Seed Systems and Climate Change: Examining Agrobiodiversity Resilience in the Andes

Seed Systems and Climate Change: Examining Agrobiodiversity Resilience in the Andes

Climate change has brought new attention to the imperative of crop diversity conservation, as change in agriculture’s employment of plant genetic resources is poised to emerge as a key adaptation strategy to altered growing conditions.

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As of recent years, commendable efforts have accordingly been channeled toward strenghtening ex situ crop collections, including the construction of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault where some 840.000 seed accessions have been placed in back-up storage since its opening in 2008.

Yet, much of the world’s precious repository of crop diversity exists in situ, as landraces grown in farmers’ fields, and we know little concerning how the maintenance of this diversity will fare under rapid climatic alterations. Developing knowledge about existing seed systems’ resilience to climate change is necessary in order to plan effective interventions to aid agricultural adaptation and biodiversity conservation. Without such knowledge, well‐intended programs involving planting material run the risk of undermining emerging local adaptation processes and actually reducing resilience, understood as the “capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” (Walker et al. 2004).

This study addresses this issue by investigating seed systems’ resilience to climate change through a case study in the Ecuadorian Andes. The Andean region is an appropriate study area for inquiries linked to climate change, because data records show clear trends of warming temperatures, increased incidence of extreme weather, and glacial retreat during the past decades. As one of the world’s centers of crop origin and diversity, the Andes are also particularly well suited for a study of seed systems.

The project expands upon insights gained during my dissertation work in Northern Ecuador’s Cotacachi county. During this work, I documented wide diversity in the local seed system, encompassing 103 crop species and 367 varieties within 20 of these. The research showed that these seed resources might be both threatened and drawn upon as farmers cope with rising temperatures, irregular precipitation patterns and changed hydrological regimes. Certain impacts and strategies reported during the study, including increases in harvest loss, growing storage pest pressure, and harvesting before seed maturation in order to reduce the risk of crop damage, might lead to higher incidences of seed loss and decrease seed saving. Yet, at the same time, farmers employ crop diversity as they experiment to adapt their production. The most prominent example here is a 2-300m upward expansion of maize cultivation in response to higher temperatures during the past two decades – an autonomous adaptation process in which farmers have used readily available seed from neighboring communities.

Further research is needed to understand the severity of seed losses, how lost seed are replaced, and the extent to which, in response to climatic and concominant environmental change, the actors involved in the seed system are able to reorganize the system’s composition so that it may continue to sustain local agriculture and maintain genetic diversity. This might involve the internal movement of crops and varieties between altitudinal zones as well as the incorporation of planting material from other areas.