SAVING THE FOOD CROPS OUR GRANDPARENTS GREW
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CTA. 1994. SAVING THE FOOD CROPS OUR GRANDPARENTS GREW. Spore 54. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/49503
Members of traditional communities in all ACP countries 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...
Members of traditional communities in all ACP countries 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 race to grow enough food, modem high yielding cereals will displace traditional crops and there is a risk that the knowledge of how to use those traditional crops may die out even before the plants themselves disappear. How serious are threats to biodiversity? And how can they be averted? Drought fire, war and famine destroy biodiversity. But there are other, more insidious reasons why biodiversity is lost too. Farmers are encouraged to grow the comparatively few, modem, improved, high yielding varieties of cereals. This makes good economic sense if conditions are ideal and if agrochemicals can be used to feed and protect the crop. But for many ACP farmers , perhaps the majority, conditions are not ideal and then yields of these modem varieties become unreliable. Growing a narrow range of varieties concentrates the risk to the farmer if rains fail or if these is an outbreak of disease. Is also threatens the survival of traditional landraces which may therefore be neglected. And yet these landraces, selected for by farmers over the centuries, have evolved within their own environment and are therefore likely to be tolerant of the harsher elements of that environment , such as drought, pest or disease. A second risk has often been pointed out that modern farming systems have marginalized traditional food crops because, as people aspire to new, modern ways and their perceived rewards, respect for the traditional is lost. No-one knows, or can now assess, the value of what has been lost. It is only when one realized that food does not taste as good as it used to, or keep or cook as well, that what has been lost becomes apparent. Consumers in Sudan complain about the quality of tomatoes and say that the poor taste is because farmers add fertilizers. They do not realize that farmers have introduced new varieties and that today we no longer have the local tomatoes which he consumer remembers. It has even been suggested that 'many people are starving because they do not have knowledge of the traditional food crops that they used to fall back on in times of drought. Neither are the people who are the traditional custodians of this knowledge alive to pass on that knowledge to save the lives of the people who are starving at the moment.' It is perhaps easier to assess the risk of what is known as genetic erosion by appreciating what so easily might have been lost. For instance farmers in Sierra Leone grow an enormously wide range of rice varieties for good agronomic reasons such as spreading the harvesting period to provide a continuing food source with the most efficient use of labour. And yet curiosity alone prompted one farmer to grow a variety with such a small grain that he called it 'kpengee' which literally means 'something very small' for the sole reason that 'it made him laugh.. The variety was found to be almost immune to the major rice disease, yellow mottle virus and it is now used as a parent to cross genes to other improved varieties. So in what ways can the genetic basis of traditional crops be safeguarded? There are two channels for approaching this problem, the formal and the informal sector. The formal sector comprises national, regional and international centres where seed material is stored in genebanks, the so-called ex situ conservation. This sector has the advantage of providing a safety net should drought or war or some other disaster threaten the loss of plant material in the field. For example, the National Genebank of Kenya is storing seeds for Somalia and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in the Philippines was able to resupply to Cambodia landraces which had been lost during the war. However, if seed is stored only in genebanks, that is where it tends to remain, inaccessible to most farmers who are the very people who need the genetic diversity to help them achieve food security for themselves and for the nation. Recently, the international Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) has been given the mandate to coordinate ail genetic resource work within the CGIAR system. The other approach, that of the informal sector, acknowledges the role that farmers have played in selecting plant material and seeks to conserve and enhance their work in situ There is no need for a conflict between the two sectors: both are vital but unfortunately the links between the two sectors are far from adequate. Improving the links between the sectors is now recognized to be the major challenge that faces policy makers, farmers , scientists, plant breeders, genebank directors and non-government organizations working in this area. The Director of the UN University Programme of Natural Resources in Africa, Dr Bede Okigbo suggests that one of the most effective ways of actively and effectively conserving the biodiversity of food plants is to evaluate, select and encourage the domestication and greater utilization of under-utilized or wild edible plants that are of local or regional importance .By doing this, and improving the links between the two sectors, the biodiversity of traditional crops can be safeguarded.