Co-creating the agricultural biodiversity that feeds us

Co-creating the agricultural biodiversity that feeds us

23 March 2016

The co-creation of knowledge about agricultural biodiversity is an essential part of peasant strategies for survival and autonomy. Facing the threats of the industrial model of production and consumption, peasants and social movements are defending agroecology and their dynamic management of agricultural biodiversity. Together with others, they are building collective knowledge about developing localised, biodiverse food systems, about reclaiming access to their territories and about engaging in research and policy making as principal actors.

Gaza fishers protest the blockade of their fishery. Photo: Kevin Neish
Gaza fishers protest the blockade of their fishery. Photo: Kevin Neish

Our food is based on a great diversity of plants, animals, fish and micro-organisms. This diversity has been developed through collective knowledge, co-created between food producers and nature. It is the basis of all agroecological production systems. Through working with nature, peasants, including hunter-gatherers, artisanal àshers, livestock keepers, and other small scale food providers have learned about and innovated with ways to enhance and sustain agricultural biodiversity. The first to do so were women who innovated by collecting, sowing and selecting seeds. Food producers shared knowledge, together with their seeds and breeds, with peasants in other territories across countries and continents where, in turn, the co-creation of knowledge greatly expanded agricultural biodiversity suited to diverse ecologies, environments and human needs. The result is many hundreds of thousands of different plant varieties and thousands of livestock breeds and aquatic species which have been selected or adapted to serve specific requirements.

Common to the worldviews of many peasant food providers is the belief that all of nature is living and that human beings are part of the family of living creatures and the environment, not outside of it. These worldviews have deep implications for how peasants and other small scale food providers create knowledge. Nature shapes the possibilities of life for human societies. Culture, beliefs and our values, in turn, shape how we take care – or do not take care – of nature. Awareness of the links between nature and culture are explicit in many societies. And in many others, where that awareness has been lost, people are organising and taking action to reclaim this awareness. Humans and other living beings have been engaged in an ancient relationship of mutual interaction shaping each other’s existence in a process of co-evolution.

This process of co-evolution has created agricultural biodiversity and the agroecological systems it supports. Its dynamic management is an essential part of longterm peasant strategies for survival and autonomy. Agricultural biodiversity is the manifestation of the creativity and knowledge of peasants as they engage with the natural environment to satisfy their needs. It embodies a dynamic and constantly changing patchwork of relations between people, plants, animals, other organisms and nature, continuously responding to new challenges and finding new solutions.

Threats and responses

Farmer examining a field of an evolutionary population of wheat in Sahneh, Kermanshah, Iran. Photo: CENESTA
Farmer examining a field of an evolutionary population of wheat in Sahneh, Kermanshah, Iran. Photo: CENESTA

Agricultural biodiversity, and the creativity and collective knowledge on which it is based, is threatened by the industrial model of production and consumption. In response, peasant societies and social movements are organising locally, regionally and internationally to defend agroecology and regenerate their dynamic management of agricultural biodiversity in the framework of food sovereignty. Together with other relevant actors, for example NGOs and like-minded scientists, they are improving collective knowledge about how to respond.

This results in very diverse, multilayered strategies. Peasants are developing their interlinked and localised models of production and consumption and, especially women, are providing biodiverse foods for autonomous food systems and local food webs served by local, and sometimes cross-border, markets.

Peasants are fighting to reclaim access to their territories, migratory routes and fishing grounds. Securing their control over their territories allows them to regenerate agricultural biodiversity, above and below ground and in waters, through, for example, agroecology, agroforestry, artisanal fisheries, community management of mangroves, and mobile pastoralism. In Colombia, for example, peasants are proposing to regain control over their territory and renew a relationship with nature that does not lead to its destruction, as at present. They want food production based on the traditional knowledge of respect for the natural environment, using agroecology. In Palestine, restrictions of access to coastal waters are severely affecting the diverse fishery and the food security of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Peasants are asserting their inalienable rights for collective control over seeds and biodiversity. They are developing Maisons des Sémences, supporting peasant seed networks, seed fairs and maintaining diverse breeds of livestock and diverse fisheries. Even in regions degraded by industrial systems, local food providers are re-learning the importance of biodiversity. For example, French bakers cum seed breeders are regenerating varieties of wheat suited to the local environment and artisanal baking, meeting local demands for high-quality breads.

Peasants are producing, and often processing, local foods, feed, fuel and fibre for markets that support biodiversity. Community supported agriculture based on agroecology, and associated processing, can sustain biodiverse production by selling a wide range of varieties of cultivated and wild plants, breeds of livestock and  fish species. For example Andean breeds of alpaca, which produce a diversity of 11 colours of alpaca fibre and are well adapted to the harsh environment, require a supportive market to fend off the lucrative but biodiversity-blind market which demands uniform white alpaca fibre that is subsequently dyed artificially.

Peasants are engaging in research that increases agricultural biodiversity of plants, livestock and aquatic organisms. Their research respects collective rights and encourages the co-creation of diverse knowledges. For example in Iran, evolutionary plant breeding, which is a strategy for rapidly increasing on-farm biodiversity, farmers cultivate very diverse mixtures of hundreds or even a thousand or more of different varieties and allow these to evolve and adapt to their local conditions. These evolutionary populations are living gene banks in their own fields from which seeds from the most adapted varieties and mixtures are used for sowing crops.

Autonomous and self-organised participation in policy formation

Peasants are now included in policy formation. Democratic decision making processes including peasants have now been realised as a result of pressure from peasant organisations. In the UN Committee for World Food Security (CFS), for example, peasants can now debate issues with the same rights to express their views as other actors, including governments. A critical issue under discussion is the oversight of the governance of agricultural biodiversity and agroecology, in terms of their contributions to food security. This is a priority of peasant organisations for the agenda of the CFS. Peasants’ representatives are urging similar forms of engagement in the International Seed Treaty (ITPGRFA) and the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture so they can more effectively champion the policies needed to sustain agricultural biodiversity and realise Farmers’ Rights, and challenge policies that serve monopoly interests in the food system.

Boulanger Semencier France
Boulanger Semencier France

Peasant knowledge is key, but it must be in dialogue with other knowledges. Yet, recognition by many international and national institutions of the importance of peasant knowledge rarely means giving priority to it. In reality, where multiple knowledge systems are concerned, the supremacy of positivist (modern) science is tacitly assumed by those serving monopoly power. Attempts to incorporate indigenous or peasant knowledge and public or citizen science often include only those aspects that are consistent with positivist science.Given the substantial economic and political investment in research that undermines the development of knowledge in support of agricultural biodiversity, an urgent issue is to give precedence to the co-creation of knowledge, by peasant producers and other like-minded actors, which will challenge the dominance of positivist science. It is crucial to identify how, together, we can develop the knowledge needed to reclaim research for the public good; to realise changes in governance that will ensure the implementation of research that is directed towards enhancing a wide range of agricultural biodiversity, sustained ecologically in the framework of food sovereignty. This, perhaps, is one of the greatest challenges for the co-creation of knowledge.

This article and a new 16 page brochure are based on a report prepared for the Agricultural Biodiversity Working Group of the IPC for Food Sovereignty. The report titled’Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture: the perspectives of small scale food providers’ is a Thematic Study for FAO’s report on ‘State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture’. The brochure, together with the fully referenced report in English, is posted at
Arabic, English, French, Portuguese and Spanish versions of the brochure will follow shortly.

Brochure: Peasants give life to biodiversity


This is a sponsored contribution based on a report prepared for the Working Group on Agricultural Biodiversity of the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC Rome Secretariat –