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Safeguarding human survival

by Hans Dembowski
Landrace cultivators in Ethiopia

Landrace cultivators in Ethiopia

Hunger is at the top of the international agenda once again. At the recent World Bank-IMF spring meeting in Washington, rapid global food-price inflation was the core topic. Recent trends present a threat to the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving global hunger by 2015.

More money is needed for food aid; but it will bring only short-term relief. The real problem is that demand for agricultural resources has begun to exceed supply. That is why prices are rising in the first place. Thirst for agrofuels certainly has contributed to shortages. But it will not do to simply condemn – and perhaps discontinue – the production of fuel crops. The world’s population is growing, and so are its food requirements. Farms will simply have to deliver more in future.

“A Green Revolution in Africa” is a frequently heard slogan in this context. Indeed, many farming practices offer scope for improvement. And yes, infrastructures outside the urban agglomerations need to be improved for farmers in the hinterland to get access to markets, relevant price information and various inputs they can use for production purposes.

Research will help. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to expect high-yielding varieties, mechanisation, fertilisers and pesticides to offer an easy way out of the crisis. That approach is capital-intensive and far too expensive to be an option for most smallholders. Moreover, the approach is energy-intensive too, and its costs rise with oil prices. But above all, high-tech agriculture tends to erode its own base by crowding out traditional crop varieties.

Scientists depend on the existing biological diversity for improving and even genetically engineering high-yielding varieties. Africa is particularly rich in land­races. These traditionally cultivated crops may not produce mega yields, but they are so well adapted to their respective environments that they reliably ensure a minimum harvest. The small farmers who grow them act as unpaid custodians of the agricultural biodiversity that is the very foundation of all high-tech concepts. The service of these farmers should surely be rewarded.

However, the range of varieties used in agriculture has long been dwindling – as has biodiversity in general. At the end of May, the 9th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity is set to take place in Bonn. Its focus will be the protection and use of genetic resources along with fair and equitable sharing of benefits. In quite fundamental terms, this conference will be about safeguarding the basis for humankind’s survival.

Gene banks help to harness diversity. But they do little to protect it. What scientists store away is removed from evolution. Locked away in a safe for years, the seed of a pest-resistant landrace will eventually lose its genetic advantages – as pests in the field keep on evolving. Evolution is based on organisms reacting to one another. In the long run, only landraces that are actually cultivated will stay vigorous.

In the era of climate change, biodiversity is particularly important. It remains to be seen exactly how the greenhouse effect will impact on the conditions for agriculture. What is clear, however, is that genetic resources – biodiversity, in other words – will be needed to meet whatever challenges will arise. Anyone putting faith exclusively in high-yield approaches will harvest what many countries are already experiencing: hunger riots.