Strategies For Conserving Agricultural Biodiversity

Agricultural biodiversity is a major and valuable form of natural and human capital, comprised of several components, including plant genetic diversity, which has been the focus in this book. The gains from the conservation and enhancement of agricultural biodiversity spread far beyond the location such activities take place. Agricultural biodiversity has strong public good properties, but its benefits are uncertain and vary across locations and over time. Thus, market forces by themselves will lead to a socially undesirable rate of loss, and global collective action and cooperation are required to efficiently manage agricultural biodiversity. Several means of attaining conservation have been identified in this volume, associated with varying costs and benefits. The socially desirable levels of activities in conservation and enhancement of crop biodiversities may be most efficiently achieved through compensation in exchange for these activities. Ideally, conservation funds should be allocated across the portfolio of potential activities, in order to maximize the expected benefits of agricultural biodiversity conservation, and coordination between the various forms of conservation promoted in order to enhance cost effectiveness. In reality this is difficult to achieve, due to several issues raised in the chapters of this volume. These include the following: the valuation of conservation benefits, the identification of criteria for establishing efficient conservation programs, the design of mechanisms to provide incentives to developing countries for conservation and developing means of incorporating diversity conservation into overall agricultural and economic development concerns and strategies.

A key question which arises in this design of effective policies for conservation, is just how exactly should diversity be defined—what is it that we are trying to conserve? The answer is complex, depending on the type of value focused upon, as well as assumptions about how best to generate or maintain it. Chapter 3 discusses the controversies over defining genetic narrowing in crop genetic diversity, noting several relevant dimensions, including spatial vs. temporal diversity, variation within vs. among varieties, and variation within landrace vs. modern varieties. Chapter 5 states that the biological diversity of crops encompasses phenotypic as well as genotypic variations, resulting in differences in the perception of crop genetic diversity between farmers and plant breeders. The author also notes the importance of conserving rare alleles in centers of crop origin, which requires a different type of conservation strategy than one targeted at maintaining high levels of varietal heterogeneity. Chapter 19 describes several forms of agricultural diversity, including species and varieties, ecosystems and human knowledge, all of which, the authors argue, are important to consider in conservation programs.

Clearly agricultural biodiversity conservation generates several types of goods and services and conservation programs will vary depending on which are of key concern. However, there is considerable uncertainty about the most effective means of generating goods and services from conservation, as well as uncertainty about the relative values of these services. Thus one of the biggest problems in designing effective conservation programs is defining what should be conserved and where.

Several chapters in the book provide insight into where and how the conservation of agricultural biodiversity in general, and plant genetic diversity specifically, can be most effective (Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 19). A variety of conservation methods exist, ranging from ex situ gene collections to in situ farm-based diversity management. However the high degree of uncertainty associated with both the private and public values of diversity, as well as a lack of information about the actual and opportunity costs involved, means that conservation efforts are often not efficient.

The private benefits associated with plant genetic diversity conservation are realized by farmers whose maintenance of diverse cropping systems can be thought of as the outcome of a constrained utility maximization problem. These values are described and analyzed in some detail in Chapters 5, 6 and 7. Chapter 5 summarizes the results of several studies where risk management, responsiveness to highly heterogeneous production conditions, labor management, and preferred consumption characteristics have all been found to be important determinants of on-farm diversity. These private values of diversity are determined by agroecology, population density, and the level of commercial market development. Chapter 7 adds another important determinant of the private values of crop genetic diversity: the seed system, which affects the availability and accessibility of genetic resources and information at the farm level. The incidence of natural disaster and political strife that can disrupt supply systems can also be important determinants the private value of maintaining crop genetic diversity (Chapters 6 and 7).

The market failure in diversity conservation arises from the fact that conservation generates several types of public goods. One is in the form of reduced vulnerability to pests and disease incidence, which occurs mostly as a local public good, but also with potentially wider benefits (Chapters 5, 6 and 19). Much of the use benefits associated with diversity conservation have not yet been realized and, as such, remain as potential. In such cases, the benefits of biodiversity conservation are primarily in the form of an option value as is discussed in Chapters 4 and 10. Chapter 4 presents one approach to the measurement of this value, using an empirical example from teak breeding. This chapter concludes that the value of increasing the number of potential parents for breeding is actually quite low at the margin, measured in terms of changes in the consumer and producer surplus. This chapter raises the important question of how much effort and cost should be made in maintaining crop genetic diversity as a source of input to future breeding efforts. The question is still open to considerable debate, and is likely to vary considerably among crops. Rausser and Small (2000) argue that the option values of agricultural genetic resources are likely to be sufficiently high to support market-based bioprospecting activities, since researchers have prior knowledge about where the most promising leads are likely to be found. Chapter 19 discusses various criteria for assessing option values, and discuss the disincentives to plant breeders in broadening the genetic base of their breeding lines. Public sector interventions to promote genetically diverse "pre-breeding" activities could lead to higher option values for crop genetic resources.

Moving towards consideration of criteria for designing conservation programs, one approach identified is minimizing associated costs. Chapter 6 examines this issue in detail in the context of ex situ conservation, which is the term applied to all conservation methods in which the species or varieties are taken out of their traditional ecosystems and are kept in an environment managed by humans. An estimated 6.2 million accessions of 80 different crops are stored in 1,320 gene banks and related facilities in 131 countries at local, national, and international levels (FAO, 1998). Chapter 6 also discusses the inefficient management of these facilities, finding significant differences in the degree of national commitment and expenditures on PGR conservation, which are not necessarily tied to the level and value of domestic genetic diversity. The chapter concludes that better collaborative relationships are the primary vehicle for reducing costs and improving the management of ex situ sites at a regional level, between public and private entities, and within the multilateral system.

The primary costs associated with in situ conservation are opportunity costs, which are addressed in Chapters 5, 6, and 19. Chapter 5 provides a conceptual framework for assessing public/private tradeoffs in maintaining in situ conservation, differentiating between situations where the private and public values of diversity maintenance coincide, versus come into conflict. Ostensibly, situations where they coincide require no intervention to maintain desired levels of conservation. This implies that the least-cost means of in situ conservation is to focus on areas where private values of diversity are high and, thus, opportunity costs of conservation are low. However, in a dynamic setting, problems arise as high private values of diversity conservation are often negatively associated with processes of economic development, particularly increasing integration of farmers into markets. Assessing the future opportunity costs farmers may face in maintaining diversity given efforts to promote economic development thus becomes a critical issue. Reducing the future opportunity costs farmers may face in maintaining on-farm diversity, and thus providing incentives for its maintenance, can be achieved by either addressing the change in conditioning factors that reduce the value of diversity or through compensation programs.

A key strategy for reducing future opportunity costs of conservation is to increase the supply of diversity and reduce access costs. This strategy includes increasing the supply of a diverse range of improved crop varieties (that is, more diversity in modern, i.e., genetically uniform, varieties) as well as enhancements to existing varieties and populations that encompass a high range of diversity (e.g., enhance the performance from varieties that encompass genetically diverse populations, landraces, and seed lots). Increasing diversity supply is an issue which is addressed throughout the book, with various pathways identified. The chapters in Part II analyze the potential for changes to traditional and conventional breeding systems that may lead to higher levels of diversity supply. Participatory plant breeding, broadening the genetic base of conventional breeding programs, and the establishment of community seed banks and registers are all examples of programs that fit here.

A major problem identified with these programs is their cost effectiveness. The inability of such programs to cover costs does not mean they are undesirable. However, some level of public support will be required to achieve the desired objective of increasing the supply of genetic diversity and thus increase the provision of both private and public goods associated with conservation.

Chapter 19 argues that plant genetic diversity conservation requires consideration of the costs and benefits of all available options. The chapter analyzes a variety of mechanisms which may be appropriate for promoting efficient conservation in both in situ and ex situ situations, ranging from direct approaches such as payments to farmers for growing diverse crop varieties and royalty payments on genetic resource inputs to commercialized products, to more indirect methods such as provision of access to biotechnologies and other forms of technology and institutional support. Agricultural research and development and plant-breeding management, seed regulation, input and output market development, information transmission, and seed provision under disaster conditions all have implications for the costs and values of in situ conservation, and these have not been well researched to date.

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