No life without diversity

Swiss Aid

African Charter Article# 17: Every individual shall have the right to education, cultural life, and the promotion and protection of values.

Summary & Comment: Species diversity must not be left in the hands of agri-businesses and laboratories. The FAO estimates that during the 20th century three quarters of the genetic base of agricultural crops disappeared. The practice of farmers for thousands of years to develop, grow, or breed plants and animals according to their very specific cultural needs and geographic and climatic conditions has been compromised. Support the SWISSAID “Our seeds, our life” campaign. Globally, just 15 plants and eight animal species supply 90% of our food. Rice, corn, and wheat meet half of our food requirements.

For the International Year of Biodiversity 2010, SWISSAID is focusing on the importance of biodiversity and species diversity. Diversity is under threat. The world’s food supply is already resting on alarmingly narrow foundations: globally, just 15 plants and eight animal species supply 90 per cent of our food. Rice, corn and wheat alone meet half of our food requirements. Over the past 12,000 years, farmers have bred more than 10,000 species for food. Out of all these species (e.g. apples, potatoes, cattle), countless different varieties (Topaz apples, Linda potatoes, Simmental cattle) have been developed.

The FAO estimates that during the 20th century, three quarters of the genetic base of agricultural crops disappeared. But with the industrialisation of agriculture, beginning in the north and later brought to Asia and South America with the Green Revolution, farming has revolved around a handful of high-yield varieties . These flourish only in well-irrigated mono-cropping regimes, and are reliant on fertilisers and pesticides. Moreover, through patents and plant variety protection systems they are subject to intellectual property rights. Increasingly, national legislation is favouring homogenous, industrial seed types and discriminating against traditional local varieties.

This means a crucial consideration has been marginalised, and to a significant degree has disappeared: the tradition, practiced by farmers for thousands of years, of further developing and growing or breeding plants and animals according to their very specific cultural needs and geographic and climatic conditions. Huge agribusinesses, which in addition to chemical fertilisers and pesticides now also produce seeds, dominate the global market. These conglomerates distribute a small number of homogenous plant varieties and animal breeds, at the expense of traditional and local varieties. This has dramatically reduce d the diversity of varieties and breeds, and thus also the genetic basis of our food supplies.

The extent of this loss has been thrown into particularly sharp relief in the light of global warming. New varieties and breeds are required that are adapted to the changes in climate. Drought-resistant varieties, for instance, are important. In order to develop these varieties, we need a wide pool of genetically diverse types, and this is found mainly in small-scale farming production. Key to this is the traditional knowledge of the old varieties and breeds – knowledge which in many cultures tends to be held by women.

In order to prevent species diversity being left in the hands of the agribusinesses and laboratories, SWISSAID has initiated the “Our seeds, our life” campaign in South America, Asia and Africa. Working together with organisations that represent the interests of farmers, consumers and indigenous local peoples, the campaign lobbies for the preservatio n and use of local varieties and against the unwanted proliferation of genetically modified plants.

Action on behalf of justice is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel.
Justice in the World – 1971 Synod of Bishops