by Laura Aceituno-Mata and Petra Benyei
When the Spanish Seed Network (Red de Semillas: Resembrando e Intercambiando, Red de Semillas 2015) Civil Society Organization (CSO) members decided to partner with research institutions to build a citizen science project dedicated to the participatory documentation of landrace names (CONECT-e) one of their main motivations was to prevent these names from being misappropriated (i.e., registered in the Trademark and Plant Variety Offices), thus limiting the free use and commercialization of these landraces by local farmers and seed cooperatives.
Landraces, also called local or traditional varieties, are dynamic and variable populations of cultivated plants that have been selected and adapted by farmers to their local environmental and cultural conditions, but that are not the result of technology-mediated crop improvement. Landraces are identifiable to the naked eye and usually have local names that differentiate them from other varieties of the same species (Calvet-Mir et al. 2011; Negri 2005). Landraces are intrinsically linked to the traditional knowledge needed to select, improve, and adapt them to the local environment. This knowledge includes information regarding the morphologic, agronomic and sensorial characteristics of landraces, the local evaluation and selection criteria, as well the landrace management practices (e.g., specific sowing, planting, and harvesting calendar, type of manure, rotations, storing) and uses (e.g., culinary, fodder, medicinal). Therefore, landraces and associated knowledge can simultaneously be considered part of the natural and cultural heritage of humanity (Halewood 2013).
Five years have passed since the citizen science project started. During this time, 579 landrace files have been created and 1.297 landrace names have been documented. These efforts have run in parallel to the publication of Phase I of the Spanish Inventory of Traditional Agrobiodiversity-related Knowledge (IECTBA, Tardío et al. 2018), which included the names of 20 landraces and other associated knowledge.
However, there still seems to be some bottlenecks that prevent this data from being used by the Trademark and Plant Variety Offices to prevent unrightfully plant registrations. In this blog post we will talk about some of the most pressing ones as seen by the Spanish Seed Network CSO members and researchers working in the project. These bottlenecks were also shared with Plant Variety Office’s staff and we have also included some remarks highlighted by them.
One of the most straightforward bottlenecks is related to the rigidity of the Office’s protocols. Even though the Office staff is aware of the problem of unrightful registration of plant variety names and now take more time and care when deciding if they grant the licenses, they still follow the same protocols for cross-referencing they have always had (which in the past led to serious problems). More specifically, the Plant Variety Office has not included the Spanish Inventory nor the CONECT-e citizen science platform in their protocols for crosschecking if the variety name already existed (and thus cannot be registered). Indeed, their protocol only includes checking the commercial variety registry (when registering improved varieties) and the germplasm bank’s databases (when registering conservation varieties and varieties without intrinsic value). Without entering the specificities of these official data sources, one thing that is striking is that the protocols do not include checking multiple and more diverse data sources, especially considering the consequences that an unrightful name registration might have for farmers.
This issue can be related to two other bottlenecks. First, to the subtle resistance to adopt innovative protocols and data sources, including citizen-generated data. Indeed, this is a problem that has been reported in other contexts and that relates to the generally immobile structures of bureaucratic institutions in Spain (Alba and Navarro 2011). Second, to the generalized obliviousness about the potential of the data generated by citizen science. Although some Office staff have been directly involved/informed about the Inventory and CONECT-e initiatives, when asked about the matter, Office staff seem not to have realized that the data in CONECT-e can be easily checked online (with a very user-friendly system of filters).
Also, despite the fact that some Office staff are in direct contact with the Seed Network members and scientists involved in the citizen science initiative, there has not been a constant communication of results nor a clear policy recommendation. Indeed, several scientific publications stemmed from the CONECT-e initiative, but the project did not produce a policy brief that explained in a plain and straightforward way the impact and potential of the generated data for the Office staff’s daily activities. Examining this issue from a critical perspective, we acknowledge that more effort could have been done in this regard to prioritize equally the research and policy outcomes of the project. To some extent, the researchers in the project have prioritized the publications as the main outcome and only those closest to the Seed Network activities perceive the policy implications as an issue, which is something that needs to be changed in the future.
Finally, although not so relevant in our case due to support of the Agricultural Ministry and the engagement of scientists in the CONECT-e platform, we think that a bottleneck preventing more citizen-led initiatives to be considered as a data source could be the perceived unreliability of citizen-generated data. Indeed, the fact that we were able to dialogue with the Office staff was mediated by the fact that we are recognized researchers and had a long-term engagement with the Ministry activities. We wonder what would have been the response of the Office to demands of more grounded initiatives, given the fact that knowledge generated by laypeople is many times undervalued (Benyei et al. 2020).
The researcher team has applied for more funding to continue with the CONECT-e initiative and the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture has started the process to publish Phase II of the IECTBA, which will include information about 75 additional landraces. However, unless these bottlenecks are solved the landrace information coming from these sources will be kept in the cabinets of the Internet without being able to flower and be useful to farmers and seed rights advocacy organizations.
About the authors: Laura Aceituno-Mata is a member of Red de Semillas CSO and Petra Benyei is a researcher at ICTA-UAB.
Alba, Carlos R., and Carmen Navarro. 2011. “Administrative Tradition and Reforms in Spain: Adaptation versus Innovation.” Public Administration 89 (3): 783–800. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9299.2010.01886.x.
Benyei, Petra, Laura Aceituno-Mata, Laura Calvet-Mir, Javier Tardío, Manuel Pardo-de-Santayana, David García-del-Amo, Marta Rivera-Ferre, et al. 2020. “Seeds of Change: Reversing Traditional Agroecological Knowledge’s Erosion through a Citizen Science School Program in Catalonia.” Ecology and Society 25 (2): 19. doi:10.5751/ES-11471-250219.
Calvet-Mir, Laura, Maria Calvet-Mir, Laura Vaqué-Nuñez, and Victoria Reyes-García. 2011. “Landraces in Situ Conservation: A Case Study in High-Mountain Home Gardens in Vall Fosca, Catalan Pyrenees, Iberian Peninsula1.” Economic Botany 65 (2): 146–57. doi:10.1007/s12231-011-9156-1.
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Negri, Valeria. 2005. “Agro-Biodiversity Conservation in Europe: Ethical Issues.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 18 (1): 3–25. doi:10.1007/s10806-004-3084-3.
Red de Semillas. 2015. “Spain: The Seed Network, Resembrando e Intercambiando.” In Community Seed Banks: Origins, Evolution and Prospects, edited by Ronnie Vernooy, Pitambar Shrestha, and Bhuwon Sthapit, 206–11. New York: Routledge.
Tardío, J., L. Aceituno-Mata, M. Molina, R. Morales, and M. Pardo-de-Santayana. 2018. Inventario Español de Conocimientos Tradicionales Relativos a La Biodiversidad Agrícola. Madrid, Spain: Ministerio de Agricultura y Pesca, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente.