In February 2019, the FAO of the United Nations released an alarming report on the state of biodiversity for food and agriculture in the world. In May of the same year, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published an equally alarming report on the decline of biodiversity.
The opportunity to take stock of a tangible example of our biodiversity management, that of seeds at the base of all our food.
Since we became aware of the erosion of genetic resources, it has only been a question of limiting this erosion, and not of contributing to the production of resources. Put into historical context, such a vision is intriguing and alarming.
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A dynamic vision of biodiversity
The seminal work of Charles Darwin demonstrated that biodiversity is dynamic. The mechanism of evolutionary divergence – by which lines gradually deviate from each other and from their common root – is progressive and continuous. The whole system is constantly evolving. Diversity exists at all scales (individuals, varieties, families), and all lineages contribute to it. Such dynamic biodiversity results from the combined actions of the emergence, extinction and divergence of lines.
Two mechanisms are involved in the production of diversity: the entities (populations, varieties) must be sufficiently isolated to differentiate (under the effect of natural selection and/or genetic drift), but sufficient exchanges must remain between them so that their genetic diversity is not impoverished.
Thus, the production of biodiversity results from a subtle balance between isolation and interconnection. This dynamic vision obliges us to integrate change into our perspectives and to be interested in the mechanisms of production of diversity rather than in the entities themselves.
Farmers producing biodiversity
In a few hundred million years, the natural process of evolution has produced a multitude of living forms, each of which has significant evolutionary potential. For thousands of years, farmers around the world have cultivated some of the plants grown from this process, and have further increased their diversity. How did they do it? By cultivating species in a context of isolation and exchange, consistent with the dynamics of biodiversity production.
The domestication of plants has historically been enabled by the maintenance of exchanges between cultivated and wild forms before each cultivator selects his own seeds. Each batch of seeds had its genetic individuality, the diversity of which was maintained by a system of exchanges between farmers. The essential mechanisms for the production of biodiversity were at work, generating an immense diversity of forms.
The genetic resources thus produced are precious to us. It is on them that the possibilities for future selection of these plants rest, which will further increase their potential and better meet our needs (diseases, droughts).
An industrial revolution
In the XIX th century, the system was upset. Farmers have specialized: on the one hand those who produce the seeds and on the other those who exploit them. From then on, the plants were only reproduced in the seed fields.
Rapidly, the number of seed companies did not stop decreasing because of the phenomena of industrial concentration, and with them the diversity of the varieties available. The agrochemical industries have also decided to invest in the niche. This led to the emergence of giants, such as Monsanto and Bayer Corporation. Consequently, the number of plants reproduced is now in free fall.
This practice of “plant improvement” has temporarily had positive effects on agricultural production. Countries like France have gone from the status of the importer to that of the exporter in the agricultural sector. Everything seemed to be going well in the best of worlds, until the day when the question of “erosion of genetic resources” was raised.
The whole of this new system was based on the existing diversity of living forms. However, genetic innovation could no longer occur except among breeders, who represent a tiny part of the entire farming community. They cannot replace the immense territory of evolution represented by all of the historically cultivated fields.
Today, we exploit these resources without maintaining them (“mining” agriculture). Obviously renewable for a long time, they have now become exhaustible. To deal with this situation, we see two possible courses of action.
The technological response
Humans may believe that their technology will make up for the loss of diversity and resources. Biotechnology will indeed make it possible to search for the genes that we will need in all kinds of organisms (bacteria, fish, plants, etc.) in order to face, step by step, each of the difficulties encountered.
With this in mind, it is essential to get hold of existing genetic resources. This heritage can then be stored in a huge underground freezer, where the genes will remain at our disposal for a long time. If we follow this logic, technological progress must be encouraged. The profit of innovative companies must be maximized, and for this, they must retain exclusive ownership of the genetic resources they exploit.
It was in this context that the patent on the insertion of genes into plants was finally accepted and promoted. This path is that put forward by biotechnology firms, and followed by a majority of States.
It is based on the belief that human technology will become powerful enough, in a short enough time, to replace the natural processes of biodiversity production. The belief that the diversity of today will be sufficient to meet all of our future needs, that biodiversity is a fixed system, the genetic resources of which must be preserved in their current state.
Empowering farmers to produce biodiversity
Conversely, humans may believe in the superiority of the natural processes that have generated biodiversity. These mechanisms in action for billions of years, constantly producing new forms of life in constant evolution under ever-changing conditions. Based on a dynamic vision of biodiversity, this path promotes it alive and evolving. In this spirit, the urgent priority is to restart the dynamic process of biodiversity production.
For cultivated plants, this means giving back to farmers full and free possession of their seeds. The aim is to develop participatory selection techniques, in which modern knowledge of biology, genetics, ecology and agronomy would be used to develop agricultural production.
Each farmer would participate in the selection of cultivated plants, in a concerted and optimized manner. Such a system could include biotechnological approaches, but without any monopoly on genetic resources to ensure maximum production of diversity. Such a system would, therefore, be incompatible with maintaining patents on the insertion of genes into plants.