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Collaborating on the Future of Food and Farming

This article was written by Alex Steffen and Sarah Rich in April 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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Many people advocating a bright green future also strongly support local food systems. But learning what's local and eating accordingly in the 21st century will be a lesson in perennial change, because as the climate changes, agricultural zones shift, and that means what's local now may not be the same stuff that will grow well in your region in ten or twenty years. What's more, in some regions of the world where subsistence agriculture provides a living for large numbers of people, fair, sensitive and smart help adjusting to new realities will need to be provided.

We recently were asked to imagine how new models and designs might help us address critical food-related sustainability issues. We chose to tackle this thorny problem of farming and gardening in a changing climate. Here it is, a speculative anticipation of what a model for tracking and trading local knowledge about farming and food in an open, global network might look like. We call it seedPOD. Think of it as a gedankenexperiment, an imagined toolkit to keep seeds moving, farmers thriving and communities fed in the face of massive environmental change. Perhaps it will trigger some interesting thinking out there: at very least, we hope you find it briefly diverting.

SeedPOD includes programs both online and on-site which allow farmers to share their own observations of their land and crops, to advise one another on cultivation strategies for introducing a "new native" species, to save seeds and preserve biodiversity, and to establish a community of peer teachers who can guide each other through the adaptation process.

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Citizen Science

Changes in agricultural zones will likely occur faster and more widely in coming years. Before scientists can publish peer-reviewed research or governments can announce official responses, farmers will be developing appropriate solutions on the spot, by necessity. It only makes sense to network those farmers to better distribute their solutions and make them widely accessible.

Fortunately, the rate of Net access distribution around the world may be rising almost as fast as the rate of change in agricultural conditions. By connecting large numbers of participants in both the Global North and Global South, SeedPOD becomes the virtual laboratory in which mass collaboration can yield quick conclusions.

Collaborative Online Agricultural Resource

In tandem with the online exchange, seedPOD will host an open archive of resources which can be augmented and developed through the discoveries made by citizens and farmers. We call it Wikiseedia -- a collaborative, free online agricultural encyclopedia.

Wikiseedia will be presented and continuously translated into a multitude of languages, and SeedPOD will also work to install community internet hubs and wireless versions where access is scarce or nonexistent, so that rural farmers in the developing world can take advantage of these tools, too. Trained scientists will be able to check in on Wikiseedia and the online citizen science lab to gain the most current agricultural information available for inclusion in longer-term research, and to participate in the collaborative editing process, as well.

Think of it as something akin to the Open Architecture Network, for agriculture, bringing together great existing efforts (like the Honey Bee Network) and best practices (like greenbelt efforts in the Sahel) with a platform for sharing undiscovered or newly invented innovations.

Indeed, in an ideal world, such efforts in all disciplines, from architecture to farming to public health to ICT4D, would have such collaborative repositories of knowledge, and all of the efforts would be interoperable and easily dovetailed, so that a person working in a specific context could easily learn how to find and use detailed knowledge from a number of disciplines and projects.

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Seed Collection and Savings Banks

Probably the least hypothetical component of the seedPOD toolkit, seed banks already exist all over the world as preventative measures against the loss of barnyard biodiversity. The model collided with future scenarios with the announcement of plans to build a huge doomsday seed vault near the Arctic Circle which would be more secure and stable than existing banks -- able to withstand the more catastrophic possible outcomes of climate change (or war or asteroid impact).

SeedPOD seed banks will be a network of living facilities (rather than sealed vaults) where seeds can be deposited as they become threatened, or taken and planted where they couldn't previously have grown. Though seedPOD is primarily citizen driven, this will be one place where staff will be employed to catalog and archive records of the flow of seeds through the bank, and the locations from which they originate and to which they go. By supporting the existing, highly-stressed seed bank organizations around the world, creating such a network also meets the purpose of preserving existing seed collections.

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Protection of Indigenous Rights

With any attempt to gather local knowledge of food crops, issues of biopiracy almost immediately rear their heads. How do we ensure that the communities that have developed crops for millennia retain commercial control over these heritage plants and animals? One method is through the establishment of prior art claims: documentation that sequences the genome of crop species, asserts the existence of the community's right to the crops it has developed, and helps prevent the patenting of those crops genetic material by others.


Traditional Knowledge Sharing

Of course, this new process is not just about obtaining, planting and cultivating seeds; it's also about harvesting and making use of their yield. Beyond sharing farming practices, seedPOD's online network will be a platform for exchanging traditional methods of harvest, preservation, cooking, and eating newly local food.

Food is culture: new foods will require cultural innovation and cross-polinization. Such efforts could be furthered as well by good approaches to intellectual property, using Creative Commons licenses and related tools to create a global food culture commons. Indeed, in some places, gathering that knowledge to share with others could help make that knowledge more widely available, more useful and more likely to be preserved at home.

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Global Community Supported Agriculture

Supporting farmers locally through community supported agriculture programs (CSAs) is a great idea; increasingly, it may even be possible for us to imagine using similar tools for supporting farmers in far-off lands. As farmers learn to grow new crops, direct farm-to-table support will be more necessary than ever. SeedPOD envisions a widespread network of interlacing relationships, connecting directly consumers in one climate with farmers not only in their area, but in places with different climates who grow crops they've come to love.

seedPOD logo design: Marc Alt
All Images are Flickr/Creative Commons. Links to come.

seedPOD: A "Wikiseedia" for the Future of Food and Farming is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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