Landraces: On the “verge” of becoming crops

Road verges. Windbreaks. The vicinities of abandoned fields, market grounds, and storage sheds. When most people think of biodiversity conservation, these are not the places that come to mind. Much more familiar are wild-land conservation areas – rainforests, wetlands, tundra, even tidepools and undersea canyons – places virtually untouched by human occupation. However, the smaller, humbler areas around traditional farming communities are sources of agricultural biodiversity (“agro-biodiversity”). Agro-biodiversity hasn’t had as much global press as wild-land biodiversity – it’s less photogenic, for one thing – but it affects the security of the food supply in agricultural societies. As climates, soil compositions, and local dominant wild species (both crop-eating pests and competing weeds) change, a crop is only as resilient as its gene pool is deep.

Landraces are naturally occurring hybrids of cultivated crop plants and their wild relatives. They grow on the edges and in the interstices of farming communities past and present. A crop’s related landraces reflect multiple shufflings and reshufflings of a larger genetic deck. Compared to this year’s crop, one landrace might thrive in drier conditions, another in wetter. One might grow more quickly, another more slowly. Grasshoppers might eschew chewing on one landrace, toads another. If all these landrace seeds were available next year, farmers could choose those likely to succeed even if they expect a drought, a shortened growing season, or too many toads.

“People have been farming for thousands of years,” a curmudgeon might argue, “without worrying about any of this agro-biodiversity business.” The easy answer (“well, crops have been failing for thousands of years too”) aside, it used to be much less of an issue. Agro-biodiversity used to just happen, as a natural side effect of traditional farming. Now it often doesn’t happen because:

Conserving biodiversity in wild lands is straightforward, at least on the surface: just keep people out. (Below the surface: well, naturalists have to get in, to study the species. And bio-prospectors, looking for new medicines. And certain locals, in their traditional medical and ceremonial pursuits. And law enforcement officers to make sure nobody unauthorized gets in. And . . .). Agrobiodiversity conservation is trickier because human activity – farming, with at least some traditional features – is an indispensable ingredient of landrace development.

Forcing farmers to universally go back to low-tech methods and local wild-derived crops isn’t an attractive solution because many of these modern developments have vastly improved the quality of life for farmers and consumers. Fields yield more for trade, and some of the import crops have added dietary variety and better nutrition to the community food supply. Collecting samples of landraces for storage in ex situ gene banks has met with some success, but these centers are often far from the farmers who need the resources, and the stored samples are “frozen in time” and unable to produce new sub-strains. In situ conservation of some limited areas under conditions that encourage landraces has the advantage of allowing the landraces to continuously adapt to changes particular to their locale.

In situ conservation of agrobiodiversity areas raises several issues. Back when it “just happened,” no one had to pay for it. Now, reserving some land for traditional or quasi-traditional crop areas and adjacent wild-relative areas may render that land less economically profitable than planting modern monoculture fields, at least in some circumstances. Since the short-term free market is unlikely to furnish agro-biodiversity incentives, governments are experimenting with creating some, such as cost reduction, market channel development, prizes, and limited IP rights..

The two most common forms of IP in plants would not fit landraces well. Patents are not available for “products of nature,” but for “anything under the sun made by man;” landraces are something in between. Furthermore, patentable plants must generally be capable of asexual reproduction, which individual landraces may or may not be. Plant Variety Protection (PVP) under the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) convention is only available for cultivars that are distinct, uniform, and stable, with more than minor differences from existing cultivars; many landraces would be hard pressed to meet these criteria either.

Other IP issues may rear their ugly heads if crop plants from commercial seed do happen to cross-pollinate with local strains and spawn landraces. Traditional regional crop varieties, such as quinoa and jasmine rice, are enjoying heightened economic value as “specialty foods” in urban/industrialized areas, so commercial companies are moving into these niches. Institutions and farmers may agree to licensing contracts, but pollinators (insects, birds, animals, and wind) couldn’t care less. Can a company that owns rights in the commercial crop also claim rights in any landrace it spawns? In a country where farmers have rights in landraces, how will those rights be split?

If you want to read more about the interaction between agro-biodiversity and IP law, authors to look up include Susan Bragdon, Devra Jarvis, Toby Hodgkin, and Stephen B. Brush.

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