Towards an Era of Biohappiness

By: M S Swaminathan
With overexploitation of biodiversity it is pertinent to create an economic stake in conservation and in this context rights of the primary conservers for recognition and reward assume importance. The pathway to an era of biohappiness is rooted in the principles of ethics and equity in benefit sharing.
Ecology English Free Article

The global food security situation is entering a critical phase. International prices of wheat, rice, maize and other food crops are escalating with an increasing demand supply gap. Petroleum prices are going up steeply. As a consequence, there is diversion of both farm land and grains for fuel production. Compounding these factors is the growing threat of climate change resulting in more frequent drought, floods and pest epidemics. Further there is a danger to coastal agriculture and communities arising from sea level rise. It is in this context that the conservation and sustainable and equitable use of biodiversity assume urgency. It would therefore be useful to consider some of the major issues relating to biodiversity conservation and use.

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Biodiversity conservation is a continuum. Two ends of this continuum, namely in situ conservation and ex situ preservation, receive both political and public attention and support. However, the vast amount of in situ on farm conservation work being carried out by tribal and rural women and men remains largely unrecognised and unrewarded. It is this segment of conservation of genetic diversity which contributes significantly to food and health security. This is the most value added component of biodiversity conservation, since the material conserved by local communities undergoes both selection for desirable qualities and knowledge addition through observation, experimentation and experience. Yet, this component received little attention or appreciation until Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) promoted the concept of Farmers’ Rights and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) accorded explicit recognition to the conservation traditions of tribal and rural families.

Article 8(j) of the CBD calls on the contracting parties to respect, preserve and maintain the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles. It also calls for the equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of such knowledge, innovations and practices. The absence of an internationally agreed methodology for sharing economic benefits from the commercial exploitation of biodiversity with the primary conservers and holders of traditional knowledge and information is leading to a growing number of accusations of biopiracy committed by business and industry in developing countries. Biopiracy can be converted into biopartnership only if the principles enshrined in Article 8(j) of CBD are adopted both in letter and in spirit by public and private sector institutions and commercial enterprises.

Equity in benefit sharing is fundamental to the retention and revitalisation of the in situ on farm conservation traditions of rural and tribal families. Material and information transfer agreements should safeguard the interests of those providing the concerned material/information. The institutions that fall under The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) are already adopting a Material Transfer Agreement which will prevent the monopolistic exploitation of public funded research on plant genetic resources for commercial profit. Benefit sharing procedures will have to be developed at the individual and community levels. The same procedures for seeking recognition and reward as those available to professional breeders can be used at the level of an individual farmer conserver/innovator, with assistance provided in obtaining patents/plant variety protection in accordance with the prescribed national legislation.

The problem is more complex in the case of benefit sharing with entire communities. Procedures are available for identifying the area from which critical genes responsible for the commercial success of a new variety have come. Thanks to molecular techniques, this possibility also extends to genes controlling quantitative traits like yield and quality. Therefore, appropriate reward can be given from the Community Biodiversity and Gene Funds proposed to be established under Biodiversity and Plant Variety Protection Acts in several developing countries. Breeders will have to be requested to disclose the full pedigrees of their new varieties and indicate to the extent possible the area from where the critical genes, including quantitative trait loci (QTLs) have been accessed. The communities concerned can decide on the use of the funds provided. Obviously they should be used for community benefits, including the funds needed for strengthening on farm conservation of landraces, seed storage and technology.

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The Indian Legislation

India is so far the only country which has enacted a law to accord concurrent recognition to the rights of breeders and farmers. The Indian Plant Variety Protection and Farmers’ Rights Act 2001 contains provisions for according recognition and reward to farmers/farm communities from the National Gene Fund in recognition of their invaluable contributions to the conservation of genetic resources and their improvement through selection, preservation and knowledge addition. The Act is unique in the world in that it combines in one piece of legislation provisions for safeguarding the rights of both breeders and farmers. Breeders and farmers are allies in the struggle for food and health security and their rights should be mutually reinforcing and not antagonistic. The Act recognises the triple role of a farmer, namely as a cultivator, conserver and breeder.

The preamble to the Act calls for recognition of the contributions of farm families to crop improvement made at any time. Agrobiodiversity centres like the Koraput region in Odisha where tribal families have preserved and improved rice genetic material over many centuries need to be protected from genetic erosion. The tribal families who have conserved important genetic material for public good at personal cost were recently honoured by the Government of India with the first Genome Saviour Award. The award gives explicit recognition to the role of tribal and rural women and men in the field of genetic resources, conservation and enhancement through selection and value addition through knowledge.

The important criterion to be used in the exercise relating to recognition and reward will be the role played by the landrace/farmers’ variety in the breeding of improved varieties either in the public or private sector, with specific characteristics derived from the farmers’ variety. The role of the landrace in providing the needed critical gene(s) in the development of the new variety will have to be indicated in the pedigree to be provided by the breeder at the time of the registration of the variety. For example, Oryzanivara from eastern Uttar Pradesh provided the genes for tungro resistance in the very widely grown rice variety IR36. Similarly, a farmers’ cotton variety, BikaneriNerma, has proved to be the most important parent in several Bt cotton hybrids.

It may not be always possible to attribute the donor landrace to an individual farmer. In such instances, the recognition will go to the community, which has preserved such a valuable germplasm. The recognition can include conferring titles to individuals/communities for undertaking conservation over a long period. The reward may include a substantial monetary amount determined on the basis of the contribution of critical genes and continuity of conservation at personal/community cost. The cost of recognition and reward may be borne from a specifically earmarked budgetary provision of the National Biodiversity Authority for such purposes or from the National Gene Fund, as the case may be. This reward to the community/farm family may be used for purposes such as strengthening the infrastructure for in situ on farm conservation of landraces and for meeting related needs like community threshing yards and seed storage facilities, etc. When a community is identified for a reward, it is important to define its inclusiveness with special care to gendered inclusion and to make sure that the reward flows equitably for the benefit of all and to the cause of conservation.

For example, Super Wheats capable of yielding about 8 tonnes per ha are now in the breeders’ assembly line. Such wheats have a complex pedigree and illustrate the importance of genetic resources conservation and exchange. Super Wheats are semi dwarf with a robust stem, broad leaves, large spikes with more number of grains per panicle and higher grain weight. The Super Wheat architecture in the breeders’ assembly line is derived from a blend of Tetrastichon (Yugoslavia), Agrotriticum (Canada), Tetraploid Polonicum (Poland), Gigas (Israel), Morocco wheat (Morocco) and semi dwarf wheats currently grown in India. This emphasises the need for the multilateral system of access and benefit sharing enshrined in Articles 10, 11, 12 and 13 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. If Article 9, relating to Farmers’ Rights, and Articles 10-13 relating to the multilateral system of the International Treaty are implemented both in letter and spirit the future of biodiversity conservation and sustainable and equitable use will be ensured in perpetuity.

The loss of every species and gene will limit our options for the future, particularly in the context of climate change. Recombinant DNA technology, functional genomics and proteomics and the emerging nano-biotechnology have opened up uncommon opportunities for creating novel genetic combinations of great value for strengthening food, nutrition, health and livelihood security. This is why all the three forms of conservation namely in situ, ex situ and in situ on farm should be strengthened. M S Swaminathan Research Foundation is setting up a biovalley in the Koraput region of Odisha, which is rich in herbal biodiversity. The biovalley is to biotechnology what the Silicon Valley is to information technology.

Today, commercialisation is leading to overexploitation of habitats rich in biodiversity like the rain forests and coral reefs. It is important that we reverse the paradigm and create an economic stake in conservation. It is in this context that the rights of the primary conservers for recognition and reward assume importance. Conservation, cultivation, consumption and commerce should be dealt with in an integrated manner. Public policies should promote the diversification of food habits resulting in the revitalisation of former food traditions which involved the use of a wide range of food plants. Community level gene, seed, grain and water banks should be promoted in order to ensure local level food and water security. Underutilised or orphan crops can help to eradicate both chronic and hidden hunger. Therefore, the future of our food and health security systems will depend upon our success in making biodiversity conservation everybody’s business.

This is the pathway to an era of biohappiness rooted in the principles of ethics and equity in benefit sharing. Biohappiness will help to end the prevailing irony, where the primary conservers remain poor, while those using their knowledge and material become rich. Bio-partnerships leading to biohappiness should guide public policies relating to biodiversity and biotechnology.

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