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The agricultural biodiversity argument

Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been the custodians and innovators of agricultural biodiversity. When the first hunters and gathers became farmers some 10,000 years ago, they started out with only a few crops and varieties to grow. Through careful selection of the best seeds and propagating material, and exchange with other farmers, it became possible to develop and diversify these varieties. Also new crops were found in the wild which could be cultivated.

Through thousands of years of continuous management and innovation by farmers, the few initial crops and varieties evolved into an unconceivable wealth of crop diversity. An estimated 7000 species of crops have been cultivated or collected by humans for food, and the estimated number of distinct varieties of each of these crops varies up to more than 100,000.

However, the development of crop diversity changed profoundly with the modernization of agriculture and the Green Revolution, which introduced improved, high-yielding and genetically homogeneous varieties of wheat, rice, maize and other cereals in the 1960s and 1970s. Whereas this contributed to a substantial increase in food production, it also decimated untold food crop varieties that were vital to small-scale farmers and to the future of plant breeding. For several major crops, up to 80-90 per cent losses in variety over the past century have been reported to the FAO in the 1988 Report State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. In an attempt to rectify the loss, domestic and international gene banks have been established. Gene banks are now essential to conserving and maintaining the varieties that were – and still are being – saved. However, widespread genetic erosion is also taking place in some, perhaps even many, gene banks, due to poor management and poor maintenance, which can be seen as the result of scarce financial resources as well as limited institutional capacities (and will hopefully improve with the newly established Global Crop Diversity Trust). In addition, legal restrictions on access to still-available genetic resources are emerging as an increasing problem for all stakeholders in agriculture (see key barriers). For these reasons, the maintenance of plant genetic diversity in agriculture is becoming increasingly difficult for the traditional farmers who are the custodians of plant genetic diversity in the fields. In light of the 10,000 years history of farming, the current crisis in the management of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture is evolving with dramatic speed.

In developing countries, the vast majority of farmers still act as stewards and developers of genetic diversity - but the enormous transformations of agricultural systems worldwide are increasingly curbing their possibilities. Farmers' Rights are about enabling farmers to continue as stewards and innovators of crop genetic diversity, and about rewarding them for their contribution to the global genetic pool.

Pages in this sub-section:
   The agricultural biodiversity argument
   The poverty eradication argument
   Farmers' realities as context
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 In this section:
  Farmers' Rights in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
  Why Farmers' Rights matter
  The contents of Farmers' Rights
  History of Farmers' Rights in the FAO
  Farmers' Rights in the literature
  Civil Society Organizations' approaches to Farmers' Rights

Photo: G. Ulutuncok