Industrial agriculture and the crisis of extinction
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.