1 Introduction

This contribution builds on the position paper submitted to the Government of India in 2019, on means of promoting sustainable seed innovations in India (Kochupillai et al., 2019).

Author contributions: Kochupillai conceptualized the paper, wrote the first draft and edited and shortened the paper for final submission. Köninger contributed insights from the EU Green Deal and Common Agricultural Policy, edited and shortened the paper for final submission, and identified, managed and formatted all relevant references.

1.1 Agrobiodiversity and Its Rapid Depletion

The EU Organic Regulation (EU 2018/848) on ‘Organic Production and Labelling of Organic Products’ opens the door for the creation of an EU wide marketplace for agrobiodiversity contained in so called “heterogeneous materials”. However, the creation of such a marketplace presupposes the existence of optimal demand as well as supply of agrobiodiversity, linked plant genetic sequence data and local/traditional knowledge on how best to use this agrobiodiversity. According to estimates, about 75% of crop (on-soil) genetic diversity has been lost with farmers abandoning locally adapted heterogeneous seeds for genetically uniform “high yielding” ones. Associated adoption of chemical intensive farming has also led to loss of in-soil, beneficial microbial diversity. These, together, have a negative impact on supply of agrobiodiversity and its beneficial components. At the other end of the spectrum, regulatory regimes under well-intended laws create bureaucratic hurdles that disincentivize legal and transparent use of agrobiodiversity in research and breeding programs, creating a lack of demand for agrobiodiversity. Consequently, active and robust marketplaces for agrobiodiversity, and for derivatives thereof, have failed to evolve. This paper argues that these trends result from (inadvertent) inequities in existing regulatory frameworks that primarily support uni-directional data/knowledge flows from the formal sector (academia, industry) to the informal sector (farmers). The article argues that with the rapid evolution of technologies such as blockchain/DLTs and AI/Machine Learning, the direction of scientific research as well as of data/knowledge flows in the agricultural sector can and should be diversified. Such technologies and platforms based thereon can support: (i) secure and “controllable” data/knowledge sharing by the informal sector; (ii) accrual of fair, inclusive and equitable economic benefits for those sharing data, and (iii) traceability, for ensuring accurate economic benefit sharing on the one hand, and determining legal liability on the other, on a case by case basis. The article aims to provide food for thought for further multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder research, and for developing novel regulatory frameworks and ethical business models for robust digital marketplaces for agrobiodiversity for the benefit of farmers, researchers and the environment.

1.2 Agrobiodiversity and “Missing Markets”

Data is increasingly considered a tradeable commodity. In the context of agrobiodiversity and Plant Genetic Resources (PGRs), data as well as physical materials associated therewith have been internationally recognised as a valuable and conditionally tradeable commodity, at least since the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), (CBD, 1992) and later, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Fraleigh & Davidson, 2003; FAO, 2011) (“the seed treaty”). Although the economic, social, as well as environmental value of such data and materials has been underscored by research from various disciplinary perspectives (Dulloo et al., 2010; Saatkamp et al., 2019), estimates emerging from the UN FAO state that more than 75% of crop genetic diversity has been lost since the widespread adoption of conventional agriculture based on a very few crop varieties (FAO, 1999).

To counteract that development, existing legal regimes, including under the CBD, the seed treaty, and various intellectual property (IP) protection laws, are well-intended to support in and ex situ conservation of (agro)biodiversity and to ensure:

  1. (i)

    equitable access and benefit sharing (ABS) in the transfer and usage of agrobiodiversity (including agrobiodiversity conserved in situ)

  2. (ii)

    optimal incentives for research and innovation with agrobiodiversity

Sui generis systems for the protection of plant varieties, such as the one adopted by India, also seek to incentivize the creation of new varieties along with the conservation of old/indigenous ones. Yet, extensive empirical research in earlier studies found that:

the ‘market failure’ theory which is often used to justify the introduction of intellectual property rights for various fields of innovation can be better used as a justification to deny or limit intellectual property protection for plant varieties. This is because unlike in other fields of technology where the introduction of IPRs may address market failures, in the plant varieties sector, the introduction of such rights would worsen the existing negative externalities and produce new market failures. Regimes beyond those designed to protect intellectual property rights would therefore be necessary to promote sustainable innovation in plant varieties in general, and in situ conservation of agrobiodiversity in particular (Kochupillai, 2016; Kochupillai 2019a).

The new market failures emerging from current regulatory regimes governing the agricultural seeds sector, include the non-emergence of specific, desirable markets (“missing markets”), such as a market for agrobiodiversity.Footnote 1 How can in situ agrobiodiversity conservation (and downstream improvement, innovation and research with it) be incentivized, if IP protection is not the appropriate or adequate route? To answer this question, it is useful to take a quick look at why agrobiodiversity is increasingly becoming a focus area for the EU and what are the barriers preventing the emergence of a robust, equitable marketplace for agrobiodiversity, and associated traditional knowledge and data.

1.2.1 Agrobiodiversity: What and Why

In 2018, the European Parliament adopted the new regulation EU 2018/848 on ‘Organic Production and Labelling of Organic Products’. The recitals to this Regulation state, inter alia, that “Research in the Union on plant reproductive material that does not fulfil the “variety” definition as regards uniformity shows that there could be benefits of using such diverse material, in particular with regard to organic production, for example, to reduce the spread of diseases, to improve resilience and to increase biodiversity” EU 2018/848, recital 36”. The Regulation refers to plant reproductive materials (e.g. seeds) that do not fulfil the “variety” definition as regards “uniformity”, as “heterogeneous materials”.

Heterogeneous materials include plant and seed agrobiodiversity, particularly landraces, indigenous seeds and farmers’ varieties (collectively referred to hereinafter as “agrobiodiversity” or “heterogeneous materials”). Together, they host a wealth of PGRs that contribute significantly to global food security and sustainable agriculture, as also seen in case of the Baladi landraces in Palestine.Footnote 2 While agrobiodiversity can be conserved ex situ, problems of viability over prolonged storage and constantly changing biotic and abiotic conditions on field necessitate in situ agrobiodiversity conservation.

1.2.2 The “Supply Side” Story of Agrobiodiversity

Yet, agrobiodiversity conserved in situ is increasingly scarce and in “short supply” (Van de Wouw et al., 2010). Studies, both theoretical and empirical, have shown that farmers have little incentive to continue in situ conservation of agrobiodiversity (Kochupillai, 2016; Swanson & Goeschl, 2000). Most farmers are not able to recognise, capture and trade the ‘value’ inherent in their heterogeneous seeds. Unique nutritional or medicinal properties, colour and flavour of produce resulting from such seeds, often remain largely unknown to the wider farming community, to the research community, as well as to consumers. The few farmers cultivating unique varieties are often unable to obtain a fair price or a ready market for their produce. Some research has been undertaken seeking means of protecting heterogeneous materials, particularly in the form of “farmers’ varieties” or land races (Borowiak, 2004). However, the tracing of the origin of material and the downstream access and usage of the material pose fundamental challenges. This results also from the characteristics of agrobiodiversity: being heterogeneous and variable, making it not eligible for IP protection under regimes such as the plant breeders’ rights system (Kochupillai et al., 2021).Footnote 3 The scarcity of agrobiodiversity is aggravated by national and regional crop procurement policies that are mostly focused on the procurement of crops produced using high yielding, uniform varieties that give “standard” produce.

1.2.3 The “Demand Side” Story of Agrobiodiversity

Incentives to increase supply are also hampered by the lack of demand: well-meaning regulations such as the CBD, the seed treaty, and their national counterparts are aimed at ensuring fair access and benefit sharing (i.e., preventing biopiracy). However, they create multiple bureaucratic hurdles, disincentivizing research with agrobiodiversity (Fusi et al., 2019; Halewood et al., 2018; Mekonnen & Spielman, 2018). Plant breeders increasingly rely on their own ex situ reserves that contain valuable germplasm, albeit for a very limited number of crop species: world nutrition is primarily based on ten crops, of which three, namely, rice, maize and wheat, contribute nearly 60% of the calories and proteins obtained by humans from plants (FAO, 1999).

Where agrobiodiversity and associated PGRs are accessed, existing bureaucratic and legal barriers often disincentivize honest access and use practices, leading to biopiracy, creating mistrust between suppliers and seekers of agrobiodiversity.

Sub-optimal research on locally relevant heterogeneous seeds also weakens consumer interest in buying (demand) produce emerging from such seeds, not least because of unknown or unconfirmed nutritional and other properties. Lack of legitimate and adequately compensated demand for research-related end uses, coupled with low consumer demand, further limit farmer incentives to cultivate and keep up the ‘supply’ of agrobiodiversity.

Further, the culture of sharing prevalent among farmers (Mcguire & Sperling, 2016) their inability to monitor the chain of transfer of ownership and the specific end use(s) to which their seeds are put (e.g. consumption or downstream research), together with the inability of IP protection regimes to grant meaningful protection to farmers’ seed innovations (Kochupillai, 2019a) make any legal incentivisation schemes difficult to enforce.

This article argues that a novel understanding of the concept of ‘value’ linked to blockchain technology, together with its immutable, time-stamped record-keeping feature, can help overcome several of the above problems (and more, as described below). To make these arguments, in the following section (Sect. 2), we identify the current state of affairs vis-à-vis the creation of a marketplace for agrobiodiversity and its components. First, we describe the inequities created by existing agricultural regulations that promote uni-directional (top-down) flow of knowledge and materials (from the formal sector, i.e. the seed industry/research institutes, to the informal sector, i.e. small and subsistence farmers). Second, we identify hurdles currently preventing the emergence of a marketplace for agrobiodiversity. Third, we identify the monetizable components of agrobiodiversity that currently remain un- or under-recognised as valuable resources.

In Sect. 3, we investigate how a blockchain/DLT based solution can help “mine” the “value” of agrobiodiversity conserved in situ, helping overcome the hurdles identified in Sect. 2. Section 4 looks into the legal and ethical considerations that need to be borne in mind while adopting a DLT/blockchain based solution as envisaged in Sect. 3.

2 Identifying Regulatory Inequities to Diversify Directions of Data, Knowledge and Value Flows

2.1 Agricultural Regulations Creating Inequities and Uni-directional Flow of Knowledge and Materials

Existing regulations (particularly in Europe) focus on creating, testing, certifying and regulating “uniform,” homogenous seeds. While such seeds promise high yield in closely regulated farming environments, they often fail to perform in marginal environments (e.g. environments prevailing in small and subsistence farms).

Further, until recently, most European countries had outlawed the sale of heterogeneous (non-uniform), local seeds for agriculture, creating a marketplace dominated by top-down flows of knowledge and materials: seeds and knowledge on how to cultivate them (including with what types of inputs) are determined and dispersed by the formal sector (e.g. seed industry, research centres) to farmers, including to small and subsistence farmers.

This regulation-guided top-down flow of knowledge and materials has led to a focus on developing plant-data linkage solutions that primarily cater to managing data and information associated with the creation of uniform seeds for conventional farming systems. These solutions, therefore, are primarily developed for the formal seed sector and rely mostly on ex situ seed banks and private or proprietary germplasm reserves and plant genetic sequence data. This uni-directional flow of knowledgeFootnote 4 and materials, supported by existing legal and regulatory thickets, leads to a plethora of inequitable (unintended/unforeseen) consequences:

  1. (i)

    Inequitable exclusion of farmers from seed markets: As stated above, the sale of non-uniform, local, heterogeneous seeds for agriculture was outlawed by several EU countries until recently. Further, the sale of uniform seeds was pre-conditioned on fulfilment of registration and certification requirements, which are both complex and expensive. As a result, regulations made it difficult for small and marginal farmers to become seed innovators and sellers of heterogeneous seeds, preventing the development of a marketplace for (local) agrobiodiversity, associated data, and farmers’ know-how.

    Excluding specific categories of persons from the competitive market for seeds or creating an uneven playing field for their participation, while being legal in most countries of Europe, is against the principle of fairness in ethics, and against equity under human rights law. With the evolution of scientific understanding, there is a growing legal and factual need to facilitate the development of a marketplace for heterogeneous seeds, including farmers’ local seeds that are a rich storehouse of agrobiodiversity and PGRs.

    The inequitable exclusion of farmers from the domain of seed innovations and seed sales, also leads to several socio-cultural and demographic problems: in several rural areas, farming is no more considered an honourable profession, younger generations prefer to move to cities seeking more promising careers, leading to increased rural-urban migration and alienation from land, local cultures and values. This situation compromises both social and environmental sustainability.

  2. (ii)

    Inequitable incentive structures under IPR regimes: The structure of existing intellectual property rights (IPR) regimes and associated policies create inequities in incentive structures and in the innovation ecosystem. They are inappropriate or inadequate to recognise, reward and optimally incentivize farmer level (informal) in situ innovations on and with locally adapted agrobiodiversity. Indeed, empirical research has revealed that current IPR regimes, because of their design and based on practical matters of legal enforcement, are only able to incentivize formal (private/public sector) innovations (Kochupillai, 2016; Kochupillai 2019a; Kochupillai et al., 2021; Henry & Stiglitz, 2010).

    Notably, farmers are the original custodians and generators of agrobiodiversity, i.e. of heterogeneous seeds. They are also, traditionally, innovators, actively engaged in the art and science of seed selection, seed saving (storing) and seed improvement from one generation to the next. Yet, decades of policy and legal focus on certified, uniform, “improved seed” for agriculture emerging from the formal sector has reduced farmers to mere “users” and net ‘takers’ of know-how, leaving them with little negotiation power.Footnote 5

    As a result, farmers’ art and science of improving local agrobiodiversity either remain unknown, unrecognised, undervalued, or merely labelled as “conservation”, although it requires a great deal of innovation through (i) careful seed selection, (ii) locally suited innovations for seed storage, and (iii) indigenous, traditional and locally improvised means of improving soil biodiversity and fertility, to ensure not just the survival, but continuous in situ improvement of heterogenous materials over time, contributing to climate resilient agriculture and food/nutritional security (Kochupillai, 2019a).

  3. (iii)

    Sub-optimal focus on needs of organic and sustainable farming: A focus on high yield-oriented uniform seed multiplication and sales also undermines efforts, including within the EU, of promoting organic and sustainable farming. Unlike conventional farming, natural and organic farming requires intricate knowledge of local biotic and abiotic conditions and local solutions tailor made for these conditions. Lack of this knowledge and associated local solutions reduces the effectiveness of heterogeneous seeds. Under current regulatory regimes, information collection and management systems that compile and disseminate relevant information from marginal environments to support organic agriculture with heterogeneous seeds, have failed to evolve.

  4. (iv)

    Inadequate importance given to traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)-based farming systems and associated know-how: A growing body of research indicates that successful farming with heterogenous seeds is closely linked with optimal in-soil biodiversity (e.g. microbial diversity in the soil). TEK and farming systems that utilize this knowledge, contain the lost art of maintaining in soil biodiversity such that heterogenous seeds can perform well and even outperform uniform seeds (Kochupillai & Köninger, 2022). While the CBD aims to protect both in and on soil diversity, neither the CBD nor the seed treaty give adequate importance to TEK and associated farming systems. Neither do they recognize or grant economic incentives for farmers to maintain, use and share their know-how of such farming systems or best practices for the cultivation of heterogenous seeds in diverse marginal environments. The lack of recognition and incentives leads to further erosion of agrobiodiversity, and of diverse (sustainable) farming systems that support in situ conservation and improvement of agrobiodiversity.

  5. (v)

    A culture of IPR infringement: Focus on sales of certified uniform seeds has led to farmer-abandonment of traditional farming systems and local heterogeneous seeds. It has also (inevitably) led to farmer-dependence on uniform, certified seeds. This dependence, perhaps ironically, leads to infringement (by farmers) of plant breeders’ rights and patents under the slogan of “seed sovereignty”. Countries like India legalize seed saving (including of proprietary seeds) by farmers, leading to the adoption, by seed companies, of business models focused on the creation and sale of F1 hybrids that do not reproduce true to type (Kochupillai, 2016). Seed corporations also increasingly adopt Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs) for the production of seeds that do not produce any (viable) seeds.

  6. (vi)

    Overemphasised top-down education: Current agricultural extension services almost exclusively focus on top-down education of farmers in conventional agriculture. More recently, these educational efforts have included the use of blockchain and AI solutions. While these technologies can be used to collect and monetize a wide range of data, currently, data collected are used primarily to inform farmers when to apply chemical inputs and/or when to irrigate. Apart from a few (small) AI companies offering “cultural” solutions (see for example, Plantix), the vast majority of the “big data” collected, analysed, monetized and used for agriculture is controlled by a very few institutions and corporations.

To remedy the above inequities, it is necessary to diversify directions of knowledge and value flows – not just top-down, but also bottom-up, i.e., from farmers engaged in agriculture with agrobiodiversity to other farmers and to the formal sector (e.g. research centres). A bottom-up flow of knowledge would facilitate a more equitable and sustainable exchange of data. In such a scenario, farmers could (i) contribute their valuable knowledge of sustainable agricultural practices and in situ agrobiodiversity conservation to one another and to the research community; (ii) actively engage as innovators in the seed innovation ecosystem instead of being uninvolved consumers of agricultural innovations devised by top-down producers that prioritise repeated consumption and up-selling.

A bottom-up flow requires, first, systems incentivising an increase in supply and demand for agrobiodiversity, e.g. through concrete monetary benefits. Second, such systems should also be capable of overcoming hurdles that long disuse (or misuse e.g. biopiracy) of agrobiodiversity have created. Third, the created system needs to be based on a comprehensive understanding of the components of agrobiodiversity that can be monetized. Monetizable components of agrobiodiversity, and hurdles preventing the emergence of a marketplace therefor, are described in the following sub-sections. Finally, the created system should permit collective governance by all stakeholders or by representatives of diverse stakeholders, all of who can participate actively, and be incentivized to participate, in the equitable system.

2.2 Hurdles Preventing the Emergence of a Marketplace for Agrobiodiversity

The following hurdles lie in the way of creating a robust international marketplace for agrobiodiversity:

  1. 1.

    Sources lost or unknown: There is a concrete problem in identifying existing (remaining) in situ sources of agrobiodiversity. Indeed, interactions with academic researchers reveal that when these researchers go back to regions from where acquisitions of local agrobiodiversity were previously made, they find that farmers have abandoned this heterogenous agrobiodiversity and replaced it with “improved” homogenous materials.Footnote 6

  2. 2.

    Concentrated agro-seed industry: Four companies currently control 56% of the proprietary seed supply and 70% of the global seed market (Howard, 2009). These companies have amassed a huge proprietary reserve of germplasm and do not consider it necessary to deal with complex regulatory hurdles to acquire materials cultivated and improved in situ by the informal sector.

  3. 3.

    Lack of incentives: Significant collections of seed agrobiodiversity are in ex situ seed banks and are considered to be in the public domain, also giving no (monetary) incentive to the farmer-providers of the genetic resources to continue cultivating and improving these in situ. Provisions of the seed treaty that do not mandate benefit sharing unless these materials are used for the creation of proprietary varieties, also leave farmers with no incentives to share their materials. While pockets of efforts are seen in government initiatives to recognize plant genome saviour communities (see India’s Plant Variety Protection and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001), the system leaves several farmers and farmers’ communities who have not been recognized (so far), feeling disillusioned. Moreover, the one-time recognition does not provide farmers with the opportunity to share their innovations in return for continuing economic benefits or to further develop means of benefiting from their innovations. Sub-optimal incentives for in situ agrobiodiversity conservation/improvement also prevent the sharing of associated materials and know-how.

  4. 4.

    Lack of incentives (continues): Acquisitions of ‘samples’ of agrobiodiversity (soil microbial diversity and crop diversity), are regularly made by research centres and private entities from farmers or other informal sources. These acquisitions are often made without giving any meaningful monetary or other benefit/recognition to communities that have provided the material and associated information. When made through the ‘back-door’ to avoid existing regulatory hurdles within national biodiversity protection laws, such acquisitions are labelled as biopiracy, and provided they are caught/identified, are punishable offences. Biopiracy, whether or not it is caught and punished, leads to loss of trust amongst stakeholders, further reducing farmer-incentives to share their agrobiodiversity and associated know-how.

  5. 5.

    Lack of knowledge for reconversion: Adoption of chemical intensive farming encouraged by most of the agro-seed industry, while enhancing yields, has also led to unaccountable loss of in-soil (microbial) diversity. Heterogeneous seeds are not designed to perform in soils treated with chemical inputs that display reduced soil microbial diversity. Regions where farmers adopt conventional agriculture, may, over time, need to abandon local/heterogeneous seeds as chemical fertiliser residues have been known to interfere with the performance of local heterogeneous seeds. The concrete problem here is lack of knowledge on how to convert back to traditional/organic/sustainable agriculture while maintaining income/profit levels. Perhaps ironically, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) based farming systems such as Natural Farming in India, contain know-how for rapid reconversion of conventional soils and farmers to agrobiodiversity preserving systems. Unfortunately, such systems are not so far recognized or known in Europe and several of the necessary farm-made formulations are likely to be outlawed by existing (top-down) agricultural regulations.

  6. 6.

    Loss of diversity in farming systems: Recent scientific research reveals that farming methods that promote seed/soil health and diversity also enhance crop yields (Zhou et al., 2017). Yet, regulatory regimes have, until recently, not only out-lawed the sale of non-uniform (local, heterogeneous) seeds and materials for agriculture, but have also failed to support the parallel evolution of diverse, including traditional farming systems (e.g. “Natural Farming” and other systems of Agroecology). The lack of diversity in education, and lost knowledge of traditional, sustainable farming systems and practices, results in mono-cultures and uni-directional scientific progress. As discussed above, it also excludes farmers who are actual and potential innovators, from participating in the seed innovation ecosystem, and equitably benefiting from such participation.

  7. 7.

    Lack of trust and of systems supporting traceability of materials to the source: Recent EU legislation (EU 848/2018) attempts to reverse the above trends by facilitating easy marketing and registration of “heterogeneous materials”, a term that is broad enough to include indigenous or locally adapted, non-uniform, farmers seeds. Yet, more fundamental issues remain unaddressed, particularly issues linked to the lack of trust in sharing agrobio resources (fear of biopiracy), and the absence of means that facilitate their traceability to source. These issues, again, disincentivize wider dissemination (sharing, selling) of agrobiodiversity and agricultural best practices associated with their cultivation and improvement in situ. This leaves farmer-innovators who generate and improve agrobiodiversity economically weak and socially marginalized.

To overcome these hurdles and take concrete steps for the creation of an equitable marketplace for agrobiodiversity, it is necessary to first understand the monetizable components of agrobiodiversity. This has been done in the following sub-section.

2.3 Identifying Monetizable Components of Agrobiodiversity

Plant genetic materials co-evolve with their surrounding microorganisms, forming the holobiont. These assemblages between plants and soil microbes are critical for plant health, e.g. by helping suppress diseases. In sustainable farming systems, the soil surrounding the plant root, called the rhizosphere, is particularly rich in beneficial microbiological activity. The more diverse the rhizosphere, the better the symbiotic exchange between plants and microorganisms, such as nutrient exchange (Van Der Heijden et al., 2016), resulting in higher nutrient content in the plant, vegetable or crop (Sangabriel-Conde et al., 2014). The beneficial microbial population in the soil, called the soil microbiome, is also influenced by the plant genotype.

While heterogeneous plant materials are more dependent on microbial synergies for nutrient access, improved varieties are more dependent on external inputs (Cobb et al., 2016). According to an expert in soil microbiology, “there is currently great interest in developing sustainable farming systems in which the plant microbiome is utilised to support plant nutrition and health, replacing the use of fertilisers and pesticides. This may include manipulating the microbiome through crop genotype or by using microbial inoculants with specific functional traits. Wild genotypes and cultivars adapted to low input systems are vital tools for the development of these resources”.Footnote 7

Therefore, it is not just the commercial potential of heterogeneous seeds and PGRs that is growing but also the commercial potential of soil microbial communities associated with specific crops and crop species that can be used to create microbial rather than chemical fertilisers (Velmourougane et al., 2017). It also appears likely that soil microbial populations that get optimized with traditional and sustainable farming systems may be unique to each location and to each crop. Soil systems that are linked to traditional farming systems are, therefore, like potential goldmines.

Accordingly, the following components of agrobiodiversity are monetizable (at least potentially):

  1. (i)

    Heterogeneous seeds, including those with any locally or traditionally known qualities and characteristics (e.g. disease resistance or drought/flood resistance) of the seed;

  2. (ii)

    Produce/food resulting from cultivation of heterogenous seed, including knowledge of any locally or traditionally known qualities and characteristics (e.g. nutrient content, medicinal properties) of the food/produce;

  3. (iii)

    Beneficial soil microbial populations and diversity therein corresponding with specific seeds/plants, soil types and farming methods;

  4. (iv)

    Farmers’ know-how, which has evolved from local Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)-based farming systems, on best practices for soil management, on-farm (in situ) seed storage and seed selection/conservation/improvement.

Yet, under current legal and regulatory regimes, none of these categories are directly monetizable by farmer-custodians of agrobiodiversity.

Current and ongoing research suggests that the revival and wider application of traditional agricultural systems is necessary to ensure food security in the face of climate change (Nyong et al., 2007), and especially so in marginal conditions facing unique biotic and abiotic stresses (Roberts & Mattoo, 2018). There is, therefore, an urgent need to establish systems that incentivize:

  1. (i)

    the use of agrobiodiversity in agriculture;

  2. (ii)

    the identification of the value inherent in such agrobiodiversity, including local, heterogeneous seeds, associated farming systems and soil microbial diversity;

  3. (iii)

    the transparent and traceable transfers/sharing of this agrobiodiversity (and associated data and knowledge) to diverse end-users for diverse end purposes (e.g. to other farmers for successful migration to organic/sustainable agriculture, to researchers for further R&D, to consumers for consumption etc.), and

  4. (iv)

    fair, equitable and assured transfer of monetary benefits to farmers and rural communities that share local agrobiodiversity and associated data and know-how.

In the following section, we discuss whether and how blockchain and AI-based technologies can help in reviving and (re)establishing such systems.

3 Diversifying Directions of Knowledge, Data and Value Flows: Can Blockchain and AI-Based Solutions Help?

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as well as EU’s general policy on (big) data, demand fair data collection and processing, for justified, limited purpose, without sacrificing privacy. The regulations also aim to facilitate data trading. The rights guaranteed to those who contribute data or permit its collection and use include the right to revoke permission and/or grant permission at will in return for monetary compensation (data as currency) (Duch-Brown et al., 2017). There is also an EU wide effort to create a market for non-personal data. Several technological solutions can support the creation and growth of a European (or global) Data Economy, including data emerging from farmers’ fields, managed and transferred for the benefit of the grassroots (small and subsistence farmers) and for the benefit of the environment (agrobiodiversity protection). To collect, manage and monetize at least the four major monetizable components of agrobiodiversity (Sect. 2.3), the hurdles identified in Sect. 2.2 need to be overcome.

3.1 Blockchain/DLT for In Situ Innovations with Agrobiodiversity: Creating Incentives

Blockchain technology, or the more generic distributed ledger technologies (DLTs), permit secure data collection, arrangement and storage, as also the transfer of data in an immutable or change sensitive manner (Drescher, 2017). DLTs can, therefore, help create a decentralized system that is much more trustworthy than a ‘centralized’ system managed by a third-party intermediary. Additionally, “smart contracts” can be appended to blockchain/DLT solutions to automatically trigger a series of digital occurrences as soon as a pre-determined set of conditions is fulfilled.Footnote 8

Blockchain/DLTs also supports anonymization of users, ensuring that Personal Identifiable Information (PII) of farmers and other stakeholders can be secured. At the same time, the system can also be designed to facilitate limited or conditional disclosure of identities of contributing parties, either on their choice or, in case of need (e.g. for purposes of legal enforcement, facilitation of payments/encashment and/or correction of technical glitches).

The code underlying the system can help reduce transaction costs, delays, and a host of other problems, including problems that may be a result of corruption or breakdown of one of the nodes/computers in the system.Footnote 9 These features of blockchain/DLT technologyFootnote 10 can help overcome issues of lack of trust and traceability in transfer (or sharing) of agrobiodiversity and its monetizable components. However, to provide stronger economic incentives for in situ conservation and innovation with agrobiodiversity and associated research, it is also necessary to acknowledge and identify the ‘value’ of agrobiodiversity (material and knowledge), and adopt systems that help identify (or ‘mine’) and monetize this ‘value’.

Blockchain has been called the internet of ‘value’ (Tapscott & Tapscott, 2017).Footnote 11 The width and ambiguity of the term ‘value’ itself is responsible for the diversity of use cases and business models that blockchain (potentially) facilitates and promotes. At a very fundamental level, the ‘value’ of anything is very subjective: anything has ‘value’ because people believe it to have value. As the number of people who believe or place subjective value on anything increases, the apparent objective value of the thing also increases (Tapscott & Tapscott, 2017; Swan, 2015). For example, when people demand more bitcoins, this demand adds (monetary) value to bitcoins. When people demand more agrobiodiversity or produce derived from heterogenous seeds, its value also increases.

Currencies, including digital currencies, are essentially a medium of storing and trading ‘value” (Yermack, 2015; Allee, 2008). Digital currencies currently exist in the form of digital payment systems (such as credit cards), in the form of digital reward points (such as airline mileage points, grocery and other marketplace purchase points or customer loyalty points), and in the form of cryptocurrencies. Blockchains or DLTs, together with cryptocurrencies or other point/reward systems linked to them, can help store and transfer the “value” associated with any underlying data, know-how or material being transferred or traded via a DLT backbone. In fact, blockchain/DLTs can also be designed as an incentive system, and preliminary research suggests that blockchain based systems may be well suited to incentivize and promote in situ conservation, research and innovation with agrobiodiversity (Kochupillai et al., 2021). This can be done, for example, by building smart contracts that work with the DLT system to automatically transfer cryptocurrencies, points or rewards to specific “nodes” or participants in the system, when specific criteria are met (without the need for an intermediary).

For example, in order to trigger a transfer of reward points to:

  1. (i)

    a farmer, the criteria to be fulfilled by the farmer can include the contribution or transfer (into/via the blockchain based system) of a pre-defined “packet” of know-how, traditional knowledge or materials. Farmers can also add to or build on the knowledge contributed by other farmers on the system by adding insights relevant to their own unique agro-climatic, biotic and abiotic farming conditions.

  2. (ii)

    a researcher, the criteria to be fulfilled by the researcher can include the contribution or transfer (into/via the blockchain based system) of research results testing and verifying (or rejecting) the validity or usability of the know-how or materials contributed by farmers from specific agro-climatic contexts. Researchers can also win reward points by contributing test results indicating or verifying specific unique features of seeds (e.g. resistance to specific biotic or abiotic stresses) or specific unique nutritional, medicinal or other properties of the produce resulting from indigenous/heterogenous seeds contributed by farmers to the system. Such research based verifications of properties of agrobiodiversity (seeds or produce) can add additional objective “value” to agrobiodiversity, creating a more robust marketplace therefor.

From the perspective of governance, especially governance systems that are inclusive, it is noteworthy that smart contracts can be designed based on conditions decided or dictated by farming communities participating/contributing to the system. Indeed, smart contracts designed based on needs/demands of local (farming) communities are more likely to facilitate participation in the DLT/blockchain based system.

Further, in previous works, we have suggested that a smart contract facilitated automated payment system (e.g., a one-time payment or automatic payment of royalty to originators of seed innovations, namely, farmers) be supported by a point-based reward system (instead of a cryptocurrency) (Kochupillai et al., 2019). This suggestion is important, not least because of the volatility of cryptocurrencies, high energy-consumption and costs associated with confirming/checking transfers of cryptocurrency, and the diversity of national laws that currently support or outlaw cryptocurrencies. Accordingly, it is worth investigating whether blockchain/DLT facilitated mechanisms to incentivize research and in situ innovation with agrobiodiversity can be linked with a simple (non-cryptographic and low energy consuming) automated point granting systems similar to existing systems that reward “carbon points”. Such systems can then support point trading similar to “carbon trading” or “emission trading.”Footnote 12

Collected points can also be exchanged for real cash (fiat currencies) from one or more of several possible sources, such as:

  1. (i)

    established funds like the ‘Gene Fund’ or the ‘Biodiversity Fund’ under National laws (see, for example, the Indian Biodiversity Act, 2002)

  2. (ii)

    from a fund maintained through the collection of a possible ‘biodiversity tax’ from sellers of uniform/homogenous seeds and chemical inputs that contribute to the depletion of agrobiodiversity; or

  3. (iii)

    from exchanging points for money from industries that would want to acquire biodiversity points to avoid paying a possible ‘biodiversity tax’.

In relation to (iii) above, industries that do not support the in situ conservation and improvement of agrobiodiversity could be required to pay a biodiversity tax unless they can show legitimate acquisition of “biodiversity points”. Such points can be acquired, for example, by supporting institutions and farmers engaged in research and in situ conservation and innovation with agrobiodiversity.

Adopting the above envisaged system could help create incentives for downstream users and researchers to use rather than avoid the blockchain/DLT facilitated traceability and incentive system in two ways:

  1. (i)

    by ensuring that points collected can be exchanged for cash from one (or more) of the above-suggested sources, and

  2. (ii)

    by permitting the specific contribution of each farmer/farmer community and research institutions to be immutably recorded and known to the rest of the world.

Therefore, if any research and innovation with agrobiodiversity is done ‘outside’ the system (e.g. through illegally acquired PGRs), neither will the farmer contributor of the agrobiodiversity (or associated know-how) get royalties for his/her contribution, nor will the downstream researchers (whether these be other farmers or scientists) get point-based rewards for (research-based or new product development based) value addition or verification.

3.2 Incentivizing ‘Work’ on and with Agrobiodiversity and Associated Know-How

To illustrate how a blockchain/DLT-based incentive system might look like, we take the example of ‘Sona Moti’ – an ancient indigenous wheat seed recently (re)discovered and named in India by the Art of Living Foundation (an international NGO) (Kochupillai, 2020a, b; Kopytko, 2019). Sona Moti is an ancient Emmer wheat variety that was re-discovered in rural Punjab. After its rediscovery, Sona Moti was found to have a particularly high folic acid content.Footnote 13 Its survival in cultivation depends on demand, and price can fluctuate significantly based on supply.

Further, Sona Moti farmers claim that its unique characteristics (taste, texture, nutritional content, quality of yield etc.) are associated with the method of farming they adopt for its cultivation. Specifically, these farmers use “Natural Farming”, a compilation of farming practices sourced from Indian TEK systems. Natural Farming, as popularly practised in India, combines organic farming practices (no mineral fertilisers, pesticides, etc.) with the treatment and preparation of several formulations that recycle nutrients from farm waste and animal (particularly cow) manure to create organic fertilisers (the effect of which is similar to that of plant biostimulants), natural pest repellents, and seed germination enhancers.

Let us imagine a farming community cultivating Sona Moti, supported by an NGO, wants to sell Sona Moti via a blockchain based platform. We can expect the following to be the most relevant stakeholder categories in the system:

  1. (i)

    the public and private sector research community that may wish to buy Sona Moti via the blockchain platform and can be given incentives to add or ‘mine’ value from it either through research on its characteristics or through research aimed at creating improved varieties through breeding activities,

  2. (ii)

    end consumers, who may wish to buy Sona Moti for its specific nutritive value, i.e. for consumption;

  3. (iii)

    other farmers and seed multipliers who may wish to buy Sona Moti as seed for their own cultivation and sale purposes. Such farmers may also be given incentives to contribute additional location specific know-how on best practices for the cultivation of Sona Moti;

  4. (iv)

    governmental bodies such as seed certifiers, organic certification agencies, the Biodiversity (Protection) Authority etc., could be given incentives to test and certify the seeds;

  5. (v)

    non-governmental organizations could be given incentives to help identify regions where farmers cultivate with heterogenous Sona Moti seeds, help farmers with data entry and help avoid or minimize the problem of fake entries;

  6. (vi)

    corporations, who may wish to buy Sona Moti can either be given incentives to “mine” value through downstream research, or simply to support the packaging, labelling, (organic) certification and sales of seeds and produce.

The benefits blockchain could bring to such an environment include the following:

  1. (a)

    Price discrimination based on stakeholder-categories and envisaged end uses: For example, farmers as well as seed multipliers, based on their landholding size, can be asked to pay lower prices or be permitted to buy their first Sona Moti seed samples free of cost. Corporations and research centres, can be required to pay a high(er) fee for each packet of information/know-how or seeds. Further, farmers can also receive payments under the following categories:

    1. (i)

      bulk payments from research purpose acquisitions,

    2. (ii)

      royalties every time multiplied seeds of Sona Moti or of improved varieties thereof are sold by downstream farmers, seed multipliers, or innovators, and

    3. (iii)

      per bag sale value from end consumers.

  2. (b)

    Enhancing transparency and traceability to avoid biopiracy: Blockchain’s capability to immutably record transaction history can be used together with regulatory frameworks such as “Know Your Customer” frameworks (Michael et al., 2018) (that are already mandated in countries like the US) to ensure that every category of user can be accurately identified and every sale of Sona Moti (as seed or grain) is recorded. This would help ensure that illegitimate/illegal transactions and use of agrobiodiversity or PGRs are minimized.

  3. (c)

    Incentivizing honesty and legitimate use of the blockchain system: As discussed above, to prevent the appearance of parallel black markets, all stakeholders can be incentivized to use rather than avoid the blockchain based system. This can be done by granting automatic payments/rewards with the help of smart contracts to relevant stakeholders, whenever they have legitimately sourced the know-how or materials from the blockchain and added “value” to it – e.g. by confirming or testing the farmers’ contributions through research, or by packaging or certifying farmer seeds/produce, etc. Those who acquire the materials or know-how off chain, would naturally be unable to access or claim such reward points or payments.

  4. (d)

    Incentivizing continuous value addition: Given the nature of heterogenous seeds, their features are likely to vary based on the location of cultivation. This would permit each farmer-buyer of seed to further ‘mine’ ‘value’ by recording additional knowledge on cultivation best practices, local features etc. on the blockchain/DLT backbone, based on in situ cultivation and innovation in their own local areas. Over time, the knowledge base would be rich enough to permit farmers from various regions to successfully cultivate Sona Moti by accessing the rich knowledge base from the blockchain based system, and (optionally) contributing more localized know-how back into the system.

  5. (e)

    Incentivizing and funding further R&D through ICOs: Based on the envisaged expansion of demand for Sona Moti seeds, the general public may be interested in buying and trading Sona Moti coins linked to the blockchain system, via initial coin offerings (ICOs). In addition to the point-based reward system, such ICOs can also be used to support further R&D on and with agrobiodiverstiy, thereby creating incentives for the in situ conservation and improvement of local heterogenous varieties. Such systems can, in this way, also support the creation of marketplaces for agrobiodiversity by enhancing demand for it among researchers and end consumers, and creating a transparent and trustworthy means of ensuring supply.

3.3 AI and ML-Based Searching of Data Managed and Governed Under a Blockchain/DLT Based System

Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies, especially machine learning systems can utilize the data collected and managed by a blockchain/DLT based system to design apps that bring unique and custom-made information and solutions to farmers and researchers alike. For example, imagine a farmer is engaged in the cultivation of Sona Moti. The farmer shares information about the unique properties of the seed and resulting grain, namely, high folic acid content and low glycaemic index via a blockchain app. Scientists and plant breeders in search of similar properties can search and access this information using an AI based search app built on top of the blockchain system. Researchers can also test the applicability (or even the veracity) of the information shared by farmers in diverse farming conditions and share back their findings through the AI app.

Thus, AI apps, in combination with blockchain/DLT based systems, can not only help solve problems of trust and traceability but also support equitable data collection, meaningful querying of the collected data, and transparent downstream data usage, making the data monetizable and its usage controllable by those who contribute it. As AI and DLT based solutions can facilitate the collection of and access to disciplinary or geographic area-specific information from and by farmers, researchers and other stakeholders, governments across the globe, including in the EU and India, are looking at such solutions for sustainable agriculture.

4 Implementing the AI/Blockchain Solution: Legal and Ethical Considerations

To accomplish the goals of diversifying directions of knowledge and value flows and overcoming existing regulatory hurdles and inequities with the help of Blockchain/DLT and AI solutions, it is necessary to revisit and partially amend existing regulatory schemes.

4.1 Blockchain and AI for Agrobiodiversity: Necessary Regulatory Amendments

  1. (i)

    Disengage Benefit Sharing from Downstream IPR Protection

In the context of the Seed Treaty (and the Indian PPV & FR Act, 2001), it is necessary to re-think the current legal provisions that mandate benefit sharing only if the downstream research with PGRs is protected by IPRs (Patnaik et al., 2018). This current limitation may result from the (outdated) scientific understanding that the Mendelian “genes for traits” (and associated management of biotic and abiotic stresses) approach is the only way to accomplish food security (Radick, 2016; Kochupillai & Köninger, 2022). Today, the understanding has evolved. Heterogeneous seeds are recognised as crucial not only for food and nutritional security, but also for sustainable agriculture in the face of rapid climate change (as also noted in the preamble of new EU organic regulations) (Ficiciyan et al., 2018; Martínez-Nieto et al., 2020).

Further, farmer-custodians of agrobiodiversity are not just technology-takers but indispensable partners for the long-term continuation of formal innovations by the public and private sector seed industry and the organic fertiliser and pesticide industry. Ethics, equity, economics as well as common sense, therefore, dictate that farmer-contributors of agrobiodiversity get royalties in addition to significant initial (bulk) payments for sharing their agrobiodiversity and know-how. By incentivizing in situ agrobiodiversity conservation and improvement through long-term benefit sharing with farmers (such that both on-soil (crop/seed) and in-soil diversity is protected and enhanced), the research community as well as the private sector (breeders and corporations), would also sustainably benefit in the long run.Footnote 14

Accordingly, it is necessary to re-think current laws limiting benefit sharing for PGR access only to cases where the downstream varieties are protected by IPRs or are utilized in a hybridization program.

  1. (ii)

    Benefit Sharing for Access to Soil Microbial Diversity from TEK-Based Farming Systems:

For long-term food and nutritional security, incentives and monetary benefits must be secured not only for farmers cultivating locally relevant heterogeneous seeds but must also accrue to:

  1. (a)

    farmers/communities who generate and share knowledge and information about how best to cultivate heterogenous seeds in specific local conditions to get the best results (vis-a-vis yields, nutritional quality, unique taste, aroma or medicinal properties), and

  2. (b)

    those who generate and share knowledge/information about how to optimize beneficial microbial populations within specific soil types and in the context of specific crops.

Blockchain/DLTs, (together with AI applications) can facilitate secure and ‘controllable’ data sharing by farmer-generators of such know-how and data, while ensuring fair, inclusive and equitable economic benefits for those sharing the same.

Therefore, farming communities engaged with traditional farming practices that enhance seed and soil biodiversity may benefit if ‘digital sequence information’ associated with biodiversity is brought within the scope of the Nagoya Protocol (Kupferschmidt, 2018).Footnote 15

Coupling such a move with the parallel adoption of concrete means (such as DLT/Blockchain-based solutions) that support the legitimate and traceable transfer of digital information linked to seed and soil biodiversity, will prevent any envisaged slow-down of globally beneficial research (Ibid.) while disincentivizing illegal/inequitable transfers of data/information.

  1. (iii)

    Permitting farmer level (collective) branding of heterogeneous (local) seeds

Unlike several European countries, countries like India never banned the sales of farmers’ heterogeneous seeds and materials. Under its Seed’s Bill (PRS India, 2004) that has been pending since 2004, India plans to establish systems that can facilitate the emergence of regional, national as well as international markets for heterogeneous seeds. For example, the mandatory seed certification requirement can help farmers and farmer groups get their varieties quality tested and help them get a brand/denomination for their locally unique seeds (such as Sona Moti). However, this mandatory seed registration requirement has been opposed by farmers and farmer groups because it can create a heavy bureaucratic and financial burden on them. Accordingly, the pending Seeds Bill, based on the recommendations of the last Standing Committee Report (Parliamentary Research Service India, 2004), while seeking to make varietal registration mandatory, still excludes farmers’ varieties from mandatory registration and certification (Pal et al., 2007).

However, the Bill bans farmers from selling branded seeds and farmer-to-farmer seed sales and exchanges can only take place in brown bags devoid of brands or other means of recognizing their source (Murdoch et al., 2000; Moschini et al., 2008). This mandate counters the ideal of traceability and prevents the emergence of profitable markets for heterogeneous seeds. It will also place small and subsistence farmers who wish to sell their seeds in the seed/agrobiodiversity trade market, at a disadvantage.

The Indian Seeds Bill, 2004 also “requires every person in the value chain to keep track of the preceding person, so that a faulty lot can be withdrawn.” (Parliamentary Research Service India, 2004) To accomplish this goal while eliminating any chance of corruption or human error, and to increase accountability, DLT/Blockchain technologies are not only useful, but may be necessary to ensure meaningful and accurate traceability. DLT/Blockchain technologies may also help tackle the problem of affordability and feasibility of registration while still giving farmers and farmers’ association the right to (collectively) brand and sell their seeds if they so desire. Such a system should first be tested at a small scale and then slowly expanded if pilot projects are found to be successful.

Aside from a market for ‘uniform’, non-variable varieties, it is necessary to permit, in parallel, ‘True Labels’ that declare the fact of heterogeneity and variability, together with the specific benefits and characteristics the cultivation of such seeds brings to farmers and biodiversity. Supported by digital traceability, distributed certification systems, smart-contract based automated payments, and biodiversity token/point awards, the parallel emergence of a market for agrobiodiversity can be facilitated. Such a marketplace would not only service farms engaged in organic or traditional agriculture, but would also bring both environmental and economic benefits for small and subsistence farmers, while facilitating equitable research and innovation with heterogenous seeds.

Here again, it is noteworthy that DLT/blockchain based systems support decentralized governance models (Zwitter & Hazenberg, 2020) – i.e., all stakeholders or stakeholder representatives can and must contribute to the creation of a governance framework for the system to be successful. This is a key reason why Blockchain systems are expected to facilitate democratization and re-distribution of power structures.

  1. (iv)

    Re-thinking ‘uniformity’ and ‘genetic purity’ requirements in existing regulations

Existing regulations that mandate specific standards of efficacy (such as genetic purity) need to be revised. Genetic purity and uniformity are no longer considered valuable in all circumstances, and especially not in marginal environments. For example, in India, to the extent that the Seeds Bill mandates “genetic and physical purity” of seeds and specific ‘limits of variability’, it is worth looking into emerging scientific evidence that recommends using genetically diverse seeds (rather than uniform varieties) for sustainable agriculture (Gruber, 2017; Thrupp, 2000; Esquinas-Alcázar, 2005; Jacobsen et al., 2013).

This is also relevant in the context of the new EU organic regulations.Footnote 16 The EU Regulation clarifies that ‘heterogeneous materials’, unlike current proprietary seeds, need not be uniform or stable. Further, the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy aims “to facilitate the registration of seed varieties, including for organic farming, and to ensure easier market access for traditional and locally-adapted varieties.” (European Commission, 2020, p. 8)

  1. (v)

    Adopting regulations for sharing digital sequence information

Both the seed treaty and the CBD have failed to adequately trace exchanged PGRs (Martins et al., 2020; Kamau et al., 2015) and to integrate rules for sharing digital sequence information (Tsioumani, 2019; Prathapan et al., 2018). The creation of robust, fair and transparent digital marketplaces for agrobiodiversity and associated know-how can help overcome current regulatory loopholes. However, such a system can operate more effectively if equitable regulations for sharing digital sequence information (DSI) are adopted by concerned international and national regulatory authorities.

Regulations governing the sharing or transfer of DSI need, particularly, to be aimed at bringing benefits to farmers whose materials and knowhow is responsible for the creation and maintenance of underlying PGRs from where the DSI is mined. Absent such regulations, stakeholders in research centres and corporations can continue to avoid benefit sharing, thereby further disincentivizing in situ agrobiodiversity conservation and improvement.

  1. (vi)

    The inadequacy of schemes that “subsidise” organic farming and conservation of biodiversity.

In the EU, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) allows countries to subsidise practices that enhance agricultural diversity (in situ and ex situ) which are then voluntary for farmers to implement (European Commission, 2019a, p. 24).

Although the implementing regulation has been in place since 2014 and 14 Member States have implemented subsidies (European Commission, Article 28, pillar 2, M 10.2), these voluntary mechanisms have failed to bring about notable increase in in situ agrobiodiversity conservation. Indeed, the legislation does not envisage mechanisms to document and share relevant hands-on knowledge with farmers wishing to migrate to such practices. European research has, in recent times, aimed to finance means to enhance engagement with agrobiodiversity. For example, EU’s Horizon 2020 financed a two-million EUR project, “FarmersPride” (2018–2020), to establish a durable structure for in situ conservation of PGRs (European Commission, 2019b). Yet, to the knowledge of the authors, no existing system establishes a meaningful and trustworthy track and trace system and a concrete equitable incentive system.

4.2 Blockchain and AI for Agrobiodiversity: Flagging Ethical Concerns

A point-based rewards system coupled with blockchain/DLT’s ability to capture, store and monetize various categories of ‘value’ can be a major boon for agrobiodiversity research by both the formal and informal sectors. It can incentivize unbiased, comprehensive research on all aspects of agrobiodiversity use and cultivation, including on human and animal health and environment. Despite numerous potential benefits of DLT/blockchain backed solutions, particularly its capacity to help ‘mine’ the ‘value’ of agrobiodiversity and any ‘work’ linked to it, one cannot overlook the fact that the subjectivity of ‘value’ can be an asset as well a liability (Palminteri et al., 2017). For example, DLT/Blockchain technology cannot, on its own, prevent the problem of ‘garbage in, garbage out’. To minimize any misuse of the technology, in addition to the involvement of trusted third parties, the identification of ethical issues linked to blockchain and AI frameworks becomes crucial.

Some of the major ethical issues that can arise in the context of any blockchain and AI facilitated solution aiming to incentivize research and in situ innovations with agrobiodiversity include:

  1. (i)

    Fairness, bias and inclusion. To avoid unintended biases and exclusions, checks and balances need to be built into AI and blockchain applications aiming at equitably promoting research and in situ innovation with agrobiodiversity by all stakeholders. Further, empirical research is needed to identify what is considered ‘fair and inclusive’ by contributors (farming communities), vis-à-vis the use of agrobiodiversity by downstream players and what constitutes fair remuneration/royalty for accessing the same. Laws do not regulate the sharing of agricultural data. However, various codes of conduct on agricultural data sharing by contractual agreement (e.g. by the EU) aim to raise awareness about the importance of transparency and rights linked to data by providing guidelines concerning privacy, the security of data and benefits for the data owner.Footnote 17 Guidelines for AI/blockchain based applications may be included in such codes of conduct.

  2. (ii)

    Trust and privacy. Trust enhanced by DLT/Blockchain can enhance the number of legitimate transfers of agrobiodiversity and its monetizable components. However, the degree of trust depends on the design of the blockchain governance model. Adequate social science research engaging all stakeholders must precede the adoption of any governance model. Further, as mentioned previously (above), the governance models of DLT/blockchain systems need to be inclusive – taking into account views and demands of local (farming) communities participating in the system (e.g. when designing smart contracts) and also of all stakeholders (or stakeholder representatives) when designing the overall system’s governance framework.

    Building trust by inclusive governance frameworks, and ensuring privacy and security, are major concerns, especially at the start of any initiative that is likely to disrupt established systems. This is especially true in countries of the Global South where law enforcement may be problematic. There might be violent retaliation by powerful intermediaries. Skilful deployment of this platform will therefore be necessary, taking local governments as well as law enforcement agencies into confidence and keeping the identity of those contributing to the system confidential as long as necessary.

  3. (iii)

    Transparency and traceability. While blockchain/DLT solutions enhance transparency and traceability to source vis-à-vis digital data, they are not the best suited to permit traceability of physical goods (such as seeds and soil samples) that are likely to get transformed soon after transfer (Xu et al., 2019; Perboli et al., 2018; Agrawal et al., 2018; Imeri & Khadraoui, 2018). For meaningful traceability of physical material transfers aimed at creating downstream products or information (e.g. materials used to generate DSI), additional technologies such as biomarkers, DNA barcodes etc. will need to be used alongside the blockchain backbone. Assignment of DOIs (Digital Object Identifiers) to such materials as recommended by Manzella et al. in this volume can also support traceability.Footnote 18 In fact, solutions such as DOI for agrobiodiversity are also more likely to be used by stakeholders, when implemented in combination with a DLT/Blockchain-based incentive system. Regulatory and multi-disciplinary issues linked to such technological combinations will, however, need to be investigated.

  4. (iv)

    Governance, regulation and sustainability. The development and implementation of an AI and blockchain based marketplace for agrobiodiversity will require active interaction with existing governance structures and regulations. This is necessary, inter alia, to ensure a sustainable and seamless transition that maintains and secures meaningful and continuing interaction between human and autonomous actors. Further, some types of blockchain (notably, those that utilize ‘proof-of-work’ algorithms) are not sustainable due to their use of large quantities of energy.

    However, in the context of this article, it is necessary to not reduce blockchain technology to bitcoins or other cryptocurrencies, the verification of transfers of which is what involves the most amount of “computing power”, and therefore, of high energy consumption. Indeed, even in the context of cryptocurrencies and their transfer, recent advances in blockchain technology, which utilize consensus mechanisms based on proof-of-stake rather than proof-of-work, consume much less energy (Gallersdörfer et al., 2020; Kang et al., 2018). Algorand, for example, is a blockchain that utilizes proof of stake (Platt et al., 2021). Also, the bloxberg blockchain designed by the Max Planck Institute reduces energy consumption by replacing proof of work by proof of authority (https://bloxberg.org/). Further, as discussed above, the blockchain/DLT based system envisaged by us is not (necessarily) reliant on cryptocurrencies for rewards or monetary incentives. Instead, we envisage a system that awards points similar to carbon points which are awarded when specific actions are performed. These carbon points need not be made transferable (although, a market for trade of such points can be created on a blockchain backbone), but may be made exchangeable for fiat currencies, thereby avoiding high energy consumption.

  5. (v)

    Consumer Protection. The volatility of cryptocurrencies has moved several governments to consider banning them and limiting the operation of public permissionless blockchains, inter alia, to protect consumer/investor interests. It is necessary that a broader conceptual understanding of ‘mining’ the ‘value’ of ‘work’ in a blockchain sense, be considered when designing the system envisaged herein.Footnote 19 This would permit a shift in perspective, going beyond crypto-tokens to digitized systems that grant points for ‘work’ (e.g. research, sharing of new data and know-how) that incentivizes in situ conservation of and innovation with agrobiodiversity, and the creation of a robust and equitable digital marketplace for it.

  6. (vi)

    Equitable Participation by Stakeholders and Regulators. The benefit of any distributed DLT or Blockchain technology increases with the number of users and contributors; the greater the number of those who are engaged in contributing or testing seeds, soils, cultivation methods etc. on a blockchain, the higher the chances that any user of the system will be able to get an accurate view of the quality of the products and know-how being offered via the blockchain facilitated marketplace. To ensure that the system is not overtaken by vested interests, a large number of users (farmers, researchers, end consumers, government bodies etc.) must be a part of the blockchain network. It would also be necessary to determine which government agencies, NGOs and private players would need to act like check-posts in the system. Further research is also necessary to identify the most appropriate blockchain architecture (public permissioned, public permissionless or other architecture) and governance model for enhancing trust and securing privacy in the short and long term.

  7. (vii)

    Legal liability. With the emergence of “code” based governance, it is also necessary to see how issues of liability would be reconciled. While blockchain technology can support private ordering and self-governance, in fields as sensitive and important as agriculture, blockchain codes must not be privately ordered.Footnote 20 However, semi-private ordering of codes, after consulting farmers, NGOs, scientists and government agencies, may be the best way forward. This can entail the creation of ethical codes via multi-disciplinary research engaging all stakeholders in consultations, or self-regulation by farmers supported by broad legislative guidelines and regulatory check-posts (e.g. mandatory government body nodes in any blockchain architecture created for promoting research and in situ innovation with agrobiodiversity or for the sale/purchase of agrobiodiversity).

  8. (viii)

    Cultural Diversity. Finally, in a diverse world, fair and inclusive DLT/blockchain governance models must consider cultural diversity, equity, and practical usability for the benefit of farmers, researchers and the environment.

5 Conclusion

There is little doubt that all existing legal rules and regulatory frameworks operating in the sphere of agriculture are established with the best of intentions, also because these laws were likely passed based on the then prevailing or dominant scientific understanding (Louwaars, 2002).

However, with the scientific community in a state of flux about what kind of farming system is truly sustainable (from an economic, socio-cultural, environmental and a continuing innovation perspective), laws and policies governing agriculture and associated seed related innovations must also be revisited. In particular, legal regimes, policies and scientific research must not be skewed in favour of one type of farming system over and above other (re)emerging systems that protect, improve and conserve agrobiodiversity in situ. Emerging directions of research and policy (e.g. those linked to agroecology, ecosystem services and biodiversity in circular or sustainable farming systems) are particularly relevant; they can help identify or confirm the effectiveness and utility of traditional ecological knowledge-based low-cost and low-tech farming inputs and approaches, incentivize sustainable seed innovations, and support the emergence of an equitable and trustworthy marketplace for agrobiodiversity.

Existing regulations primarily envisage a top-down transfer of knowledge and materials, i.e. from corporations and/or research institutions down to farmers. TEK and agrobiodiversity-based farming systems, however, require local know-how and local seed and soil microbial diversity to enhance overall quality and diversity of crop/produce. Blockchain/DLT and AI-based systems provide an opportunity for bottom-up transfer of knowledge and materials, thereby supporting the diversification of directions of knowledge and value flows, reviving a plurality of knowledge systems and overcoming epistemic injustice.Footnote 21 By facilitating access to diverse sources of knowledge and materials, we can also help expand the market for know-how and materials (soil and seed diversity) emerging from these sources, enhancing (small) farmer incomes and protecting agrobiodiversity.

Efforts are underway to revive interest in farming using heterogeneous materials through various legislations and subsidization schemes. These efforts (Winter, 2010; Ewens, 1999) have met with little or sub-optimal success, perhaps due to the previously described lack of incentives and lack of means of transparently and equitably sharing farmer know-how. The European Commission under the Green Deal and its Farm2Fork Strategy is also looking to promote research on and with agrobiodiversity conserved in situ (Westengen et al., 2018), as also means of directly marketing produce and products derived from their cultivation to end consumers. (European Commission, 2017). A Blockchain/DLT based solution, as envisaged herein, can support the accomplishment of these goals.

This article attempts a conceptual discussion on how blockchain/DLT and AI-based solutions can help diversify directions of knowledge and value flows by incentivizing the capturing, storing, enhancement and (optional) trading of value in agrobiodiversity. In the agri-food sector, such solutions can also help diversify diets and revive (almost) lost local traditions and cultures linked to food. Most importantly, perhaps, these systems can also help bring back the pride associated with farming as a profession. They can help (small) farmers reclaim their position as innovators that are engaged in improving heterogeneous seeds and soils through their keen observation and, in return for small but significant monetary payments, providing their insights to other farmers and researchers worldwide. At the same time, it is necessary that the research and rollout of such technologies be preceded by thorough multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder and multi-cultural research, guiding legal and policymakers globally. Additional empirical research will also be necessary to delve into appropriate governance models for the envisaged blockchain/DLT backed system.