A Review of Agrobiodiversity: Integrating Knowledge for a Sustainable Future

Conservation through Conversation

by | Apr 1, 2020

Agrobiodiversity: Integrating Knowledge for a Sustainable Future edited by Karl S. Zimmerer and Stef de Haan (The MIT Press, 2019, 389 pages)

I initially approached the volume titled Integrating Knowledge for a Sustainable Future as an outside observer. As an archaeologist whose research focus is ancient agriculture, my expertise typically centers on the past. However, rather than flattening the topic of agrobiodiversity for mass consumption, it quickly became apparent that this book seeks to highlight the complexity and interconnectedness of agrobiodiversity to a multitude of fields. The volume does not shy away from these difficult exchanges, at times resulting in a cacophony of dialogue; however, I soon began to feel convinced that I too had a role to play in this form of knowledge production, not only as it pertains to the past, but in its applications for the future.

Agrobiodiversity: Integrating Knowledge for a Sustainable Future argues for a new analytical framework with which to understand the role of agrobiodiversity in the increasingly urgent debate around climate change. The authors of this volume put their proposed framework into practice with each chapter by integrating different types of data and scientific approaches, while acknowledging scalar challenges and potential structural and disciplinary biases. In other words, the volume puts forth a message of reform, while at the same time offering a proof-of-concept; this is its central contribution.

In their introductory chapter, editors Karl Zimmerer, a former DRCLAS Visiting Scholar, and Stef De Haan make clear that as the diversity of food products and systems of agricultural production dwindle, risk to food security and the severity of climate change intensifies, making agrobiodiversity an imperative field of research. However, the topic of agrobiodiversity is profoundly multi-faceted—involving genetics, plant biology, classification systems, culturally-produced meaning and practice, policy and governance, at local and global scales. This means that the creation of an integrated framework for investigation has long been stymied by academic and institutional silos. The editors set forth four areas—interrelated but with different emphases—around which to organize the various forms of data, disclipines, and stakeholders for future research.

In section I of Agrobiodiversity: Integrating Knowledge for a Sustainable Future, ‘Evolutionary Ecology, Agroecology, Conservation and Cultural Interactions, the authors ask what is the state of agrobiodiversity today. How and at what rates has it evolved? And what can we learn from that process in pursuing sustainable levels of diversity for the future? One obstacle in responding to these questions is the uneven record of agrobiodiversity data available today. This stems from different collection priorities, taxonomic systems and accessibility policies practiced by gene banks, seed banks, and similar institutions. Moreover, such institutions have largely neglected qualitative data, which are invaluable to the understanding of how agrobiodiversity is sustained or changes through time. A broad consensus emerged among the authors: the need to record the knowledge of farmers, particularly smallholders and indigenous farmers, whose practices result in the in situ conservation of plant varieties, both intentional and unintentional. However, farmers often make choices based on plant functionality, rather than on international taxonomic classifications, creating further challenges to data management under current collection practices. The authors recognize this as an area where further collaborative research is needed.

The next section of Agrobiodiversity takes a more historical perspective. The long-lasting effects of the Green Revolution of the 1970s and the globalization of the food industry has led to an overall homogenization of agricultural production—one that prioritizes calories and low-cost options over local resources and diversity. The authors grouped under ‘Global Change and Socioecological Interactions’ argue that these past scientific frameworks have resulted in real-world policies with consequences for agrobiodiversity and often the effects disproportionately impact developing countries. Yet, despite the general trend toward standardization, diversity does still exist, in large part thanks to smallholders and indigenous farmers. The authors explore how global economic trends and migration effect these groups and, by extension, agrobiodiversity, in both positive and negative ways.

The volume builds on these sentiments in the third section, ‘From Food and Human Diets to Nutrition, Health and Disease,’ demonstrating that the world’s food problems will not be solved through adherence to the current ‘productionist’ structure. Instead, the authors appeal to policy makers and economic leaders to begin to invest in the myriad food crops that are currently underutilized, offering the benefits of agrobiodiversity for the climate, health, and nutrition as worthy incentives. However, the density of the language in this and other sections could deter the desired audience.

Ultimately, agrobiodiversity results from human-environment interactions, and as the authors of this volume make clear, the plants and animals involved in these dynamics are neither passive nor static. While government institutions tend to focus on the quantifiable aspects of these organisms, it should be recognized that farming practices, food production, diet, and even seeds, are embedded in sociocultural meaning. Indigenous and smallholder knowledge systems may hold the key to conservation, but reproducing them requires an economic and political shift that rewards agrobiodiversity. ‘Governance, Including Policy, Cultural, and Economic Frameworks’ places the gauntlet squarely at the feet of governments and policy institutions that have the power to enact these changes.

The refrain that echoes throughout the volume is that ‘culture’ matters—in urban-rural migrations, in farming practices—be they conscientious, focused on calorie production and cost, or have centuries of history—in the food choices of refugees, in gendered roles of production, and in understanding agrobiodiversity as it gives meaning to space, time and place. As an archaeologist, I find this message particularly relevant, but more important is the fact that it comes from a diverse group of scholars, representing the hard sciences, social sciences and policy institutes.

Agrobiodiversity is a great achievement: it gathers studies and data from across numerous fields and manages to extract a cogent dialogue from an interdisciplinary cacophony. The reader walks away from the volume with a sense of cautious optimism for the future of research and perhaps the state of agrobiodiversity. However, one cannot help but wonder if the real ‘change-makers,’  the policy-makers, heads of state, and leaders in the global agricultural economy will take heed of the recommendations of this group of scholars and the integrated knowledge they represent. Further conversation and exchange is no doubt a crucial component for the survival of myriad species as we move into an increasingly changed world.

Fall/Winter 2019-2020Volume XIX, Number 2

Ari Caramanica holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Harvard University. She has worked on questions of smallholder behavior and ancient sustainability practices on the north coast of Peru for the last decade. She is currently a professor at the Universidad del Pacifico in Lima, Peru.

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