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Agrobiodiversity and knowledge for food security

  • Cristina Eghenter

Jakarta | Tue, October 16 2012 | 10:42 am

As recent news of drought in key production areas for corn and soybeans sparked global fears of another food price hike, like in 2008, discussions around food security are once again poingnantly actual.

World Food Day is a good occasion to remind ourselves of the countries’ commitment in recent Rio+20 Summit, “….to enhancing food security and access to adequate, safe and nutritious food for present and future generations” (The Future We Want).

Global demand for food is projected to rise by 50 percent by 2030. The world is already consuming more than it is producing. But if there is scarcity, what is causing it and who is suffering from it?

Is opening more land for cultivation the solution? Or limiting land competition and restoring or increasing land productivity? Or mitigating shocks and stresses by means of import, subsidies and other buffer measures?

Opinions differ on whether we have already reached a physical limit to agricultural production or the inefficiency and inequality of food production, distribution, and consumption remain the most urgent problem.

Food security is a complex and multidimensional issue. The distributional and equity aspects are probably the most difficult to deal with. All seem to agree that the plunging trend in investment for agricultural research and technological innovation needs to be reversed.

There is however an additional dimension to food security that needs to be highlighted, besides quantity and availability.

It is the significance of the diversity and quality of food, and related cultivars, which are at the basis of a sustainable and meaningful food and livelihood system.

Regulations also point out that food security is about conditions for food to be available and affordable both in terms of quantity and quality, and fairly distributed.

Many of the edible plants that we consume have originated from the forests and other ecosystems. Many have been domesticated by the ancestors of local and indigenous farmers over time, and have traveled across continents to become “staple food”. It was the active experiments and practices of local people that have often shaped the variety of cultivars and diversity of food plants of our planet.

Fair recognition and claim over the genetic resources that make up agrobiodiversity is what food sovereignty is about, part of broader efforts to redress governance models toward more equity and sustainability.

Food soverignty is also a way to acknowledge the role of local and indigenous communities, men and women, as keepers of this biodiversity and knowledge, part of our common heritage.

This is rightly highlighted in The Future We Want document: the role of women as critical agents in agricultural and rural development and food security, and the importance of traditional practices and seed supply systems.

A trip to a forest community in the interior of Kalimantan, for example, will surprise visitors for the high number of varieties known, domesticated, cultivated or semi-managed, and consumed by local people.

The results of a survey on fruit agrobiodiversity in the highlands of Krayan, South Krayan sub-district, Nunukan regency ( 2005 ) conducted by local people and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia indicated the existence of over 20 local varieties of durian datu fruit or varieties with enough phenotypical and sensorial distinct characteristics to warrant a different name in the local language, and four local varieties of durian derian fruit that grow in fruit gardens and in the forest edges along the Krayan River.

The staggering diversity also shows the essential “local” feature of traditional farming systems: An agrobiodiversity nurtured in very specific environments and micro-climates, influenced by cultural traditions and strong preferences.

A similar discussion applies to rice varieties, the staple food for the majority of Dayak indigenous communities in the interior of Kalimantan. According to survey results, over 40 varieties of rice are planted in any planting season between the Bahau and Pujungan sub-districts in Malinau.

In the sub-district of South Krayan, 22 varieties of wet rice and four hill rice varieties were cultivated in the six settlements in 2007.

The difference in the number of varieties in active rice cultivation practices reflects the fact that wet rice cultivation is the agricultural mode of choice in the Krayan Highlands.

The “diversity” and “locality” of cultivars and genetic resources is a way to build resilience and adaptability by maintaining a variety of seeds and cultivars that can cope with climate and environmental crises. The rich agrobiodiversity of local traditions might store genetic traits that will prove advantageous in changing conditions.

It is a bounty of plants that we need to maintain and protect as well as the traditional knowledge that helped create it. The varieties also need to be recognized, and origin and names maintained, as part of a fair food sovereignty program.

Is conservation and sovereignty of agrobiodiversity and local cultivars the solution to food security? Not by itself, but it can be part of the solution. It is an important dimension to consider and integrate in policies to ensure long-term security and sustainability.

Securing “adequate, safe and nutritious” food will also require technological and financial investment in sustainable farming practices, more innovation, and overall good and fair governance of the land and other natural resources.


The writer is a deputy director for social development at WWF Indonesia. Her expertise focuses on equity in natural resource management and sustainable development. She has an extended experience on anthropological research in East Kalimantan on traditional knowledge and human-environment relations.



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