Africa's genepool: sink or swim?
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CTA. 1993. Africa's genepool: sink or swim?. Spore 43. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/45904
Members of traditional African communities have a unique understanding and interpretation of their surroundings. This includes an understanding of the crops and weeds that are used for food and medicine and their relationship to the environment....
Members of traditional African communities have a unique understanding and interpretation of their surroundings. This includes an understanding of the crops and weeds that are used for food and medicine and their relationship to the environment. Today there is a double risk which threatens that understanding. There is a risk that in the quest to grow enough food, modern high yielding varieties (HYVs) will displace traditional crops resulting in genetic erosion, and there is an associated risk that the knowledge of how to use those traditional crops may die out, even before the plants themselves disappear. To what extent does this matter? If more food is required from a given area of land than traditional crops can produce, surely it is right for those crops to make way for HYVs? Conserving biodiversity has become a fashionable, even obsessive, concern but a more pressing need in Africa is to feed the population. Are the two compatible? There are arguments which suggest they are not only compatible but indivisible. The Green Revolution in Asia has shown that HYVs can fulfil their potential where the high inputs required can be provided, but on marginal lands the uniformity and narrow genetic base of HYVs concentrates the risk to the farmer who may lose his entire crop in time of drought or disease outbreak. Traditional crops and landraces, with the yield stability which arises from their inherent genetic diversity, not only spread the risk within one season but hold the genetic variability for farmers' needs as they may change over time. Conserving the genetic variability is therefore essential, not only for this generation but for the generations to come. The growth in the number and size of NGOs working with farmer groups to conserve traditional landraces is an indication that people have become more concerned with meeting social objectives and are nowadays less interested in 'technical fixes'. This does not devalue the work of those involved in the formal, genebank sector. There will always be a need for ex situ conservation at national, regional or international level, as the fail-safe means by which genetic diversity is preserved from the dangers of drought, fire, deforestation, war and famine. However, farmers do have a problem with obtaining access to genetic material held in genebanks unless it comes back to them via the plantbreeders of commercial seed companies: in which case it will have a price tag. A number of NGOs are working towards providing farmers with fair access to the genetic diversity which they, over the centuries, have conserved. They are also working with government organizations to establish frameworks by which the informal and formal sectors can work more closely together for their mutual benefit. By this means, not only are the prospects for conservation of plant material enhanced, but also the conservation of indigenous knowledge of how to grow and use that plant material. The Plant Genetic Resources Centre of Ethiopia (PORE/E) is paying farmers on a contract basis to conserve and multiply landrace material. PGRC/E recognizes that there is little point in simply conserving landrace material unless the systems are also in place for multiplying and distributing seed for this material to other farmers. They also argue that the financial support offered to farmers is justifiable in view of the fact that conservation of landraces on farms is vital for a sustained provision of useful germplasm for now and for future generations. Environment and Development Action (ENDA), an NGO acting in promoting sustainable agriculture and food security among small farmers in Zimbabwe, is working towards promoting local crop development by introducing various seed improvement techniques to farmers. The hope is that eventually farmers will be in a position to produce stable, more productive seed based on their own landraces which will form a reliable alternative to commercially improved seed. Improving landrace material makes practical, economic sense and is perceived by many to be the best hope for conserving this genetic diversity. Community seed diffusion systems have many advantages over commercial or national seed companies, not least the lower cost of the seed itself. The single most important advantage however, is that they deal directly with the varieties that farmers in the locality want. They can supply a wide range of plant varieties, including varieties that would not be commercially viable and varieties which contain the genetic diversity that small farmers need to maximize the security of their food production. By establishing closer links, forged with greater mutual respect for the values inherent in both the formal and informal sectors, the risk of genetic erosion can be lessened thus helping to assure food security for the coming generations.