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


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.

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  1. The International Affairs paper (Thrupp 2000) is based on a larger World Research Institute report (1998) by the same author. The paper compiles biodiversity data from several sources, including Shiva (1991) and Hussein (1994), the origins of the statistics described here. See references for full bibliography.

  2. Landraces are mixed populations of seed recognized as morphologically distinct from other landraces, with a degree of genetic integrity, but also with considerable genetic variation. Like a polyculture within a single variety, each individual in a landrace population is genetically distinct from the next individual. Being genetically dynamic, the phenotypic makeup of a population is likely to be different from year to year, conferring both benefits and risks (Kingsbury 2011).

  3. An important wrinkle for ‘natural selection’ within agroecosystems is that the nature in agriculture is profoundly shaped by human hands: by removing competitor plants (‘weeds’), offering water when there is otherwise none, and enhancing soil fertility.

  4. Charles Darwin described three types of selection, natural selection and two types of human selection—one conscious and the other unconscious: “Methodical selection is that which guides a man who systematically endeavors to modify a breed according to some predetermined standard. Unconscious selection is that which follows from men naturally preserving the most valued and destroying the less valued individuals without any thought of altering the breed (1875, pp. 177–178; original emphasis)”.

  5. Microsatellites, also known as simple sequence repeats (SSRs) or short tandem repeats (STRs), are sequences of 2–5 base pairs repeated hundreds of times in a DNA strand. STR analysis can compare specific loci from two or more samples, measuring the exact number of repeating units. Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) are DNA sequence variations occurring commonly (e.g. 1 %) within a population.

  6. As defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity, in situ conservation of crops and their wild relatives consists of “conservation in the place where the domesticated or cultivated species have developed their distinctive properties.” (Heywood and Dulloo 2005). For crops, ‘on-farm’ is a frequent synonym for in situ, while for semi-domesticated and wild relatives, in situ consists of non-farm habitat. Yet where species developed their distinctive properties may be extraordinarily difficult to ascertain, given migrations and interbreeding across time and space (Fowler 2013).

  7. The Crop Trust currently provides long-term grants of $2.4 million annually to these institutions. This in-perpetuity funding is complemented by up to $18 million per year from the CGIAR Consortium Office to finance the core costs of operating international collections in all 11 CGIAR genebanks (Crop Trust 2013b).

  8. The separation of farmers from their seed is classical “primitive accumulation,” defined by Marx as “nothing less than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production” (Marx 1977, p. 875). The “draconian approach” of complete expropriation, notes Kloppenburg, had the effect of instantaneously establishing both a labor pool and market in one transformation. Yet even farmers who retain control of land can be brought “gradually but effectively into capitalist commodity production” (Kloppenburg 2004, p. 25).

  9. Four corporate donors—Dupont Pioneer Hi-bred, Syngenta AG, Australia Grains Research and Development Corporation, and Kleinwanzlebener Saatzucht (KWS) AG—have donated a sum of $7,030,000 to the Trust as of January 21, 2015 (see funding report: GCDT 2014).

  10. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, established in 2004, governs access and benefit-sharing for 64 food crops considered globally important. As of 2014, there are 131 contracting parties to the Treaty (130 countries and the European Union).

  11. The Global Crop Diversity Trust re-launched its website in January 2015, removing many of these statements. They can now be found in the Internet Archive (see references).

  12. McCouch wrote on behalf of attendees and organizers of the Crop Wild Relative Genomics meeting held in Asilomar, California in December 2012. See for full author list.

  13. Vavilov’s expeditions are a potent reminder that crop diversity losses are not limited to capitalist economies. The rationally planned, large-scale production systems of many a Communist regime have also led to simplified agroecosystems (Scott 1998).

  14. See Hanski and Simberloff (1997) and Hanski (2010) for good reviews of metapopulation theory. Perfecto et al. (2009) and Perfecto and Vandermeer (2010) apply the theory to agriculture in fragmented tropical landscapes, where improving the farmland matrix can reconcile goals of conservation and food security.



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


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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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Montenegro de Wit, M. Are we losing diversity? Navigating ecological, political, and epistemic dimensions of agrobiodiversity conservation. Agric Hum Values 33, 625–640 (2016).

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  • Agrobiodiversity
  • Seeds
  • Ex situ
  • In situ
  • Agroecology