Co-research in participatory plant breeding and innovations in developing agricultural biodiversity
In the summer of 2014 (July 6-8) DARE partners met for the second time in Montpellier, France at a gathering hosted by Biodiversité, Échanges et Diffusion d’Expériences (BEDE), a French international solidarity organization.
Collaborative research projects on participatory plant breeding and co-innovation for the development of agricultural biodiversity were the main focus of this meeting. As an example of a collective inquiry between farmers and researchers, partners visited an innovative experiment on participatory breeding of fodder crops (alfalfa and sainfoin) connected to the AVEM, an association that fosters horizontal knowledge transmission between veterinaries and livestock keepers in the Millavois region. Farmers involved in this initiative were of the view that given the adverse affects of regulations it is now urgent to scientifically validate experiments carried out by farmers in the fields in order to support sustainable livestock farming systems.
In the same spirit BEDE presented its Field Lab project on agricultural biodiversity. This project aims at reducing the gap between farmers and researchers in France, the Maghreb and West Africa by fostering joint experiments for testing and validating a range of agroecological practices connected to agricultural biodiversity, taking into consideration the complexity and plurality of farmers’ expectations.
At the next stop in Olmet participants walked around in the bountiful ‘Tomato Conservatory’ created and maintained by an organic farmer who has been successfully experimenting with the selection and adaptation of several hundred tomato varieties to the local environment. This initiative highlighted that there is a need for more research on the genetic, agronomic and nutritional aspects of population varieties.
In order to raise awareness on potential risks connected to cooperation between plant breeders and farmers, several cases of biopiracy were discussed. Biopiracy refers to the appropriation of the knowledge and genetic resources of farming and indigenous communities by individuals or institutions that seek exclusive monopoly control (patents or intellectual property) over these resources and knowledge. An expert farmer working with the French Peasants’ Seeds Network (RSP) also provided background information on international legislation, in particular the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), which regulates access to and use of plant genetic resources by different actors.
The initiatives visited in France, and other examples shared, are confirming the diversity and effectiveness of innovations led by farmers who are taking risks by engaging in these experiments. This raises the question of what needs to be done to make these experiments known and have them officially recognised by the scientific world and the state. Beside obstacles at the policy level, a related challenge emerges in terms of sources of funding for collaborative research and farmer-led innovation.
DARE partners were of the view that there is an urgency to define the terms and conditions (principles and rules) that underpin collaborative research projects with farmers and researchers. Farmers should feel empowered, for example, to express their expectations to researchers about what they would like to collaborate on. They should also have a say on what is published about the joint research project undertaken. At the same time researchers need to admit that they must not only produce research, but also transform their institutions and push for changes in the orientation of agricultural research so collaborative inquiry with farmers would get official recognition.