Center for Bio-diversitet

Danish plant genetic ressources

Conservation of cultivated plants at grassroots level in Denmark

Response to hearing on preparation of a Danish strategy for conserving the biodiversity of cultivated plants

To the Plant Directorate

Response to the “Proposal for a strategy for future Danish work with agriculture’s plant genetic resources” sent in July 2002

This is the Centre for Biodiversity’s response to the draft strategy for plant genetic resources. We thank you for your patience and regret the delay, partly due to many long discussions on the relevance of continued involvement in the process. The discussions ended in a general reference to the proposal for organising public participation in conservation work which we sent to Food Minister Mariann Fischer Boel on 23 May 2002. The Minister asked only for a proposal covering domestic animals, but the model we propose is also geared to covering cultivated plants.

The July 2002 strategy is full of good intentions but few if any concrete actions of practical significance for the conservation of biodiversity or plant genetic resources at grassroots level. This response therefore takes its starting point just as much in our concrete experiences; we tried to present those experiences to the working party earlier in the procedure using our scarce resources but they were not reflected in the proposal. That may have been because of those scarce resources, or because of communication problems between two very different approaches to the conservation of the biodiversity.

Where both animals and plants are concerned, the grass-roots participation of the people in conservation work is for a totally different reason than the production-oriented interest modern agriculture has in preserving genes with production potential.

This difference is more pronounced in a high-productivity country like Denmark where hobby breeders can breed solely for conservation purposes, aesthetic qualities, historical interest, etc. - regardless of a quantitative yield.

Amateur backyard improvement has therefore almost always been for reasons other than yield; that means a great potential for conserving a very broad biodiversity in our rich part of the world if it is made more accessible to the population. The Rio Convention has an explicit obligation to maintain such in situ conservation.

We therefore have an interest in keeping Nordic collections as broad and accessible as possible, and in the legal exchange of small quantities of plants and seed with like-minded people in all those climate zones which can offer plant material which matches Nordic climate conditions - even outside the EU.

The grass-roots will take great profit from having our raison d’être acknowledged through the establishment of a structure with the direct objective of safeguarding the interests of the popular breeding culture’s more culturally and socially oriented use of the biological diversity, and not simply of having us along as a compulsory appendix to conservation efforts the purpose of which is to safeguard the raw material for agriculture’s improvement work. In most areas our interests are quite different from those of agribusiness and there is a need for quite different measures to preserve the popular cultural tradition surrounding hobby farming and conserving the abundance and diversity of species.
That wish also seems to be justified, cf. the Rio Convention’s articles on the right to conserve a traditional lifestyle and the people’s right to the biodiversity.

The best way to meet these needs would be to establish a “Committee for cultural and biological diversity” in line with the proposal the Centre for Biodiversity recommended to Food Minister Mariann Fischer Boel (Annex 1).

To illustrate the background to this wish we would like to describe briefly a few examples of problems for plants:


The people's participation in conserving the biological diversity is mostly completely unorganised; people do it out of tradition and do not connect it with the wider context of the preservation of varieties, etc. We consider that to be the traditional lifestyle and breeding culture that the Rio Convention calls on us to promote and preserve. It is a rustic culture and cannot by definition by registered, organised, etc., without losing its character. The role of organised associations is to improve quality, e.g. by promoting the exchange of plant material which is often highly regional to a broader circle, by disseminating information, and by maintaining a different form of access to and understanding of biodiversity than the system’s technological and productivity-oriented view of plants.

The Centre for Biodiversity publishes Loci four times a year. We have just over 200 paying subscribers and the newsletter is also sent out free to some 50 others. Over the past two years each issue has had a print run of 500. The surplus copies are sent out or distributed to potentially interested parties as an attempt at attaining a sustainable level.

This is relatively burdensome for the Centre, both in terms of unwaged labour and in relation to our financial resources, and we have not succeeded in obtaining funding for this type of activity from the Nordic Gene Bank (NGB), the genetic resources committee or other public bodies.

The lifeline for popular associations is that people join and pay a fee, and in our experience they do that for three reasons:
(1) access to interesting plants/seed,
(2) access to information,
(3) to support a good cause.

Our experience with the public systems indicates that there is no real desire to permit organised popular participation in conserving domestic biological diversity in Denmark. We get the impression in practice that the popular organisations are being forced out and undermined and direct relations are being created between private individuals and public bodies, somewhat like a “teacher-pupil” relationship.

If that is the aim it is very easy to achieve, for plant and animal breeders are poorly organised and have few if any means of reaching out to the general public with a message which can compete with the colourful publications occasionally issued by the NGB, museums, etc.

However, we doubt that that model will fulfil the Rio obligations and its top-down nature will require major financial resources while preserving less.

The Rio Convention obliges us to conserve animals and plants in situ; but also to protect and promote the traditional lifestyle and culture that belongs with rearing domestic animals and growing crops.

Without breeders and the breeding culture cultivated plants and livestock would be homeless so it is a major paradox that the authorities make life so difficult for breeders that they give up hobby farming, while at the same time devising fine aid schemes for the preservation of old breeds/varieties! Indications from the livestock genetics committee in Denmark are frightening, since the rate of replacement among producers who are contracted through attractive livestock premiums is incredibly high in comparison with the breeds with which the breeders have a link through a breed association - regardless of whether they receive support or not!

Biodiversity cannot be rescued by replacing the breeders who do so because it is part of their culture and out of a love of animals and plants with people who keep animals/grow plants to obtain aid!

Competition instead of synergy

No non-profit association, club or information centre can compete with institutions having state funding behind them so there needs to be a fundamental change in public bodies’ activities if they seriously want the participation of the grass roots and NGOs.

The way it is now with the museums competing against our associations with publications and the sale or distribution of plant material means that we are acting against our own interests if we send interesting material to the NGB, from which the museums can request material (evidently with better luck than we have).

There has been a negative spiral here for many years and it is being reinforced the more the museums target this area as a source of new funding.

The establishment of “state associations” is another source of competition. We do not yet know what significance the KVL’s foundation of the Pomona “association” (MOSAIK, week 25, 2001, p. 3) will acquire; but it appears to have the same purpose as the Centre for Biodiversity and Frøsamlerne and by choosing to set up a state alternative to the established NGOs rather than strengthening the existing NGOs the State has adopted a strategy which is similar to the one for farm animals, where the people-led grassroots associations clearly do not fit in with the official Danish strategy.

On the farm animal front, the independent associations’ members’ newsletters are now being overshadowed by a state publication (“ARV & AVL”) from the Genetic Resources Committee, published free in a 1200 print-run; in addition, the Nordic Gene Bank Farm Animals (NGH) is issuing an increasing number of publications and we are afraid that something similar will happen with first Pomona and then other “state associations” in the forefront.

The State probably sees what it does as a positive information strategy but the size of the current “market” works as a distortion of competition and the growing grassroots organisation is being strangled at birth. People who are so aware of biodiversity that they want to read about it or get actively involved will be snatched up by the state operators for they will quite naturally choose the most stylish, get used to it being free, and feeel they are doing enough.

There could be a positive spiral with the museums:
- if they were prevented from breeding and selling plants and seed from old varieties. Except where they are commercial niche products from small seed firms, small nurseries or NGOs which museums can buy and trade in.
- if they limit themselves to displaying and acting as intermediaries.
- if they make it part of their work to strengthen living popular culture in that area by:
- referring people who are interested in getting involved in the practical side of things to the popular organisations.
- passing on discoveries of old varieties in private hands to our associations so that they remain in their in situ habitat (instead of being acquired for collections).

State-financed competition with public associations, small seed firms and small specialist nurseries is quite unacceptable!

Grassroots and the Nordic Gene Bank

NGOs are sometimes asked to contribute to the NGB’s collections of seed and plants and there have recently even been approaches with requests for unremunerated in situ propagation of NGB varieties.

There seems to be an implication that public institutions can “use” the NGOs as guinea-pigs when expedient. This is not particularly constructive and does not lead to good interaction and the synergy we could hope for between two sides representing the same good cause.

For example, since its founding in 1995 the Centre for Biodiversity has only very rarely obtained positive results from requests for material (seed/plants) from the various sections of the NGB. Many requests were not even answered, most of the others were answered in the negative or with procrastination (and we are not talking about hundreds of requests - maybe 10-15 in all in that period).

The impression is that it is more difficult to gain access to the material than it was ten years ago. We ourselves have contributed with material from a few varieties, but we ask now that NGOs do not pass on interesting material to public institutions until a degree of mutuality has been established.

There could be a synergy between the NGB and popular associations if the former together with us look for interesting varieties in collections, propagate the material and channel the seed or plants out via the associations as offers to members.

Pometet [the KVL’s apple museum] carried out an exemplary project on the Karen Blixen apple, in which a number of trees were grafted and sold with much PR; the surplus was donated to the Rungstedlund Fund. (nordiske GENressourcer 2002, p. 27.)

The Rungstedlund Fund is naturally exactly the right one to receive the surplus from a Karen Blixen apple; but as far as we are aware the Fund is not greatly involved in preserving the biodiversity.

It can therefore only cause surprise that we NGOs who have contributed to the NGB collections, e.g. at Pometet, are evidently not deemed worthy of such an honour. Such a project would otherwise have been a great asset to us in terms of PR value - it would open people’s eyes to the value of becoming members and taking an active part - and the surplus from selling a few fruit trees would mean a lot to grassroots’ scarce funds.

I personally have been participating in such work since about 1985, and when I take stock of the interaction with public bodies in the field there are only red figures on the bottom line where concrete results are concerned. In other words, nearly twenty years without any real progress from the efforts and all the voluntary work I and many others have done here - on the contrary, things have got worse in some respects. The only novelty is that people have begun to talk about us and ask us for input on various panels, etc. If this is an expression of genuine interest that is good, if it is just a democratic formality then it is rubbish.

From the grassroots point of view experience hitherto unfortunately points to the latter; it is difficult to see our stamp on the various papers. Perhaps it has been a waste of voluntary work to reply to the many different, often mutually uncoordinated, questionnaires we have been sent in recent years from the various national and international bodies.

The people have a right to biodiversity, a right to use it as they wish, and a right to conserve a lifestyle linked to a traditional utilisation of biodiversity. That right is not contingent upon our conserving “genes” which scientists say are worthy of conserving.

If the Danish authorities understand that cultural and biological diversity are interlinked quantities and begin to respect people’s reasons for sacrificing their lifeblood and leisure time for it, people’s participation in the conservation of biodiversity could be a success.

Centre for Biodiversity, Jelling 12.11.2002

(1) Proposal from the Centre to Food Minister Mariann Fischer Boel dated 23 May 2002 - klik here
(2) Loci No. 4 - 2001
(3) Loci No. 1 - 2002
(4) Loci No. 3 - 2002

This page was established shortly before Easter with only the 4 questions and the introduction as a start.
The possibility of being involved in answering was announce on this homepage and also in Loci no. 2 newsletter published by Centre for Bio-diversity), whic 

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Latest update January 2004.

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Center for Bio-diversitet is an independent NGO/CSO information-center. We aim to promote biological diversity and the protection and conservation of old and new varieties with valuable characteristics.

Editor: Heine Refsing