The Biodiversity Bill of Bhutan, which is at present under consideration, will need to take up a holistic and pragmatic approach when it comes to the preservation, promotion, and effective use of plant genetic resources. Plant genetic diversity is identified as one of the key milestones under the UN Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework with targets and actions enumerated for 2030 and 2050.

Seed is the basic unit of plant genetic information and it is only natural to focus the discussion on seed and to bring out the nuances surrounding practices on seed preservation and usage, and regulatory systems that are designed to address emerging agricultural-led challenges.

In agricultural productivity, the introduction of new plant varieties that are socially and economically vital is possible only upon a good collection and circulation of seeds for planting. The conceptualisation of seeds as the carrier of genetic information is reshaping the understanding and application of legal, financial, scientific, and technological measures for the future preservation of seeds. Farmers themselves understand the practical importance of taking care of any healthy and prolific crops in the fields, which will give them good quality seeds. Seeds of ancestral and landrace crop varieties provide the basis to produce future new cultivars in many agricultural societies. Accordingly, to stress the importance of robust seed collection centres is an understatement, not least that the crop with uniform genetic diversity is a subject of genetic erosion should a natural disaster or large-scale pest infestation will require to revert to landrace crop varieties.

The Biodiversity Bill will need to gauge the community seed banking and storage­—collection of valuable genetic information on plants—as leverage for future biodiversity resources.

Community seed collection centres will have real and practical advantages. However, it leads me to examine alongside the dangers associated with the storage of agriculturally useful knowledge in an accessible format. The risk of placing seed, its knowledge on utilisation more readily along the agricultural value chain is not an excuse to pre-empt the larger agricultural disasters that can happen at any time. Nevertheless, it has been shown elsewhere that exposure to agricultural knowledge on one side and compressive monitoring of seed collection and storage centres on the other, will legitimise the access and use of seeds in ways that promote practical agricultural productivity and biodiversity conservation at the same time. Legal and institutional measures hinge on regular monitoring and evaluation of operational procedures that establish community seed centres.

Perhaps the biggest contribution to such a discourse is characteristic of the Bhutanese community organisational values that seek to embrace systems and practices that benefit communities.

New varietal innovations in crops that correspond to socioeconomic and environmental shocks are outcomes of plant breeding works carried out by farmers and professional breeders. One recent positive trend sweeping Bhutan is the role of youth taking up agricultural farming given the highly competitive job market in urban centres. The Biodiversity Bill and associated regulatory systems that will get created present greater opportunities to tape this emerging labour market in agricultural production as well as contribution to the preservation of crop genetic diversity. On one hand, rural farmers are mainly specialised in the cultivation of ancestral and landrace varieties because it requires the use of intricate traditional knowledge systems and application of age-old agricultural skills. On the other hand, socioeconomic and cultural changes induce youth as a modern icon of agricultural production of new crop varieties on scales that parallel emerging food consumption needs. Both farmers and new labour force like youth will continue to inform legal and policy discourses on biodiversity issues. 

In the end, seeds as the driver of agricultural productivity and as the basic unit of plant germplasm, aptly support the post-2020 Biodiversity framework vision of Living in Harmony with Nature. The genetic diversity, understandably, cannot be left upon the miracles of Mother Nature alone. As requirements for food consumption increase, there is concomitant transformations in the overall landscape of food nutritional demands. Access and Benefit-Sharing of plant genetic resources for agricultural productivity and biodiversity conservation will need to be understood in terms of the requirements of modern agricultural imperatives. At the same time, community seed centres, as the collection point of genetic information holding crucial traditional knowledge systems, must also underpin the legal regulation of biodiversity and conservation efforts.

Contributed by

Kencho Peldon

Brisbane, Australia