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Why open-source seed breeding is critical for food security

An organic seed-saving veteran calls for involving farmers in local innovation.

The future of food lies with seeds. That tautology is the key to a Pandora Box of drastically opposing views and strategies to bring about food security, as was demonstrated today in the conversation brought to the stage of VERGE SF 2014.

Monsanto's CTO Robb Fraley took pain to explain that the biotech giant invests in research beyond GMOs, including identifying genetic markers for flavor, color and shelf-life of produce, and soil health improvement.

Organic seed saving programs veteran Matthew Dillon was keen to stress that organic farming is no stranger to technology innovation.

Beneath the polite, even cordial, tone of their exchange moderated by Joel Makower, however, the abyss between their world views was clear: corporate-driven, technology-based, proprietary on the one hand; community-driven, nature-based, open-source on the other hand.

“Organic farming isn't farming like grandpa; farmers want to use the best technologies available, including genetics and GPS,” said Dillon, Cultivator for Seeds Matter, an initiative launched in 2009 by the Clif Bar Family Foundation.

“Identifying genetic markers is aligned with the best innovations in organic, but it needs to happen in an open-source format since farmers and researchers having access to saving and using seeds is essential to improving seeds.”

A main reason is that improving seeds through technology only, remotely from the natural ecosystem where they will be put to use, leads to uniformity. This, in turn, impoverishes cultivated biodiversity and lessens crop resilience. Genetic resilience, on the other hand, has been bred through centuries of experimentation by farmers attuned to the specific conditions and requirements of their land.

Bringing together the best of science and tradition ought to lead to improved breeding, as was demonstrated by Stephen Jones, a researcher at Washington State University whose “strong wheat” was adapted locally to create many different varieties, Dillon pointed out.

“Farmers have always been innovators, and they have an important role to play today in partnership with plant breeders,” said Dillon. “We believe that seed-saving is an important tool to continue to innovate and improve the gene pool.”

His direct invitation to Monsanto to partner with farmers elicited no response. Instead, Fraley stressed that all approaches, tools and strategies would be needed in order to meet the daunting challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050.

No one mentioned how consumers may weigh in on which ones eventually trump.  

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