Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 33, Issue 3, pp 625–640 | Cite as

Are we losing diversity? Navigating ecological, political, and epistemic dimensions of agrobiodiversity conservation

  • Maywa Montenegro de WitEmail author


Narratives of seed ‘loss’ and ‘persistence’ remain at loggerheads. Crop genetic diversity is rapidly eroding worldwide, we are told, and numerous studies support this claim. Other data, however, suggests an alternative storyline: far from disappearing, seed diversity persists around the world, resisting the homogenizing forces of modern capitalism. Which of these accounts is closer to the truth? As it turns out, crop biodiversity is more easily invoked than measured, more easily wielded than understood. In this essay, I contend that the impasse reveals an error in the asking. We must, instead, look to the ontological, epistemic, and narrative dimensions of agrobiodiversity—and to the science, politics, and cultures of each. How is diversity empirically defined and measured? Who creates and categorizes diversity? Who does not? How is such knowledge mobilized in the accounts and narratives of different interest groups? Where, when, and why does a narrative hold true? This multi-dimensional view of agrobiodiversity makes space for a greater understanding of how diversity is created, maintained, and renewed. It suggests policy and institutional support for systems that engender such renewal of diversity, both in and ex situ.


Agrobiodiversity Seeds Ex situ In situ CGIAR Agroecology 



Convention on Biological Diversity


Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research


International Center for Tropical Agriculture

Crop Trust

Global Crop Diversity Trust


Food and Agriculture Organization


High-yielding varieties


US National Seed Storage Lab

Plant Treaty

International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


Single nucleotide polymorphism


Simple sequence repeat


Short tandem repeat


United States Department of Agriculture


World Resources Institute



I am deeply grateful to Alastair Iles, Annie Shattuck, and Liz Carlisle for comments on earlier drafts of this article, and to Nathan Sayre’s UC Berkeley Geography lab for an excellent round of critical feedback. An anonymous reviewer provided insightful suggestions to hone the argument. This research was funded by a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. Like all of my work, it carries forward the spirit and knowledge of Inti Montenegro de Wit, my seed.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and ManagementUniversity of California BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

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