Eat ’em to conserve ’em . . .

That’s right. Eat ’em to conserve ’em. Sounds counter-intuitive? Well, the answer is not what you might expect.

On a recent BBC Two program [1], Lisa, a pig breeder from North Yorkshire of rare—and very hairy—Hungarian Mangalica pigs, told one of the presenters (who’d wondered if he might turn vegetarian after seeing the cuteness of Mangalica piglets): “We need you to eat the meat, because if you don’t eat the meat, then farmers won’t breed them, and that’s how you lose them“.

Regular viewers of BBC One’s Countryfile (broadcast on Sunday evenings) will be familiar with the preservation of rare breeds in the UK. One of the presenters is Cotswold farmer Adam Henson, whose father Joe founded the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) in 1973. The RBST supports the UK National Livestock Gene Bank where semen and embryos are stored.

Joe Henson also set up the Cotswold Farm Park in 1971 on his farm near Guiting Power that Adam and his business partner continue to run, where the public can see different breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, and poultry, most of which no longer play any significant role in commercial agriculture. They only survive because of the interest and efforts of farmers like Adam and the RBST. While preservation of rare breeds is one of Adam’s passions, he frequently acknowledges that they have to pay their way. So, for many farmers like pig breeder Lisa, keeping rare breed livestock is a commercial enterprise. And there is a growing interest in and demand for rare breed meat.

What are the parallels in crops?

For decades now crops (and their wild relatives) have been conserved in genebanks around the world. Scientists in the 1960s acknowledged that unless these crop varieties were collected they might be lost forever. So the good news is that important genebank collections were established, crop varieties and diversity preserved, and used to create more productive varieties for farmers to grow.

Conservation in genebanks or seed banks (often referred to as ex situ conservation, and the plant equivalent of semen and egg or embryo storage) ensures that genetic diversity is protected over the long term, subject of course to the best genebank management practices.  However, there are crops, like potatoes that reproduce vegetatively by tubers (important for maintaining specific varietal identity), and others that either don’t produce seeds, or which are short-lived and cannot be stored in a seed bank.

In the UK there are several important genebank collections: the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee; the Germplasm Resource Unit (GRU, with important collections of wheat, barley, oat, and pea) at the John Innes Centre in Norwich; and the UK Vegetable Genebank (UKGVB) at the Warwick Crop Centre, Wellesbourne.

And the centers of the CGIAR around the world manage some of the largest and genetically most diverse genebank collections anywhere. I have been involved with two of these: for rice at the International Rice Research Institute, in Los Baños, in the Philippines, and for potatoes at the International Potato Center, in Lima, Peru. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault provides an extremely important safety backup to these and many national genebank collections.

However, what is the situation on farms? Do farmers continue to grow the varieties that have sustained their communities for generations? Is it feasible to conserve varieties on farm? And how many would opt to grow new varieties if these were available?

Just like livestock, crop varieties can only survive if farmers continue to care for them, and they are consumed. Eat ’em to conserve ’em.

Now many of these farmer varieties (often referred to as landrace or ‘heirloom’ varieties) are found in subsistence farm systems where the full impact of modern bred varieties has yet to be felt.

Take the situation of rice in the northern part of Laos in southeast Asia, for example. Many of the rice varieties grown there are upland rices, and modern rice breeding has produced fewer improved varieties for these agricultural systems. Farmers (many of them women) continue to grow hundreds of rice varieties. While I was head of genetic resources at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines during the 1990s, I spear-headed an international project to collect and conserve these varieties in Laos and many other countries, and one of my colleagues, Dr Seepana Appa Rao spent five years in Laos assisting local scientists there.

‘Heirloom’ rice varieties are an important cultural foundation of many societies throughout Asia (and Africa). But farmers need to make a living, aspire to a better life, producing food for their families, and generate income if possible to pay for their children’s education. Many farmers want something better than the drudgery of agriculture for their children.

Is it possible to make a profitable living from these varieties? What are the opportunities to make the old varieties more commercially appealing? To commodify them. Certainly if these traditional varieties could generate an income, then farmers would be more willing to grow them. And, in the process, fulfill an important objective of on-farm or in situ conservation in a sustainable manner, rather than having to rely on farmer-conservators or subsidies (which can always be taken away).

Nollie Vera Cruz

The Heirloom Rice Project (HRP) was a collaboration between the Philippines Department of Agriculture and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, coordinated by my former colleague, Dr Casiana ‘Nollie’ Vera Cruz) to enhance the productivity and enrich the legacy of ‘heirloom’ or traditional rice through empowered communities in unfavorable rice-based ecosystems. It focused on traditional rice varieties found only in the Cordillera Region provinces of Ifugao, Mountain Province, Benguet, and Kalinga or northern Luzon island.

As explained in one website story, ‘heirloom’ rice varieties come in grains of astonishing colors: brown, black, pink, purple, and pearly white; fragrant, nutty in taste, high in fiber; healthy to eat; a gourmet’s delight. Yet for all their captivating look and taste, they thrive in the most fragile places, on mountain tops, where dew, rain, and air are their only means of sustenance. 

Rice terraces at Banaue, Ifugao Province, Philippines.

Furthermore . . . ‘heirloom’ rice varieties have been grown on the terraces of the Cordillera Mountains of Luzon, Philippines [for centuries], terroirs known for their significant historical, cultural, and aesthetic values. However, heritage ‘heirloom’ rice farming is gradually being abandoned, mainly because of its lower productivity and the struggle of the sector to create a sustainable niche market for heirloom rice by branding its cultural, social, and nutritional values.

One of the important outcomes was to link farmers with markets so that these special rice varieties could find a particular niche in the market, even exported during the course of the project to the USA. And it’s those linkages that were so important.

Let’s now to cross to South America where there is a wealth of potato varieties grown throughout the Andes of Peru and Bolivia in particular, mainly (until now) for home consumption.

As I have seen for myself, as long ago as 1974 near Cuzco in southern Peru, farmers successfully combined the cultivation of commercial varieties for the market while cultivating the ‘old’ varieties in small plots close to the farmstead, the basis of household food security.

In this photo, northwest of Cuzco, large commercial plantings of improved varieties can be seen in the distance, while inside the wall surrounding the farmstead only native varieties were grown.

Have farmers found a way to make these ‘heirloom’ varieties more commercial? Well, there’s a very interesting initiative in Peru that has spread across quite a large part of the country.

Potato farmers have formed AGUAPAN(Asociación de Guardianes de la Papa Nativa del Centro del Perú) that is supported by Grupo Yanapai, an NGO that has considerable experience in participatory research.

Farmers commercialize their varieties directly to households in Lima, even delivered directly to the door, as mixtures (chaqru) under the trade name Miski Papa.

What is particularly interesting about the project is that individual farmers are identified, and the commercialization strategy is geared towards understanding their roles and the varieties they grow. See how Sra. Guerrero grows 180 different varieties!

Now look at these other photos (on AGUAPAN’s Facebook page) showing different farmers and their varieties.

AGUAPAN has taken the opportunity to increase farmer incomes through this project and at the same time ensuring farmers continue to grow ‘heirloom’ varieties. There is an interesting paper published in 2021 by a former colleague of mine at CIP, Andre Devaux (and others) that describes how these potato varieties have become a culinary sensation and a market innovation.

These two projects on rice and potatoes (there must be more around the world on the same and other crops) show how two objectives can be met:

  • Enhancement of farmer livelihoods through market innovations with native ‘heirloom’ varieties;
  • On-farm (in situ) conservation that permits the dynamics of farmer management to prosper, and exposing genetic diversity to environmental challenges, so important under a changing climate.

Personally, until now, I have had some doubts about the wisdom of prioritizing on-farm conservation for crop genetic resources. Certainly in the 1990s there was quite a push to promote in situ conservation, and in the rice biodiversity project that I referred to at the beginning of the post, we learned a great deal about the choices farmers make on a daily basis. And that is what on-farm conservation should be all about: allowing farmers to make informed choices, to change their varieties, to discard some, adopt others. Even though some farmers take on a role of conservators, I’ve never believed that subsidies paid to farmers to ‘conserve’ their varieties was a viable, long-term option. With the commercialization initiatives I’ve described here, there are now excellent opportunities to ensure the long-term survival of ‘heirloom’ varieties in the systems where they originated.

Eat ’em to conserve ’em!

[1] The Hairy Bikers Go North, Episode 4 North Yorkshire (not available everywhere), just before three minutes, first broadcast on 14 October 2021.