Our first on-farm agrobiodiversity course held by Università di Roma Sapienza, PAR and Bioversity International 

September 2017, by Annelie Bernhart, Stella Beghini, Paola De Santis, Toby Hodgkin, Devra Jarvis and Lukáš Pawera. All photographs by Lukáš Pawera.

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An exercise on how to document farmer descriptors of varietal fruit diversity

Recognizing the urgent need to spread rationale, knowledge and methods about participatory agrobiodiversity research, Università di Roma Sapienza in collaboration with PAR and Bioversity International held a short course dealing with methods of on-farm methodologies and conservation, as well as policy work related to on-farm crop diversity. The course, based on the book “Crop Genetic Diversity in the Field and on the Farm- Principles and Applications in Research Practice”, brought together the book authors as well as other long-standing experts that were invited to teach.  Participants travelled to Rome from 10 countries spreading across Africa, Asia, Europe and USA, and their backgrounds  ranged from ethnobotany, agronomy, plant breeding, genetics, development, human geography to social work/activism.

Using an interactive approach, participants learnt about, but also contributed to, a wide range of topics related to crop genetic diversity. The course combined theoretical approaches, practical exercises and sharing of experiences from work with farmers. It kicked off with a stimulating intoduction on the different levels of crop diversity (from genetic/varietal to species level), its importance for livelihoods, nutrition and food sovereignty, the actors involved, and global agrobiodiversity politics. Topic in the first days included genetics, evolutionary populations, diversity analysis, abiotic and biotic components of agricultural ecosystems and adaptation to biotic stress through diversification. These were followed by a rich elaboration on farmer’s roles in managing, using and maintaining diversity. A discussion on the social, cultural and economic values of on-farm diversity, provided for a thought provoking session on how to create a sustainable markets for agrobiodiversity that bring environmental, economic and social benefits to all.

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Visit to the local market in San Lorenzo, Rome, to document species richness and evenness.

The course, packed with a unique mix of different disciplines, pushed some of us to think outside our own experience, and enhance our collective efforts and need towards interdisciplinary and holistic research. It also helped us to realize the role agrobiodiversity researchers can play, to better understand and support farmers that are still maintaining, conserving, and creating diversity in the field. Highlights of the course included an excursion to the local market in San Lorenzo, Rome, where students measured richness and evenness of vegetable species diversity; and a stroll into the botanical garden of Sapienza University where students collected plant material affected by biotic stress and then identified particular pest and diseases in the laboratory. Students also enjoyed practical exercises on participatory variety description with grape and plum varieties brought from the local market. A final session on community institutions and partner liaison, reminded everyone about the importance of participatory approaches, trust building, and collective action together with farmers – ‘the custodians of local and global agrobiodiversity’. Participants organized a seed fair and a community biodiversity register to conclude the course, and to demonstrate rich diversity of bean varieties from all over Italy.

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Presenting characteristics of local varieties  after a focus group discussion.

Two of our participants,  Stella Beghini and Lukáš Pawera, share their feedback in this blog:

“Meeting such a wide range of people working and being passionate about agrobiodiversity from different countries has been a great part of this course. We were all contributing at tackling technical, social and economic points of view about the maintenance and evolution of plant genetic resources at farm level. I have especially appreciated the lessons on research methodologies that can be applied in studies with rural communities, with a lot of practical exercises. The different levels of collaboration and program interventions were also discussed with reference from many international case studies” - Stella Beghini, activist, Italy.

“The workshop taught by experienced scientists complemented my theoretical knowledge, clarified my methodological hesitations, and made me feel inspired and confident how to do a practical action on measuring and characterizing crop diversity in the field.” Lukáš Pawera, ethnobotanist, Czech Republic.

The participants thanked the main organisers Devra Jarvis and Paola de Santis from Bioversity International, and Massimo Reverberi and Fabio Attorre from Sapienza University and the teachers, Toby Hodgkin (UK), Muhabbat Turdieva (Uzbekistan), Tony Brown (Australia), Devra Jarvis (USA), Paolo Colangelo (Italy), Massimo Reverberi (Italy), Fabio Attorre (Italy), Rose Nankya (Uganda), Devendra Gauchan (Nepal), Isabel Lopez Noriega (Spain), Paola De Santis (Italy),  for their excellent work in preparing the workshop and compiling a rich set of presentations and reading material to take home for further learning. We look forward to evaluating the feedback forms so we can improve the course year after year.

Keep your eyes peeled on PAR website for the 2018 summer course.