The wisdom of farmers critical to African food supply

When Ken Torrance returned to Ottawa from a 15-day trip to Ethiopia in late 2006, he arrived with numerous photos of thriving sorghum fields and a great admiration for the adaptability of Ethiopian farmers and their native seeds.

As Torrance explains, sorghum is a staple crop of Ethiopia and is used for food, feed, fuel and as a construction material. Over centuries, farmers have developed many varieties that collectively are adapted to the range of harsh and uncertain environments of specific regions.

“The local seed varieties (i.e., landraces) can adapt to a range of climates and other growing conditions. When some seeds fail, others produce, and the farmers can normally feed their communities even under severe conditions such as drought,” he says.

Torrance, a professor emeritus in Carleton University’s department of geography and environmental studies, was in Ethiopia with his former student Awegechew Teshome, MA/90, PhD/96. Teshome is now USC Canada’s scientific advisor for Seeds of Survival (SOS). The program promotes long-term food security for marginal farming communities.

The trip was Torrance’s first opportunity to visit the site of Teshome’s doctoral fieldwork on sorghum biodiversity, which was conducted in the early 1990s and jointly supervised with John Lambert of Carleton’s biology department.

At that time, Teshome surveyed local farming methods, specifically examining the factors that influenced the maintenance of crop genetic diversity. He was convinced that farmers knew “what to grow, when and where” and that their ongoing practices, such as the continual exchange of quality seeds, were critical to ensuring biodiversity and thus an adequate food supply.

In the five communities surveyed in 1992, Teshome identified 60 local varieties of sorghum. In the same communities in a 2000-01 survey, the number had increased to 68.

As he points out, this crop genetic diversity is not just a natural occurrence but has been fostered by the local farmers, whose experience has shown them that use of different criteria—such as yield, time to maturity, insect-resistance, taste and other characteristics—are essential to the stability of production and to the range of needs to be served.

The SOS program is premised on the belief that the knowledge and expertise of local farmers is critical to food production in Africa.

“SOS is not just about food security, in other words having enough safe food,” he says. “It is also about food sovereignty, or the right of all people to control their food supply and food policies.”

Teshome contrasts the SOS approach with that of other programs, such as those supported by the new Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

AGRA was created in 2006 by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations in order to increase crop yields to reduce hunger in Africa. AGRA’s initial investment of US$150 million is being used to develop appropriate seeds for the African situation, and to provide the inputs for these seeds to produce.

Although the approach of programs such as these may appear more “scientific” on the surface than the landrace approach, Teshome explains that such initiatives can actually make farmers dependent on foreign aid, seeds, chemicals and other external inputs.

“The first time the Rockefeller Foundation supported a green revolution in the 1960s, farmers not only abandoned indigenous landraces and practices, they also went into debt to buy seeds, fertilizers and pesticides from other countries,” he says. “While yields did go up in some cases, when crops failed, small farmers were destitute; many lost their land and often migrated to urban slums.”

While he believes that the Gates and Rockefellers “have good intentions and want to help,” Teshome maintains that what is needed is a participatory approach where scientists work with farmers. “These are the people who created agriculture, and we need to respect their wisdom and take advantage of genetic diversity and produce enough food.”

Torrance agrees with Teshome.

“African farmers have already developed appropriate seeds for their local conditions of slope, stoniness, soil and vagaries of climate. Scientists need to work respectfully with these men and women—displacing the rich mix of locally adapted landraces of the various crops is an unacceptably high-risk approach.”

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Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa
Created in 2006, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is an African-led, but externally funded, partnership that develops practical solutions to significantly boost farm productivity and incomes for smallscale farmers while safeguarding the environment. The alliance advocates for policies that support its work across all key aspects of the African agricultural “value chain”—from seeds, soil health, and water to markets and agricultural education.

Seeds of Survival
Seeds of Survival is a Unitarian Services Committee (USC) of Canada initiative, launched in 1989 in collaboration with the Ethiopian Gene Bank. The program promotes long-term food security for marginal farming communities in developing countries. It stresses the importance of using time-tested farmer knowledge and practices, and limiting the need for external farming methods thatare often incompatible with local rowing conditions.

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