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Rediscovering traditional knowledge in Norway

Documenting and sharing of traditional knowledge is not always a matter of ensuring farmers continued rights and protection against misappropriation. In some cases, it is more of a question of protecting existing knowledge against extinction.

In Norway, most farmers buy seeds from commercial breeding companies. Very few are still engaged in maintaining agro-biodiversity, using their comprehensive knowledge of seed selection, cultivation and innovation. For those who do follow this path, the motivation is what they regard as the decreasing nutritional value of mainstream agricultural products, the increase in food intolerances and allergies among people and the general uniformity and flattening of taste among the dominant varieties. For these farmers, misappropriation is currently not an issue. Breeding companies do not seem interested in their varieties, and they know of no cases of misappropriation.

The urgent issue in Norway is how to ensure that what traditional knowledge still remains in connection with the cultivation of crop genetic diversity does not erode further. To that end, some farmers and their organizations have developed a loosely structured project they call 'Cultivated Grain' (kulturkorn).

Johan Swärd and a group of norwegian farmers on a theme day at Aschim Farm, Brandbu. Photo: Norwegian Association of Biological-Dynamic FarmersThe project and its associated activities have to a great extent been initiated and developed by farmers themselves. It all began with one farmer, Johan Swärd. He had worked for many years testing old varieties of grain in order to identify promising properties. This started out as a hobby, but increasingly it became apparent that some of the varieties were promising also in a livelihood perspective, as they had properties of value for ecological agriculture. Swärd therefore started to multiply and breed grain varieties systematically, and established a community gene bank with the aim of distributing these varieties to other farmers. His efforts have gained the support of the Norwegian authorities, and he is working closely with the Norwegian Association of Biological-Dynamic Farmers, the Norwegian Ecological Grain Growers' Association and Norwegian extension services for ecological agriculture (FABIO). Several other partners are also involved in the project.

Johan Swärd was inspired by the Swedish pioneer Hans Larsson, who has collected old varieties of grain from the Nordic countries and other European countries for a long time. It was he who coined the term 'kulturkorn' and the Norwegian network has entered into a close collaboration with the network of farmers that Larsson has built up in Sweden. Swärd is also collaborating with Jens Ussing, a Danish baker who for the last two decades has specialized in the breeding of grain with high nutritional value and developing recipes for bread and other products using older varieties of grain. Efforts like these are very important in a market perspective; moreover, the continued breeding and maintenance of older grain varieties is more likely to succeed if there is interest in the market.

The main goals of the 'Cultivated Grain' project are to breed and disseminate their varieties, to provide information to other stakeholders and to society at large, to maintain biological diversity within northern agriculture, and to establish a Norwegian gene bank at Swärd's farm. With his farm and its impressive diversity of grain, Johan Swärd seeks to spread information and awareness on the importance of genetic diversity for ecological agriculture as well as nutrition. He is establishing a broadly based network of farmers, researchers, consumers and other stakeholders, with regular gatherings, and through which the initiative can grow and knowledge be shared. In addition to creating a Norwegian network of farmers and researchers, collaboration with a wider Nordic network is seen as central. So far approximately 10 farmers have become directly involved in Norway, and 70 farmers altogether from the Nordic countries.

A core problem for the project is that it is actually not permitted to share seeds in Norway. This seed regulation was introduced in 2004, long after Johan Swärd had started his activities. Working on an idealistic basis, Johan Swärd now finds himself technically criminalized. It was not the intention of Norwegian authorities to halt activities such as this, and thus the regulation is not being enforced. However, the situation is far from ideal. The two organizations involved are therefore actively engaged in advocacy work towards the authorities to get this regulation changed. Because the knowledge level among the general public is deemed to be rather low, the network also sees it as crucial to bring the issues of seed control and Farmers' Rights onto the agenda as part of their efforts at generating change. In their work against detrimental legislation, the network is also aiming to join forces with NGOs.

The main achievements of 'Cultivated Grain' is that traditional knowledge related to older varieties of grain has been widely disseminated, resulting in a new drive for the use of these varieties and their dissemination among farmers. In a country like Norway, where plant breeders and researchers have almost all the say with regard to the development and introduction of new varieties, it is also a major achievement that these activities have all been established by farmers.

An explanation for the success is the urgency of the matter: the rapid loss of traditional knowledge - combined with increased awareness of the need to produce grain with better nutritional values, using and conserving crop genetic diversity. According to the network, their strength lies in the practical work being done by a well-functioning organization as well as in the efforts to create markets for their products.

A central lesson is that it is vital to ensure support to individuals with a personal commitment in this regard. Furthermore, networks are crucial. Ideally, such networks should include participants from the entire food chain, from the field to the table, including consumers, and including relevant stakeholder institutions and researchers. Strong networks can provide the necessary support, while also serving as an important basis for making production economically viable. Gathering and dissemination of knowledge is important, as is patience. Particularly with regard to political change, the networks underline the importance of being patient, making haste slowly, and always keeping the long-term perspectives in mind.

(The information in this text is derived from a questionnaire completed by Erik Evenrud, leader of the Norwegian Association of Biological-Dynamic Farmers, and Johan Swärd of the Norwegian Ecological Grain Growers' Association)

Pages in this sub-section:
   Cataloguing potatoes and traditional knowledge in Peru
   In situ conservation in Switzerland
   Community registry in the Philippines
   Rediscovering traditional knowledge in Norway
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 In this section:
  What is a 'success story' of FR?
  Success stories from the realization of the right to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed
  Success stories on traditional knowledge related to agro-biodiversity
  Success stories on benefit-sharing measures
  Success stories on participation in decision making
  Common features

Photo: Pratap Shrestha, Nepal