The Living Library
Food is at the heart of civilisations, given its importance for human subsistence, flourishing and well-being. It has always been linked to local cultures. In the past, our ancestors developed culinary traditions based on what the land provided. Food was an essential cultural element that bound people together, enforced a shared sense of identity, and strengthened community and belonging.
Nowadays, due to industrial agriculture, our diets are converging. More than 40 per cent of our daily calories come from three staple crops: rice, wheat and maise. Markets have changed in the last few decades; the affluence of high-quality vegetable seeds produced industrially has a detrimental influence on the cultivation of local crop varieties for small producers worldwide.
Agro-biodiversity is the variety and variability of the plants, animals, micro-organisms, and biocultural systems linked to food. Many critical components of agro-biodiversity at genetic, species and ecosystems levels are in decline. The proportion of species at risk of extinction is increasing. Agro-biodiversity is indispensable to food security and sustainable development. It makes production systems and livelihoods more resilient to shocks and stresses. Moreover, seed standardisation not only limits crop diversity but knowledge and culture.
There are currently two main methods for agrobiodiversity conservation, ex-situ conservation, which implies preserving species outside their natural habitat, such as gene banks, where the varieties as seeds in cold store and then grow in different habitats. This method is accessible primarily to professional scientists and breeders. On the other hand, in-situ conservation is performed in the sites where plants developed their distinctive properties. It allows the preservation of knowledge associated with crops, the cultural valorisation of resources, and the continuation of dynamic crop processes of adaptation to climate, pests, diseases, and socio-cultural context.
Although significant progress has been made in ex-situ conservation, most agricultural biodiversity is conserved in farmers’ fields through its continuous cultivation. Thus, the role of farmers is highly strategic to the preservation of diversity at a global level, playing a predominant role. Unfortunately, this contribution remains mainly in the shadows and is often seen as support to the work of researchers.
The biodiversity present in any landscape results from interactions between biological, ecological, environmental, social and cultural processes. Although many traditional food practices have been lost, there is still a chance to recover and strengthen local food systems to leverage long-standing knowledge and practices to preserve biodiversity and benefit from it today and in the future.
Another important factor within the food system is the ageing of the farmer population. Agriculture does not represent a hopeful future for younger generations due to the harsh and unprofitable industry, a risk for the global food future. In the UK, the average age of a farmer is 59, which points out a significant impact on biodiversity conservation, particularly for heirloom varieties; many older growers die with their seeds and knowledge before trespassing them to someone else, leading to the imminent extinction of unique lines. The lack of knowledge transmission to younger generations represents a severe threat to the conservation of the diversity of traditional crops since knowledge is required to cultivate, validate, and continuously improve resources to adapt them to new needs.
My proposal to address this situation is The Living Library, a system composed of one digital and one physical tool aimed to connect different generations of growers to share and preserve knowledge around agro-biodiversity. The Living Library is a physical space for the local growers to connect with the community that aims to recognise and re-value growers’ knowledge and acknowledge their crucial role as a conservationist, at the time that promotes participation as biodiversity conservators to other members of the community.
The Living Library will allow the community to connect with their culture, identity and culinary heritage—reintegrating the production and consumption of food as something joyful and participatory. The digital platform is the compendium of the knowledge from different growers around the UK and their stories; this tool aims to facilitate the documentation and sharing of growers knowledge related to agro-biodiversity to the public in general. It offers a local biodiversity mapping that will serve as a monitoring programme for agro-biodiversity. This network can help local communities engage in collective management practices and recognising and valuing people’s knowledge and wisdom as central to social transformation.
The Living Library promotes biodiversity conservation:
- By connecting different generations of farmers to preserve traditional knowledge, practices and culture.
- By strengthening the sense of identity, ownership and pride among farmers’ communities.
- By the recognising and re-valuing growers’ knowledge and their crucial role as a conservationist.
The global strategic plans for biodiversity conservation should be based not only on institutional and private plant breeders and seedbanks but mainly on the vast number of growers who continuously select, improve, and use agro-biodiversity at the local scale. Conservation and innovation in agrobiodiversity depend on the continuous exchange of knowledge and experiences, seeds and cultivation techniques between generations and between individuals and communities.