for adaptation
By Krystyna Swiderska, IIED
While climate negotiators have focused on intensifying production through modern agriculture, new research shows that traditional knowledge and crop varieties may prove even more important for adaptation. In fact, modern agriculture has made many rural communities more vulnerable to climate change, by increasing their reliance on external resources.
Field studies in China, Kenya and Bolivia, summarised in a new IIED briefing paper, show that communities severely impacted by changes in climate have survived thanks to traditional crops. Traditional crops are hardier and more resilient to impacts such as drought and new pests, because their genetic make-up is more varied and better suited to local conditions. In south-west China, for example, most local landraces survived the big spring drought in 2010, while most modern hybrids were lost. Villages growing only hybrids lost all their production due to a shortage of hybrid seed in the market. In all three cases, farmers understand the value of sustaining a diversity of crops to reduce the risk of crop failure.
Traditional varieties are also more accessible because they come from farmers’ own saved seeds and so do not have to be bought in markets, and are cheap. This is particularly important for poor farmers in remote areas who are not well served by extension services or markets, and who cannot afford the costly farm inputs needed to grow modern varieties. The research also shows that traditional conservation practices – such as kaya forests in coastal Kenya – may need to be re-established to enable adaptation where government systems have not been effective.
But traditional crops and knowledge are disappearing fast. Government policies, research and subsidies largely promote modern commercial agriculture, often at the expense of traditional farming. In south-west China, where remaining areas of traditional agriculture are located, maize and rice staple crops have been highly commercialised, and the area cultivated with traditional varieties has rapidly decreased in the last 10 years (by 44% and 21%, respectively). Public breeding institutes are active commercial breeders. Intellectual property rights (IPRs) acquired by big seed companies in joint ventures with domestic companies are facilitating the rapid spread of hybrids.
IPRs also raise the price of seeds, and restrict access to seeds by farmers and scientists. Yet the challenges of climate change may require the widest possible circulation of germplasm to enable effective and timely adaptation. And IPRs provide no reward or incentive for seed conservation by farmers.
Incentives are urgently needed to encourage germplasm conservation by governments, public breeding institutes and farmers. Policy and institutional reforms are needed to support both modern and traditional agriculture. The capacity of the world’s poorest and most affected communities to adapt depends on the inter-linked traditional knowledge, culture and ecosystems – or bio-cultural systems – from which new innovations can develop and spread. Policy-makers at Durban need to recognise the value of traditional farming systems and identify ways to support them, including through reform of IPRs.
See www.bioculturalheritage.org for more information.