Sowing Science & Art for the Conservation of Crop Biodiversity
The conservation of crop biodiversity is essential for food security and the resilience of agricultural systems in the face of change (e.g. climate change and new pests and diseases). It is, however, also a complex socio-ecological challenge that requires interdisciplinary research and the development of transdisciplinary solutions.
There are currently two general models for the conservation of crop biodiversity:
In situ (on site) approaches that seek to conserve and generate biodiversity through the ongoing cultivation, selection and saving of seeds from different varieties on farms in their ecological context.
Ex situ (off site) approaches in which seeds, genes or DNA from different varieties is catalogued and frozen in controlled contexts for potential future use and development by researchers and plant breeders.
The biodiverSEEDy project is interested in both of these models for crop biodiversity conservation and seeks to:
a) Better understand bio-cultural challenges facing crop biodiversity conservation pelouse & gazon
b) Articulate and apply strategies to address these challenges using transdisciplinary research
c) Explore the nature and relation of in situ and ex situ approaches
d) Experiment with the space between art and science
Fern Wickson is Senior Scientist and Program Coordinator of the Society, Ecology and Ethics Department (SEED) at Genøk Centre for Biosafety in Tromsø, Norway. In this position she works as a cross-disciplinary researcher focused on advancing sustainable agriculture, responsible innovation and resilient socio-ecological futures. Originally trained in both ecology and political science, she completed an interdisciplinary PhD across the Arts and Science faculties on the use of science in political decision-making on the environmental release of genetically modified crops. She is currently project leader for biodiverSEEDy and The Agri/Cultures Project but in the past has worked on a range of international projects related to environmental philosophy and ethics, the politics of risk and uncertainty, transdisciplinary research, and public participation with science and technology. She is engaged in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and is a member of the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board. She enjoys hiking through wild landscapes, attempting to grow her own food, and is constantly inspired by the beauty and diversity of life on earth.
Sarah Agapito completed a PhD (2011-2014) in plant genetics with the Crop Science Department at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil. She undertook a Master of Plant Genetics at the Federal University of Santa Catarina and a Bachelor Degree in Agronomy from that same university in 2008. Sarah was appointed to the UN Roster of Biosafety Experts in 2013 by the Brazilian Government and has been actively participating in the Network of Laboratories for the Detection and Identification of Living Modified Organisms hosted by the Biosafety Clearing House Portal as part of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Her research experience includes plant breeding, plant genetic diversity and conservation, and risk assessment of genetically modified organisms. Specific expertise includes: molecular characterization of plant-pathogen systems, in vitro techniques for its use in conservation of wild species, the biochemical and genetic characterization of transgenic crop plants and transgene flow to wild relatives (particularly as it relates to environmental safety), transcriptomics (particularly dsRNA) and proteomics. The main goal of her current research is to uncover the roles of transgenes in gene regulation in plant systems and to apply that knowledge to assessing their safe use in food and the environment.
Flor Rivera is currently a PhD student at Genøk Centre for Biosafety in Tromsø, Norway. She completed a Masters in Plant Genetics at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil and a bachelor degree in biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She is interested in native maize conservation in Mexico, mainly because of its relationship with the cultural life. She has been doing research on native maize conservation with indigenous farmers in Mexico for about 16 years, always working from a participatory perspective, including actors and institutes from different backgrounds such as local communities, universities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In conducting her research, Flor is able to combine her two passions for cultural diversity and nature. For the biodiverSEEDy project she is researching the bio-cultural challenges that native maize biodiversity is facing in Oaxaca and applying joint strategies together with indigenous people to address these identified challenges.
One significant challenge facing the conservation of crop biodiversity has been the spread of transgenes from genetically modified (GM) crop.s
This part of the project is focused on testing to what extent transgene flow has occurred in the communities we work with in Mexico. We are also working to understand how it might be best to test for, monitor and control transgene flow into landraces and wild relatives of domesticated crop plants.
Maize is one of the world’s five staple cereals and its traditional varieties constitute a global resource critical to future agricultural development and breeding. Fifteen years ago, the discovery of transgenes in landraces of maize in Mexico started an international discussion on the spread of GM crops to centres of crop origin and genetic diversity. The discovery of transgenes in landrace maize sparked an intense dispute in which the livelihoods, culture and traditions of indigenous communities in Mexico were seen as threatened by the unchecked spread of patented biotechnological inventions from multinational companies. This dispute was reflected in a political and legal battle over the regulatory status of GM crops in Mexico, which continues today as the import of GM maize is permitted but approvals for cultivation remain subject contested in the courts. These legal, socio-political and environmental disputes have been further fanned by the existence of scientific divergence over methods for GM detection.
In this part of the project we are reviewing the scientific debate over GM detection in landraces of maize in Mexico and performing new empirical testing on landraces in the two indigenous communities we are working with in Oaxaca. We are also investigating how this issue is understood and perceived by these communities, how seed management is performed, and how transgene flow may be controlled. This involves testing landrace maize samples given to us by local farmers to and interviewing them to understand their views and practices.
The transgene detection work is being performed using state-of-art methods (i.e. real-time PCR), with results being independently tested and validated by three different laboratories. When the testing in the laboratories is complete, the results will be reported back to the communities so that potential management strategies can be discussed and developed together with them. If you are curious about how the process of GMO detection works, you can view the short film we made below.
Transgene detection analyses have been carried out in collaboration with laboratories at the American University of Science and Technology in Lebanon and the Institute of Integrative Biology at ETH Zurich. Our Lebanese partners are Dr. Gretta Abou Sleiman and MSc. Narmeen Mallah and our Swiss partners are Dr. Angelika Hilbeck and Dr. Miluse Trtiková. We have recently organized a workshop at GenØk’s headquarters in Tromsø to discuss the laboratory results and how to communicate those back to the farmers.