TALKING SHOP: First World Conference on Organic Seed, Rome, Italy

Community Seed Network builds international model to preserve biodiversity and protect farmer knowledge
First World Conference on Organic Seed in Rome, Italy connects breeders from across globe who discover that they share a similar vision…and similar challenges.

By Matt Dillon, Executive Director, The Organic Seed Alliance

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a series by Matt Dillon, executive director of the Nonprofit Organic Seed Alliance, covering the First World Conference on Organic Seed, which took place in Rome this past July.

Matt’s first piece
] in this series set up the efforts by the organic seed community and Big Agriculture to sit down at the table and discuss how the two seemingly diametrically opposed entities might coexist. This installment focuses on the fledgling Community Seed Network (CSN), an international effort to preserve diversity, protect farmers’ rights and safeguard their knowledge.

September 28, 2004: In 1980, Cuba was the largest user of agrichemicals per hectare in the world. With the collapse of the Soviet economy, Cuba lost its purchasing power for these inputs and the country’s agricultural yield began to plummet, eventually reaching a bottom at 60 percent below historical highs. As the floor kept falling and funding for centralized agricultural production and research disappeared, Cuba was forced to rethink its approach to agriculture. In doing so, a “chain reaction of agricultural biodiversity and knowledge was created,” according to Humberto Rios Labrada of the Cuban National Institute of Agricultural Sciences. Labrada, a member of the newly formed coalition the Community Seed Network (CSN), spoke during the ‘Biodiversity’ session of the First World Conference on Organic Seed in Rome, which took place July 5-7. The first meeting of the CSN was held the evening prior to the official opening of the conference, with, International Foundation for Organic Agriculture (IFOAM) steering and committee representative Bernward Geier facilitating. Geier said he saw the meeting as an opportunity for the grassroots seed community to discuss critical issues and to consider a unified approach toward working with conference organizers on future efforts. The group of 35 to 40 bonded at the first meeting and would meet throughout the conference in “hallway sessions” as well as at a post-conference critique and ‘Next Steps’ session. From Uganda to Peru, Sri Lanka to New England, the CSN members shared in their valuation of farmer rights and farmer knowledge as the keystones of healthy seed systems.

The economic, social and agricultural history that Labrada presented of his homeland Cuba represents one vision of the need for developing a localized seed system— a shared goal of the CSN—and served as a template for discussing the overall concerns of the network. Here’s how he told the story:

In Cuba, as in most countries, political policy dictated research with the public as the final ‘beneficiary’ of this trickle-down wisdom and knowledge. During the heyday of their ‘green revolution,’ Cuban farmers had little choice about which crops or varieties they could plant. They received ‘approved’ varieties that had been developed and screened off-farm via a hierarchy of research institutes, national scientific forums, agricultural ministers and provincial leaders. The producers had minimal input in this process and felt that the scientists selected for a narrow vision of valuable traits without taking the time to gauge the varieties overall adaptability to the farms and the farmers. (Author’s Note: This is a situation not so different from a U.S. farmer with an agronomic crop, whose contract dictates the crop varieties used—varieties that are bred and evaluated in a consolidated, hierarchical, and off-farm system.)

The Cuban financial crisis caused budget cuts in formal research and a shift in the overall agricultural economy from monoculture production for export to diversified production for local markets. “Together, these dramatic changes are opening up the space for paying attention to participatory seed improvement and distribution practices under organic and low-input agriculture,” said Labrado, adding that researchers are paying close attention to the results of this developing decentralized system.

The first step in plant breeding is gaining familiarity with existing crop genetic materials, or germplasm. Diversity ‘seed fairs’ and organic evaluation plots at the Cuban Farmer Field School provide farmers with a diverse choice of varieties developed under both formal and informal seed systems. In a country were hunger is a neighbor for many living in rural communities, yield is the consummate trait, said Labrado, but farmers are also “rediscovering culinary properties and desirable bean shapes” of heirloom varieties. Once varieties have been chosen, farmers work with researchers to design breeding projects. The formal researchers stand back, teaching basic design strategies while allowing the farmer to define the parameters of the project. “Scientists see themselves as facilitators as opposed to the star or the leader,” said Labrado.

The Cuban researchers also collect data in order to gauge genetic improvement. In a four-year period, 86 percent of the farmers involved with the program had a positive genetic advance. Profitability is also measured and compared. Looking at per hectare costs, yields and income for pumpkin crops, researchers found that, sown under similar organic conditions, varieties bred in organic systems had a benefit cost ratio of 1.5 to 1, compared to 0.34 to 1 for those bred in high-input systems. This translated into a net gain in income of 372 pesos per hectare for the organic system and a loss of 462 pesos per hectare for the high-input system.

In addition to profitably adapting genetics for local organic conditions, the farmers are also decentralizing the distribution system. On-farm multiplication of these cooperatively bred varieties and local distribution amongst farmer networks decreases the cost of the seed input and adds to the net profit of the farm.

Labrada pointed out the long-term nature of the project and suggested that development of local seed systems can occur in tandem with national and international seed development, and not necessarily as an absolute alternative. Labrada said he felt that Cuba had learned a difficult but important lesson in the last decade, one from which he expressed hope that all would benefit. “Encouraging diversity and participation in strengthening local seed systems makes crop breeding more energetically efficient, socially available and more profitable.” The “chain reaction of agricultural biodiversity and knowledge” that Labrada referred to brought farmers into a place of respect and empowerment in developing germplasm. No longer simply ‘end-users,’ they are now involved in the full cycle of crop improvement.

A similar success story was shared by Javier Rovira of the Argentinean Association of Technology and Social Justice. The association runs a program called The Seeds of Life, which supports local seed production and distribution, preserving biodiversity and access to seed for community level organic production. These community farms, or huertas, are usually subsistence based and cannot afford seed inputs. The program works to build community controlled seed banks and production systems that serve more than 7,000 families who live and work on these huertas.

"We’ve got to keep promoting this exchange. The usual ‘extension-based’ or university systems don’t work for the local organic farmer. It’s up to us to create something new.” ."

Cristinia Micheloni of Italy, Ahmed Shalaby of Egypt, Maria Ramos of Spain and Mario Tapia of Peru were amongst the others who presented during the conference’s parallel sessions, inspiring the audience to healthy discussion that carried out into hallways and over the table at meals. A wealth of varying approaches to on-farm breeding, production and distribution sparked the imaginations of many in attendance. Judging by the diversity of ideas and origin of those in attendance, IFOAM did a nice job of putting word out beyond North America and Europe, bridging the ‘North-South Divide’ that can often mark international research conferences. The overall positive and progressive approach that these researchers presented was also a welcome contrast for many from the complaints of industry and hard-edged concerns of activists. What came forth were proactive solutions to the seed dilemmas that all nations face.

The organization I work for (Organic Seed Alliance) is involved with creating farmer-based seed education for production and breeding, and so it was inevitable that I would gravitate to CSN members and their stories. Over the course of four days, I attended presentations, lunch discussions and late-night meals (the Slow Food movement is alive and well in Rome) with members of the CSN and enjoyed many success stories. Yet these inspirational moments were tempered with strong expressions of fear and anger related to global seed issues and their effects on local systems. While ‘coexistence’ was the hot-button issue, CSN members also expressed concern that harmonization of seed regulations might be helpful for farmers in Europe and North America but would add unreasonable burdens in smaller countries—such as any mandate to plant only ‘registered’ organic seed listed within a database. The often-repeated sentiment was that any regulatory steps cannot weaken the genetic options or historical rights of farmers.

5 Point Text:

1. Ensure and protect the rights of farmers, especially those 1.4 billion individuals from farm families which depend on farm-raised seeds as the basis of their local food security, including protecting the centers of global genetic resources from GMO contamination.

2. Cooperate to reinvigorate public plant and animal breeding capacities to ensure a supply of crops and breeds that respect farmer and consumer choice and that meet local needs of organic agriculture.

3. Ensure that organic foundation seed stock be free of adventitious presence of GMO-derived DNA sequences.

4. Initiate Transparent and independent evaluation of the impacts of GMO on local food security and the environment.

5. Address the needs for protocols for redressing responsibility, liability and the need for notification regarding GMO crops, including the adaptation of both the precautionary and polluter-pay principles.

These concerns were brought together in what we initially termed our 5 Point Text (see sidebar). The text did not encompass all concerns or purport to be a finished product but rather focused on the key issues. The language is now being developed into a proposal by individuals within the CSN and will be forwarded to conference organizers and submitted for possible funding to implement development strategies.

Michael Sligh policy director for the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA) brought many of the text’s points to the table as talking points in the initial pre-conference gathering. He said he felt that the coalition had consensus across key issues while representing a wide range of countries and that the group did a good job of bringing the big issues to the floor. Sligh also had suggestions for next-steps. “The FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] made a public commitment to bring resources to on-farm plant breeding and local seed systems,” he said. “We need to follow up on this commitment. We’ve got to make concrete suggestions and continue to raise challenges when appropriate.” Sligh suggested that the group continue to explore models of seed systems that work, identify groups and individuals to join the network, and build a mechanism for funding farmer-based projects.

“We learned a lot about the value of exchange amongst farmers,” said Felicia Echeverria of the Costa Rican National Organic Program, reflected on the CSN presentations and discussions. Increasing farmer-led, farmer-based education is a tract the group should take, she said. “We’ve got to keep promoting this exchange. The usual ‘extension-based’ or university systems don’t work for the local organic farmer. It’s up to us to create something new.”

Matt Dillon has been involved for decades with the conservation and development of seed resources, first as a seed farmer, then as Executive Director of the Abundant Life Seed Foundation. A year ago the ALSF reorganized itself as the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), with a stronger emphasis on farmer education, seed research and the charitable distribution of open-pollinated seed. As Executive Director of the Organic Seed Alliance, Matt manages its education, research and World Seed Fund programs. He is currently overseeing a regional seed education program which is a collaboration of state agricultural universities, seed industry professionals and organic farmers.