Industrial agriculture and the crisis of extinction

Industrial agriculture and the crisis of extinction

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Good morning, good afternoon, good evening  my name is AnDrew Buskelll, I’m a Leverhulme   Early Career Fellow at the Department of  History and Philosophy of Science at the   University of Cambridge. It's my pleasure to be  introducing today's speaker Dr Helen Anne Curry.   Dr Curry is a Senior Lecturer in the Department  of History and Philosophy of Science at the   University of Cambridge and Fellow of Churchill  College. She's been at the University since 2012   teaching and researching the history of modern  science and technology with a particular focus   on how these have shaped the foods we eat  and the environment around us. Dr Curry has   a long-standing interest in the intersections  of the life sciences, research and agriculture.   In her ground-breaking 2016 book ‘Evolution  Made to Order’ she traced the history of several   early technologies used to modify genes and  chromosomes including x-rays and radioisotopes,   highlighting their application and celebration  as novel methods of plant breeding.   She's more recently been writing  the history of genetic conservation   especially the preservation of seeds and other  plant materials in seed and gene banks. This  

history was the focus of a three-year ProFutura  Scientia Fellowship from 2017 to 2020, and is   the subject of her forthcoming book ‘Endangered  Maize’ which we'll be hearing more about today.   Dr Curry's current research focuses on  the history of efforts to understand   and use crop diversity as a resource  for agricultural development.   Since August 2020 she has led the  project ‘From Collection to Cultivation:   Historical Perspectives on Crop Diversity and Food  Security’ with funding from the Wellcome Trust.   This team of nine researchers is rewriting the  histories of how today's food crops came to be.   Dr Curry I’m sure I speak for those gathered  online as well as myself when I say that we're   looking forward to your talk industrial  agriculture and the crisis of extinction.

Thanks very much for that introduction uh Dr  Buskell and thanks to those of you who are   tuning in here today. Now many of you are no doubt  already familiar with the idea that we're losing   diversity in the fruit, the vegetable and the  grain crops that are grown and eaten around   the world today. For those who aren't familiar  with that I hope it will suffice to say for now   that on the whole humanity today  relies on many fewer plant species   for many more of their calories than they have  done in the past. These are unsurprisingly the   species that are prized in industrial production  so for example wheat as you see in the image here.   And within these species that we depend on  today, the varieties that are grown tend to be   more genetically alike from one context to the  next than they were in many cases in the past.  

Better performing genes have always spread  further but this baseline has been encouraged by   greater uniformity in farming systems and the  emergence of a transnational seed industry   so both citizens and scientists who have been  concerned about the loss of crop diversity   have generated many different efforts to conserve  this diversity over the past hundred years or so.   Just to take two uh ends of the spectrum in recent  times as examples to illustrate this we might   think about for example the Svalbard Global Seed  Vault. The seed vault is a cold storage facility   which warehouses duplicate copies of many of  the world's most important seed or gene bank   collections so it's a kind of backup collection of  other seed collections around the world it stores   these in the arctic as a way of preserving  them for the the future possible use of of   researchers and eventually farmers down the road.  A very different kind of conservation enterprise   is that of Seedy Sunday. Here you see an example  of Seedy Sunday as it was run in Brighton in 2019.   This is a community event where gardeners and  other growers get together to exchange seeds often   seeds of things that are rare or difficult to find  in catalogues so heirloom or heritage varieties   that have been transmitted between generations  and around communities over long periods of time.  

The Svalbard global seed vault and Seedy  Sunday they're worlds apart in many respects   and yet they're also united by a shared belief in  endangered diversity and a commitment to ensuring   the the continuation of that diversity. Now  I’ve spent the past decade or so researching   the history of efforts like these efforts to  collect and conserve crop genetic diversity   which has variously been characterized  as local land races as folk types as   indigenous or traditional varieties or  heritage or heirloom varieties as well   I’ve looked into the origins of  many of today's seed bank samples   which have their origins and collecting  missions dating from the 1890s onwards   all I’ve also followed the evolution of strategies  for conserving samples of crop diversity from that   time right up until the present day so things  like seed banks and gene banks as they've evolved   over time and also community enterprises like  Seedy Sunday. This history is the subject of my   new book which is uh just coming out in the next  few months it's also available for pre-order now   and I mentioned that because what I’m going to  do in this talk is share just one lesson from my   research and from the book. One lesson of many  potential lessons. So if what I share here is   of interest to you I assure you that there is  a lot more that that that one can say but for   today I’m just gonna focus on one observation that  emerges from this larger history and that's the   observation that today seed banks despite their  being the single most heralded solution to the   loss of crop diversity are unlikely to be the sole  long-term solution to this problem. To illustrate   this I’m going to offer a very very brief history  of seed banking of how and why something like the   Svalbard global seed vault came to be built and  to be empowered to to do the things that it does.

I’ll start my account today at the moment when  scientists especially those who were involved   in agricultural research started to agitate for  something like coordinated conservation efforts   focusing on crop diversity. Now that means going  back to the 1890s and and early 1900s this is   really the moment in time when concerns about  uh the loss of crop diversity first surfaced in   any significant way in Europe. Now this worry a  worry that some varieties of agricultural crops   so local strains of wheat or of barley for example  were disappearing was a direct consequence of   an intensified interest and that moment in  time in plant breeding or crop improvement   in the late 19th century state governments had  started investing in agricultural research and   professional researchers had started devoting  more time and attention to the deliberate control   of plant genetic recombination for example  pursuing hybridization or what we call pure   line breeding an attempt to direct the  development of better crop varieties.   In many places this work of crop improvement got  a boost from a new science of genetics around 1900   amidst a kind of flurry of plant breeding activity  work that was done both by state funded and also   private industry sorry industry plant breeding  professionals in both of those spaces.   There was an immediate recognition that the  flip side of creating improved crop varieties   of vegetables or grain for sale by private  companies or distribution by government agencies   was going to be the loss of farmers local  varieties, varieties that we now refer to   today as land races. In fact this switchover  from from farmers varieties to breeders varieties   seemed obvious even inevitable uh to those  who were uh thinking about this scenario   breeders varieties were designed to perform  better in the field so of course farmers would   be expected to prefer them to older types and then  allow those older types to go out of circulation.  

Most people saw this transition as a reason  to celebrate - it represented agricultural   improvement at its very best. However there  were researchers and others who worried   about a potential unwanted side effect of  this transition they wondered about the   possibility that those abandoned lines  those farmers’ varieties or land races   that they might be harbouring useful qualities. If  no farmers were growing them they would disappear   and no breeder in the future would be able to  identify and develop those useful qualities.   Agricultural scientists who saw this loss as a  possibility therefore started suggesting that   farmers’ lines ought to be collected and  saved, that way agricultural professionals   such as themselves would be able to study  and develop those lines in the future.  

Now even though various different experts voiced  an interest in the conservation of crop diversity   at national and also international gatherings  in the 1890s, in the 1910s, and the 1930s,   there wasn't a lot of activity that happened on  this front at least in terms of conservation. In   comparison these decades did see a  lot of attention and energy dedicated   to collecting crop diversity as a resource for  agricultural development in many different places   typically collection missions  targeted poor farmers, targeted   subsistence cultivators, especially indigenous  peoples, anyone thought to be keeping varieties   understood to be traditional as opposed  to modern in terms of crop development. By comparison so that there was a  lot of attention to collecting but   by comparison there was far less attention  basically no attention at all to the task of   long-term maintenance of these collections  and maintenance was and is necessary to   keep seed collections alive, it's a it's a  significant task in terms of of labour and time.  

Now let me skip ahead in this history to  the moment where there did start to be some   attention to this issue of long-term maintenance  to ensure preservation in perpetuity. The 1960s   were a really important turning point in terms of  international action to conserve crop diversity   in that there finally started to be some  activity in response to these repeated   calls to conserve disappearing land races. At an  international level the United States sorry the   United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization  or FAO was a really important site for this shift.   A group of plant scientists that gathered there  around 1966, 1967, you see some of them here   in the in the image, they came together and  sketched out a proposal for an international   system that would be tasked with coordinating the  collection and conservation of crop land races   so those farmers traditional varieties at ver  from various different places around the world.   This program finally sparked some responses  eventually goading national and international   agencies into activity. Now there are a few  important things to note about what had changed  

to convince institutions that action was needed  since as I’ve already said these concerns had long   existed. One shift was the rise of  environmentalism globally including   a widely shared idea that planetary  annihilation might indeed be possible.   This motivated various different kinds of  efforts to conserve biological diversity.  

A second concern was one about population  growth - this was the era of the so-called   population bomb and worries about uh what that  would mean for uh the future of the planet   and discussion about the population bomb was  accompanied by concerns about resource scarcity.   And then finally a third important influence was  the project of global economic development as it   was being undertaken at this moment in time  which included a so-called green revolution   in agricultural production. Now of these three  shifts it was probably the green revolution that   was really the overriding factor pushing forward  conservation initiatives around crop diversity.   So let me give a little bit of  background on this green revolution   in 1968 just as that FAO group that I mentioned  was putting forward its final set of proposals   the head of the US foreign aid agency  declared the onset of a green revolution.   Now he was referring specifically to changes  in agricultural productivity that were wrought   through the development of high-yielding strains  of wheat and rice by scientists at international   research agencies. These varieties were now being  planted extensively in India, in Pakistan, Turkey,   Mexico, Thailand and elsewhere especially in South  Asia and in Latin America. Now these high yielding  

varieties they were celebrated as a key stepping  stone towards the defeat defeat of global hunger,   they were thought by many to symbolize  the advance of science and technology   to resolve global crises, but for some observers  the idea of crop varieties that were designed to   be widely adapted, that is to say grown, in many  different ecological contexts and which were also   celebrated as spreading rapidly, in fact being  pushed quite aggressively, this was a scenario   that raised a lot of alarm. There was as I’ve  already said a long-standing story about farmers’   varieties gradually being displaced by breeders’  varieties and the the consequence of losing   genetically distinct types and their possible  untapped advantages which would follow from that.   Now in the wake of the green revolution  this concern was combined with a story of   mass transition, mass rapid transition, so very  literally the same genetic lines traversing the   globe there was a new phrase coined even at this  moment in time - genetic erosion - to capture this   sense of mass transition of global change. Between  1967 and 1972 multiple different plans were put   forward proposing elements of an international  system that would defend against genetic erosion.  

Existing historical discussions of this moment  in time tend to highlight the differences   that came up in these debates, differences in  opinion about who should be in charge of such a   conservation system, what would be saved in it,  what the priorities for conservation would be,   but for our purposes I think it's important to see  what was the same in these conversations, and what   was the same was an emphasis on conservation  ex-situ, that is to say conservation off-site   rather than on-site or or in-situ. Seeds  of endangered varieties were to be placed   in long-term cold storage. It's important  to understand that this ex-situ approach   wasn't just recommended because it  was thought to be more practical   or cheaper than devising in-situ programs  where farmers would keep growing older types,   it was also linked to assumptions about the  inevitability and the desirability of agricultural   change and assumptions about the farmers  subject to this global agricultural transition.  

To explain this just a bit I’ll note that at a  moment when economic development programs that   dispense new crop varieties were almost  unquestioned as positive interventions,   in situ conservation, so farmers saving  traditional crop varieties on their farms,   this seemed to demand that those farmers  who were typically impoverished peasant or   indigenous farmers, often stereotyped  as ignorant or even backwards,   it seemed to demand, in-situ conservation seem to  demand that they be deprived the opportunity of   benefiting from the best that modern  science and technology had to offer   in this context. Most scientists agreed with the  assessment of Otto Frankel, an internationally   prominent advocate for the conservation of crop  diversity. Frankel thought that because in-situ or   on-farm conservation required ‘the preservation of  farming systems amidst rapid technological change’   it was a ‘social impossibility as well as an  economic one’. As you can see in the quotation   here there were some scientists who thought  that in-situ conservation was also necessary   usually because they thought that continued  evolution was actually quite important.   So for example the botanist Hugh Iltis urged  in 1974 that areas that were known to be home   to important crop diversity be placed off limits  to development. He considered the only hope for  

long-term success to be preservation in designated  areas including the ‘deliberate exclusion of   agricultural improvements’ as represented by  the green revolution from these very places. Now although these two scientists whose quotes  I’ve offered here derived different conclusions,   Iltis and Frankel and many of their colleagues  besides based their ideas about the conservation   of crop diversity on a shared assumption  about the inevitability of agricultural change   that trajectory was that varieties created by  professional breeders as a result of state or   industry or philanthropic investment would replace  farmers’ varieties. It was not a question of   whether this would happen  but when this would happen   and why from their perspective should one expect  or want it to be otherwise when in their view   farmers stood only to gain from increased  yields and therefore also greater income. Now in the 1970s fuelled by concerns about  rapid agricultural change, change that was   linked especially to development  aid programs and to new globalized   crop varieties, an international system for the  conservation of what scientists referred to then   and and now as plant genetic resources took shape.  One of the key institutions was the one whose  

insignia you see here, at that time known as the  International Board for Plant Genetic Resources.   Now this system with the international board  really at its heart was one that was centred on   the needs of professional scientists especially  breeders who were imagined to be its key users   it was also focused initially on key global  commodity crops, so wheat, rice, maize, or corn   and a few others and and this is the the piece  that is really important for us here in in in what   we're talking about today. In this international  system as it was developed, long-term preservation   was something that was seen to be achieved best  through siting cold storage facilities uh for   seed so seed banks or gene banks at national and  international agricultural research institutions   and then creating mechanisms for those to  be overseen by another international agency,   in other words the main program through  which conservation was to be achieved was by   establishing centralized internationally governed  seed banks that would be run by technical experts.  

Now since this is what the majority of scientists   agitating for crop conservation had  wanted even since the early 20th century   it seemed as though the battle had been won right,  extinction had been forestalled except of course   that it hadn't. Even by the end of the 1970s, so  in less than a decade from the point at which this   system had started to be engineered, the  international seed banking system had come   under scrutiny for various different feelings.  By the mid-1980s it was positively in crisis.   One perceived problem with this system arose  from the imagined geography of security that was   instantiated in conservation systems - it  was only institutions in, or controlled by,   rich industrialized countries, so the global north  they were judged secure enough to be entrusted   with the world's agricultural biodiversity  much of which came from the global south.   This situation fuelled significant  discontent in many different domains   the 1970s and 80s, saw heated debates over the  ownership of plant genetic resources, that is over   seeds and crop varieties, many of which centred  on the inequity between global north and south,   in who profited from the control of plant genetic  materials. The international seed banking system  

was very much seen to be aligned with the wealthy  and against the poor, it was considered a resource   for professional breeders and increasingly  for the private seed industry rather than a   way to help farmers of the global south whose  seeds were safeguarded in these facilities.   One product of these debates was a surge  of interest in in-situ conservation   that is the scenario where crop varieties are  protected and perpetuated on location in the   places in which they originated or are native to,  so whereas ex-situ conservation in a seed bank has   historically meant management by technicians  to serve the needs of breeders, in-situ farmer   conservation typically entails enlisting farmers  in the continued cultivation of lesser used land   races and varieties with the goal of helping  those farmers as well as conserving diversity.   In situ conservation programs began to flourish  in the 1980s and 90s and this was in uh thanks   in part to the the political attention uh that  had come around the question of seed ownership.   It was also linked to a new understanding  that was espoused by many researchers and   also activists which held that farmers might  not actually be better off in every case by   growing the seeds developed by breeders and  sold by seed companies, they might be better   off in some circumstances with improvements  to their own locally adapted varieties.  

Now this was a real transition emerging from  one set of critiques that had been made of   the seed banking system, but it wasn't the  only transition underway. As debates about   the ownership of seeds and genetic materials  held in international seed banks raged,   a different set of discussions about the utility  of seed banks and and their desirability as the   core component of a conservation system was taking  place among breeders, among geneticists and other   researchers and occasionally among agricultural  administrators, as well many of these individuals   worried that in light of persistent problems seen  at seed and gene banks these just couldn't be   relied on for long-term conservation especially  of rare and difficult to find materials.   Maintenance of seeds requires functioning  facilities, it requires adequate staffing,   rigorous administration and record keeping,  but the funding provided to seed banks even   in rich countries often failed to be adequate  to these tasks and this meant that seed banks   often struggled to keep up with their  mandate to conserve seeds in perpetuity. Two prominent US geneticists thinking about  this scenario declared in 1979 as a result   of their very close experience with different  seed bank collections ‘germplasm banks have   not functioned satisfactorily, loss of material  has been excessive even with close monitoring’   and another colleague of theirs similarly  concluded around the same period of time   that maintenance of germplasm banks so seed banks  in western type plant breeding establishments   may be at best a temporary or stop gap  measure, at worst a waste of time and money.   These were serious claims to be making about a  system that had been vested with the conservation   of important resources for plant breeding. For  some researchers like these ones the continued   failings of long-term seed storage facilities  which resulted mostly from a shortage of resources   meant that still more seed storage  facilities needed to be found,   ideally places where maintenance and continued  financial investment would be less of an issue,   where it could be minimized as much as possible.  Now I’m sure some of you have already guessed  

where that impulse led, sending copies of  collections to a seed vault in the arctic.   The idea behind this was that if staff and  facilities were to fail at one of the world's   major seed banks the seeds would be able to be  restored even if they hadn't been subject to   continuous oversight and care in terms  of continually renewing collections,   frozen seeds would survive for longer without  that kind of continual attention. Now not   everybody thought that vesting security in copies  as opposed to competent staff and sound facilities   as had been the ideal before was really the  right path to go down, there were others who   thought that the problem was not with the physical  and financial security of established seed banks   but rather with the whole concept of long-term  storage as the conservation solution.   These included the geneticists the geneticist  Garrison Wilkes, who in 1988 predicted that the   next big genetic wipeout would happen as a result  of a collective failure to regenerate the hundreds   of thousands of samples kept safe in long-term  storage. Most seed banks were, Wilkes contended,   not in fact banks because this designation implied  valuable goods going in and also coming out.   They were instead seed depositories or as  another colleague of his put it seed morgues,   so for these researchers the only way to save  material in long-term seed storage facilities   was to get seeds out of these facilities and  back into the ground to have them evaluated by   uh agronomists, to have them used by breeders,  to have them circulated, incorporated into   breeding pools and eventually into finished  varieties that would be grown by farmers.  

What's really important to emphasize here is that  this was not a call for in-situ conservation by   farmers, this was instead a reformulation of the  purpose of long-term seed storage facilities.   Instead of having conservation of  plant genetic resources consistent   collecting and storing and then principally  funding those endeavours, conservation   would consist in collecting, storing, growing,  evaluating, circulating, breeding, cultivating   all of these would be essential to conservation  long-term. Storage in this model would not be   the end point of conservation but a short  to medium-term measure which would lead   on to further activity, all of which would be  geared towards keeping diverse genetic materials   in cultivation. In other words by the end of the  1980s there were multiple different proposals   afoot to address the known shortcomings, failings  even, of long-term seed storage in seed banks.  

Those proposals were first to put seeds into even  more long-term storage, so for example in the   seed vault, second to keep farmers cultivating  them, that is to undertake projects of in-situ   cultivation, and then third to have breeders  actually work with those varieties more to produce   more genetically heterogeneous improved  varieties for cultivation in farming.   In the intervening years attention has been given  to all of these possibilities but not in equal   measure. The conservation system that we have  today still revolves around seed and gene banks   even as its organizers frequently lament the  constrained budgets that limit the vision   and the enaction of successful  conservation at these institutions.   One consequence is that over time the seed banking  system has become more invested in copies, today   the Svalbard Global Seed Vault declares itself the  final backup and here it's referencing the fact   that most of the collections that it stores have  also been backed up via duplication at other seed   bank facilities around the world, so it warehouses  copies that have also been copied elsewhere.  

This has seemed imperative to many researchers  because states seem uh unable to make the   investment uh sufficient in in staff and in  facilities to guarantee long-term preservation,   and because of that storing copies  seems like the next best alternative.   We might ask though is it the next best  alternative? Surely if we're interested ultimately   in biodiversity we should want copies of the  genetic diversity that we find in seed banks today   to also be found in the field and in the market  as advocates of ex-situ conservation and the   seed bank for circulation model would have it. Our  historical and our scientific understandings of   agricultural change are no longer limited to the  the story of inevitable agricultural modernization   or even to the story of obviously desirable  industrialization on a single ubiquitous model.  

Calls for alternative agriculture today abound  but that narrative uh of of a single model the one   that drove seed banking, the one that underpinned  the creation of the international conservation   system we have today still seems to be in place  with respect to that conservation enterprise.   If we now know that the story of agricultural  transition that that system relies on isn't   always the case why should our models for good  conservation be limited to the institutions that   story inspired? I’ll leave you with that question  thanks so much I look forward to the conversation. Well thank you Helen for that fascinating talk  um it's a really compelling story I think about   how we've ended up at the particular situation  we have today and I can tell we've had a lot   of interest in the chat and there are a number  of questions which I’d like to relay to you.

The first or actually I should say the first  couple I think relate to some of these themes   that you touched upon to do with the heterogeneity  of plant resources in the wild and the sometimes   homogeneity that are encountered in these seed  banks, so the first question I want to ask you   asks about the danger of homogeneity and it's a  question about a single cultivar so the question   reads isn't there a big danger in relying on a  single species for instance the Cavendish banana? Thanks for that question Andrew and and um  for the audience member who put it forward.   Absolutely there is a danger in various different  kinds of homogeneity in the agricultural system   whether it's uh depending on a small subset of  the the possible crops that we can grow and eat,   sorry the crop species, or whether it's  homogenization. In terms of the the genetics of   a specific crop itself, and the Cavendish banana  is really the iconic example of a crop that is   by uh dint of the fact that it's propagated  clonally so uh it is uh very much genetically   identical basically from plant to plant is  subject to a lot of stresses and pressures   and is currently the subject of  an intense amount of research   to try and find new ways of of introducing genetic  diversity that will allow it to be resistant to a   a disease that is currently devastating banana  crops around the world, and so the we might think   of the Cavendish banana as a as an absolutely  classic example of why we want to avoid both   homogeneity at the the species level but then also  at this genetic level in our agricultural systems.  

That being said banana diversity is incredible   so although we often hear accounts that we  might no longer have bananas to eat in the   future that's absolutely not true, there are many  different bananas that can be developed and which   you know continue to be eaten and grown around  the world so if you do encounter that story   it's not it's not necessarily the case  that that eventuality will play out. That's great thank you Helen, um this next  question I think picks up on some of those   same themes and talks about another  way in which industrial agriculture   introduces homogeneity in our in our crops  um and that's genetically modified crops, so   um the question that I’d like to  pose to you again from the audience   asks should we be more accepting of GM crops?  Um but I think there's actually more to it than   just accepting these crops it's a it's also a  story of um the effects that they have and the   subsequent effects of growing these gm crops on  the loss of land races, so I wonder if you could   say a little bit about the interaction between  GM crops and the story that you're telling. Yeah this is a really important question  it's really also a very complicated one   in many respects. One way to think about you know  whether we should be more accepting of GM crops is  

is to think about what promises were made of  that the technology specifically of using what's   called recombinant DNA so bringing together  two different DNA strands basically into a new   a new configuration, also referred to as as  transgenic engineering, um we can think about   what promises were made for for um recombinant  or transgenic technologies say in the 1980s when   these were first really being developed and and  made available for the purposes of plant breeding   uh and one of the the ideas that really  motivated quite a number of researchers   was the idea that they might be able to address  some of these concerns about genetic diversity.   This was a tool that promised that you know novel  genes could be moved into crop varieties, we could   move disease resistance from a wild relative of  tomato into the tomato, we'd therefore be able to   grow varieties even if they didn't have  the kind of same industrial robustness of   of the ones that were then on the market,  it seemed like it might be possible to   maybe bring underutilized crops back up to the the  level of industrial uh production more quickly,   uh and so there were there were researchers  who really saw in in transgenic varieties   or transgenic technologies the possibility of  addressing some of these concerns about diversity.   Fast forward that time scale uh to um  uh the you know the the 21st century   and we can see if we look at transgenic  crops around grown around the world   by and large they incorporate one of two traits,  they they are either resistant to herbicides and   specifically to an herbicide known  as roundup, or they incorporate genes   from a bacterium that helps them be pest  resistant, so those are known as BT crops,   so from the promise of great diversification  through these new technologies uh which   uh in in if we configured you know our  research infrastructures and our agricultural   infrastructures in different ways might have  produced diversification instead led us down   the pathway where a handful of traits have  come to be more prevalent than ever before   arguably creating a kind of a kind of  homogenization across agricultural crops   that's really unprecedented in many ways.   So I think it's important to to think about that  trajectory because I think we it's important to   recognize that new genetic technologies may have  the capacity to address some of our concerns,   but taking advantage of that capacity  requires that we have the the the research   infrastructures or the the will in agricultural  production that we put the pathways in place   whereby those tools can can do the things  that we really would like them to do. So  

to come back to the question of should we be more  accepting of GM technologies, I think there is the   possibility especially with the new tools of of  gene editing you may be familiar with CRISPR-Cas9   there is the possibility of addressing these  concerns about diversity and doing some really   interesting things with those technologies and um  and we may think we we should be more embracing of   those to achieve goals related to sustainability,  uh to to equity, to social justice they could be   used in those ways um but we have to make sure  that they're used in those ways, um because the   past suggests that if we don't intervene in the  right ways we might end up with more of the same. Thanks Helen, I think that's a really  lovely point at which to pivot to some   of these other questions. So I know  in your work you also engage with   the resistance to transgenic corn moving into  Mexico and so we have a number of questions   in the feed asking about the extent  to which farmers in the global south   have participated in the narrative that you're  telling um and and so to what extent are these   other stakeholders, the stakeholders from which  these genetic resources are often taken, involved   in these I guess broader and global discussions  about how seeds should be saved and preserved? Great yeah so my story today  really focused quite a bit on um   the the researchers and scientists who have been  part of building conservation structures but of   course there's a whole other set of actors that's  really important to the story and and that's often   the farmers, the cultivators, especially those  who um who's whose labour and whose ancestors’   labour have produced the great diversity  in in crops that we see around the world,   and the those farmers and organizations that  represent them especially since the late 1980s   have been really influential in shaping the  discourse about conservation of crop diversity,   about how it should be done and whose  interests it should serve. So you may be   familiar with the concept of seed sovereignty,  a seed sovereignty is an idea that's linked to   the notion of food sovereignty, which is the  idea that communities should be able to have and   control the possibilities for having culturally  relevant uh sustainable diets right. So if food  

security is just about having enough calories,  food sovereignty is really being uh in control and   being able to determine the kinds of foods uh that  you're eating, the calories that you're getting   and by extension seed sovereignty is is retaining  control over the the very means of production   of of the food crops that that are  your source of of energy and life.   And so peasant organizations today especially Via  Campesina, which is a global peasant organization,   really uh have seed sovereignty at the centre of  many of their campaigns for uh the future of um uh   peasant uh communities and indigenous communities  around the world. So absolutely they're they're   intervening in and changing the discourse  about conservation um uh even as we speak. Thanks Helen um I think there's a related question  here in the feed that I think would be interesting   to hear your reflections on following up  perhaps on some of these issues with food   and seed sovereignty, which is whether  there's any relationship between   this story that you're telling about  maybe the homogenation of crop plants   and health risks, so we have a question from  an anonymous attendee asking do you identify   any human health risks associated with  homogeneity in plant genes, and they give   an example of commercial wheat strains  and diabetes, but I imagine there might be   broader systemic relationships between the  homogenization of crop plants and health risks. Yeah I think for me one of the ways to think  about what the what the health risks might be   is not to think in terms of specific for  example allergens that might be linked to   certain gene combinations um but to think exactly  as you've suggested Andrew more systemically. So   we are lucky to benefit from  an agricultural system that is   is you know wildly productive we're able  to produce many more calories from much   much less land than at any time in human history  and that's really what sustains a significant   global population, yet we do know that there are  consequences to that agricultural system that   we need to do better on in the future and that  has to do for example with the ways in which   pesticides are are applied and used not always  necessarily with respect for the health of   consumers, but especially not for the health of  labourers and for communities that we might think   of as down winder, so people living adjacent to  large farms, or we might think about you know   the kind of nitrogen runoff from farms and the  different kinds of environmental concerns that   that produces both locally and and and further  afield, and so we we I think I would encourage   um um thinking about the effects of uh  homogenization or or kind of monoculture at   the genetic level as being very much part of the  problem of agricultural systems that then have to   adjust to the consequences of that homogeneity,  which might mean you know disease susceptibility   or pest susceptibility such that intensive  applications of of pesticides are needed right,   maybe if we had more genetically diverse crops we  might be able to move the agricultural systems in   in different directions um recognizing of course  that there will be consequences with with respect   to productivity, if that is in if that isn't done  correctly and with respect to the use of farmland,   but yeah so I think I would I would step back  from from the genes themselves as potentially   causing problems and see how they're  implicated in these larger systems.

Thanks Helen um and maybe for our last question  I’m going to pull on a couple of threads that   are in the the question feed that I have  we've had a number of questions interested   in climate change, both where does  it enter into your story if at all,   and how it should enter into your story moving  forward? So was climate change a part of the   collection strategies of the storage strategies  when these systems were being put in place,   and if not how have they reacted and how should  they react now that this is a pressing crisis? Yeah so climate change is is today I  think one of the chief justifications   that's given for why we not only need to be  collecting and conserving crop diversity as   it has developed in different parts of the world,  but also doing a much better job of understanding   and characterizing and searching through and using  that diversity. Land races and crop wild relatives   especially are seen as the source of many new  possibilities for developing crops that will   help communities, help farmers adjust to new  climatic circumstances and I think there is an   understanding that we have to be able to move  faster on that than we have in in the past,   so uh those those materials are seen as  being more important than ever before.   So I guess the the way to conclude there is  to say that climate change is is increasingly   a motivation for conserving well, conserving  better than we have in the past and also using   conserved resources better than we have in the  past so it's an essential part of this history.

That's wonderful Helen, thank you so  much for your talk, um for those of   you who are interested Helen’s project ‘From  collection to cultivation’ can be found online   through the university website um but also has an  active social media presence on Twitter um, and   with that we want to conclude. Thank you  all for participating, for your questions,   and of course thank you to Dr Helen Anne  Curry for her talk. Thank you Andrew.

2021-10-03 16:26

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