Number 6: Sustainable Development Part 2
SoS/E: WORKING TOWARDS FOOD SECURITY
by Melaku Worede
Ethiopia is recognized as one of the world's most important centres of crop genetic diversity. It is often referred to as a major Vavilovian gene centre. Much of this diversity is found in small fields belonging to peasants who, aided by nature, have played and continue to play, a central role in the creation, maintenance and use of this invaluable resource.1 The traditional crops and their landraces2 have been adapted by these farmers over centuries of selection and use to meet changing needs, using locally accessible resources for the management of farming systems. Wide use of these genetic materials promotes diversity of diet, income source, stability of production, reduced pest and disease incidence and efficient use of labour.
Most of this diversity is now in serious danger, mainly because of displacement of the traditional seed by a few genetically uniform, new or improved varieties of crop that require expensive external inputs, often beyond the reach of resource-poor farmers. The drought of the last decade caused considerable genetic erosion, directly and indirectly, and even resulted at times in massive destruction of both plants and animals.
The famine of the mid-1980s seriously threatened Ethiopia's biological resources, particularly the crop genetic resources peasant farmers depend upon to produce food. In some cases, food grain from relief agencies became the only source of seed for planting after farmers ate their own seed, or sold as food commodity in order to survive. The poorly-adapted high-technology, exotic seeds either failed to grow at all or were difficult to handle, especially under the adverse growing conditions on these farms. Disease and pest epidemics were also serious threats in areas where these crops were grown in abundance.
As a result, a rescue mission was launched by the Plant Genetic Resource Centre/Ethiopia (PGRC/E), with the help of various government and non-government organizations, particularly local extension agents and farming communities. The mission included collecting local seeds (or landraces) for redistribution to farmers once the drought was over. Meanwhile, Ethiopian scientists at PGRC/E investigated the possibility of conserving the local seeds on peasant farms, in a state of dynamism that allowed continued coevaluation of the landraces with the changes occurring with disease and pest, or drought and other stresses. For the centre, which is located in a gene-rich but resource-poor country, this was both an opportunity and a challenge.
With support from the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, PGRC/E extended its genetic resources programme of a farmer-based crop genetic resource conservation and utilization handled by the Seeds of Survival (SoS/E) Programme for Ethiopia (and Africa) since it was launched in 1988.
One aspect of the programme seeks to restore the landraces to regions where farmers had once planted them extensively but where they had been replaced by new, exotic or improved (high input) varieties. In the region of Ada, in Central Shoa, the indigenous durum wheat has nearly disappeared because of displacement by introduced bread and durum wheat varieties. In this area, farmers rarely use bread wheat for themselves; rather, they sell it as a commodity crop to the cities. The local durums are used by women farmers to make porridge, "enjera," unleavened bread, homemade beer, or to be sold or exchanged at the local markets. To upgrade such materials, the gene bank, in close collaboration with the wheat breeding team at Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Centre, Alemaya Agricultural University (AAU), undertook extensive collection of landraces from which elite landrace selections were developed as composites.3 These were then made available to local farmers for planting, with assistance from SoS/E. PGRC/E, on the other hand, worked to maintain representative populations for in situ4 conservation of the original seed stock, following the traditional cultural methods that created the distinctive characteristics of these materials in the first place. A network of locations for the in situ conservation is also being established across a range of agro-ecological niches on the basis of the strategies farmers employ to spread their risks across locations and time.
Farmers then multiplied what they recognized as the best seeds, from which some 332 farming families obtained at least 20 kilograms each for planting during the 1994-95 cropping season. Grown without commercial fertilizers or other chemicals, the performance of these materials (in yield/ha and farmer preference) has been quite impressive, exceeding their high input counterparts by 10-15% and the original farmers seed (maintained in situ) by 20-25%.5 The demand for these seeds is astonishing, and many farmers still recall how highly prized their landraces were as a dependable source of planting material and food.
Another aspect of the SoS/E farmer-based activity deals with landrace conservation and use in areas where the native seeds are still widely grown, primarily in the regions of Wello and Northeastern Shoa. Farmers there continue to plant their traditional seed, avoiding the hybrid sorghum/maize they still receive as part of the external aid programmes. The hybrids did so poorly that in some cases sheep were left to graze on them. Here the strategy is to protect the native seed (sorghum, maize and various pulses) as well as to help the farmers continue to improve their yield through selection and enhancement.
About 500 farmers have already shared these selected and contractually multiplied seeds and the number of farmers that will have access to such materials may grow to 20,000 by 1997. The bulk of the original seed is also conserved in situ, following the same method/strategy described for durum wheat above. This approach was designed by PGRC/E to conserve germplasm in a dynamic state, complementing the more static system as represented by the off-farm (ex situ) conservation at the centre. In this programme many of the sorghum landraces and locally adapted maize jointly selected with farmers have exceeded the original seeds, all with no additional external inputs.6 They are expanding into areas of the above regions, where frequent crop failures have occurred due to prevailing droughts. To date, 3102 farmers are using the sorghum, and 2999 the maize.
The SoS/E programme has made major strides towards building Ethiopia's food resources at a time when the country is seriously threatened by famine and irreversible losses of its crop diversity. Much of this problem, common across Africa, is attributed to so-called advances in agriculture. These usually involve the expansion of a few major crops (hi-tech, high input varieties), forcing small-scale farmers to adopt the cash crop model.
Africa now faces a dilemma: producing enough food for its rapidly growing population on the one hand, and protecting the resource base upon which this depends on the other. Maintaining a sustainable balance between these two has been a major challenge for many African countries, who are often led to think that following the Western model is the only way to increase food production. This model, however, usually entails the use of inputs, whose costs African peasant farmers have trouble meeting.
Traditionally, peasant farmers maintained the use of field diversity of their crops to sustain productivity and to diversify their diet and income. This diversity allowed the farmer to maximize output under the farming conditions often characterized by highly varied micro-environments differing in characteristics such as soil, water temperature, altitude, slope and fertility. The traditional varieties or landraces are well adapted to these environments and produce stable yields over changing seasons.
The disruptive measures taken to replace the traditional farming systems by the Western model manipulate the external environment to maximize and sustain yield, thereby changing the whole picture. Spraying against diseases and pests becomes routine, as opposed to capitalizing on natural resistance; crop rotation may change, giving way to planting the same crop year after year, with heavy fertilizer inputs and similar disadvantages. The decisive factor is the seed itself: whether it was bred for high external inputs, or for broad adaptation, overlooking the highly varied conditions on small peasant farms. Once the farmer adapts the seeds, the rest goes without saying. Following this course of development, it may not be surprising if African farmers become a source of cheap labour for the large-scale mono crop commercial enterprises which many of the small farms will eventually become.
The SoS/E initiative is timely in seeking to avert this situation. Its main objective is to help African farmers retain their diversity while improving productivity, and to maintain their freedom of choice in their planting material. The programme's success largely resides in the fact that a significant number of farmers in Ethiopia are now benefiting from the use of landraces which they themselves selected and multiplied.
The elite landrace materials are also a dependable source of planting material with the potential to outperform the improved, exotic seed that often fails to meet the farmers' diverse needs and requirements. The programme is working to add new entries to the poor of elite landrace selections (mostly composites) that are now rapidly expanding. The network of in situ conservation plots being established at representative sites across a wide range of environments will provide useful germplasm on a continuous basis. This will improve or enhance the elite landraces, especially with respect to resistance to disease and pests or stresses like drought.
SoS/E's pioneer work continues with new initiatives as the programme probes the immense possibilities of supporting community-based genetic resource activities, building on the knowledge and skills of peasant farmers. One such initiative is to enhance the small storage units (pits, clay pots) traditionally used by farmers to store seeds for planting. Improving these units will help preserve diversity, complementing the more formal ex situ system. This is appropriate as farmers will always retain seeds in order to be self-sufficient. The seed stock maintained in this way would also represent a backup system for the in situ field plots, in case of crop failures, and provide a mechanism to ensure continuity of in-field conservation of landraces.
The success of SoS/E has led to the emergence of new initiatives which are now building on the existing farmer-based landrace conservation, enhancement and utilisation programme. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) has allocated some US$2.5 million to support a three-year programme. The project will build a series of community gene banks that will maintain local germplasm for crop improvement and a seed reserve system for emergency use. A community biodiversity development and conservation programme for Africa is also emerging, focusing on local crop improvement. All these activities are guided and coordinated by PGRC/E which has established a department responsible for all community-based genetic resource activities, including those of SoS/E, which form an integral part of the centre's overall genetic resource conservation strategy.7
SoS/E is also working toward new strategies and approaches to landrace development and use, adding a new dimension to its yield enhancement efforts. These include the promotion of elite landraces selected or enhanced on the basis of the growing urban consumption needs. This would provide the market incentive for farmers to produce indigenous seeds beyond the subsistence level. SoS/E scientists and farmers have already identified a few elite seeds (such as white and purple seeded durum wheats) with potential for use in the food industry (for pasta and pastries) which at present largely depends on imported food grain.
Long-term stability of food crop production may be enhanced by maintaining a large repertoire of landrace materials or cultivars which farmers traditionally maintained to adjust to new, changing conditions, including market demand. Complementing crop diversity with improved farming practices (such as crop rotation, soil and water management) is, however, crucial to sustained crop yields.
Promoting the development, distribution and use of indigenous crop cultivars along these lines will provide a mechanism to enable farmers to benefit from a stable, more secured crop harvests, and from increased productivity, to eventually make them independent from external financial assistance. With its continued creative approach to conservation and utilisation of crop genetic resources, the SoS/E programme remains in the forefront of the new world paradigm: food security through sustainable agricultural development.
1. Worede, 1993b.
2. Landraces are crop populations that have not been bred as cultivars but have been adapted through years of natural and artificial selection to the conditions under which they are cultivated. They could also be referred to as "folkseeds" to reflect the role of local communities in selection and innovation. See also the Final Consensus Report of the Keystone International Dialogue Series on Plant Genetic Resources, Madras Plenary Session, Second Plenary Session, 29 Jan-2 Feb 1990, Madras, India.
3. Tessema, 1987.
4. In situ conservation seen in this context relates to maintaining traditional cultivars or landraces in the surroundings they have been adapted, or the farming systems under which they have acquired their distinctive characteristics.
5. Ataro and Bayush, 1995.
6. Ataro and Bayush, ibid.
7. More details are to be found in relevant PGRC/E activity reports and project documents.
Ataro Adare and Bayush Tsegaye, Survey on Relative Performance of Landraces for the 1993/94 Cropping Season, Consultancy Report, Seeds of Survival, USC Canada in Ethiopia, 1994.
Tessema, T., "Improvement of Indigenous Wheat Landraces in Ethiopia." In J.M.M. Engles (ed.) Proceedings of the International Symposium on Conservation and Utilization of Ethiopian Germplasm, 13-16 October 1986, pp. 232-238.
Worede, M., "Crop Genetic Resources Conservation and Utilization: An Ethiopian Perspective." In: AAAS (ed.) Science in Africa: Achievements & Prospects. Proceedings of the Symposium of the American Association for Advancement of Science, 15 February 1991, Washington DC.
Worede, M. and Hailu Mekbib, "Linking Genetic Resources Conservation to Farmers in Ethiopia." In: de Boef et al (ed.). Cultivating Knowledge: Genetic Diversity Farmer Experimentation and Crop Research. Intermediate Technology Publications, London, 1993a, pp. 78-84.
Worede, M., "The Role of Ethiopian Farmers in the Conservation and Utilization of Crop Genetic Resources." In: D. R. Buxton et al (ed.). International Crop Science Society of America, Madison, USA, 1993b.