“Smallholders matter most”

Because agricultural biodiversity is being lost fast, the food security of future generations is at risk. In order to reverse the trend, policymakers must focus support on smallholders. The irony of the matter is that world’s poorest farmers are the guardians of genetic diversity. Melaku Worede, an Ethiopian geneticist, explained things to Hans Dembowski.

Interview with Melaku Worede

You have been warning that genetic erosion is dangerous for decades. Have matters improved?
Well, we are still losing diversity at an alarming rate. That is scary. The gene pool is shrinking fast. On the other hand, awareness for these matters has grown. I used to be the only one among agriculture experts to raise this issue, and it often felt as if the others wanted to ex-communicate me. But today, the importance of saving the gene pool is generally accepted. Nonetheless, I am afraid that the action taken now will be too little too late.

Why is genetic diversity being eroded?
The problem is that big corporations are taking over agriculture, and they typically rely on very few, genetically homogenous varieties. The smallholder farmers who grow landraces – the traditional varieties with much more diverse gene pools – are increasingly being displaced. They have cultivated the landraces for centuries, generation after generation, and their plants are well adapted to the specific conditions of the places where they are grown. As the smallholders are displaced, we are losing the diversity of their landraces. And it makes matters worse that we do not even know what we are losing, because not all landraces have been researched by scientists yet. At the same time, we are losing wildlife diversity too. Ever more land is being used for farming. This is troublesome too, because landraces and wildlife interact in evolution, and the varieties involved in such co-evolution lose their resilience and become more vulnerable if that process is interrupted.

Why is the genetic diversity of the landraces so important?
It is important because different landraces thrive in different environments and situations. Some landraces do not need much water, others are resilient after floods, others can cope with extreme heat or extreme cold. Most are not hurt much by pests. These are very important characteristics. Traditionally, farmers all over the world used various landraces and thus spread their risks. They knew what seeds served specific situations, and they knew the characteristics of all the different plant varieties they cultivated. In Africa, many smallholder farmers still operate that way. Their knowledge will be lost unless they keep cultivating these landraces. This is really about technology. Cultivating landraces is an agricultural technology that is vital in the very sense of the word. Everybody’s food security depends on
it because the high-tech plant breeders need the landraces too. They use the genetical diversity to improve their seed.

But shouldn’t humankind bank on high-yielding varieties because the world’s population is growing? Moreover, climate change will have an impact on local environments, so the landraces that are fit for those local environments are likely to become unviable.
Actually, it is the other way around. The landraces are diverse, and as the environment changes, farmers are likely to find ways to adapt by using their traditional seeds. The high-yielding varieties are far more vulnerable. Their cultivation depends on massive inputs, including irrigation, fertiliser and pesticides. Those inputs are expensive, but they are needed to create an artificial environment for the plants. As the natural environment changes, the need for such inputs will keep growing. Ultimately, humanity’s food security depends on genetic diversity, not on ever greater inputs in agriculture. I worry about what is going to happen in the future if we allow the gene pool to continue to erode at the pace we are witnessing today. And since climate change is likely to be dramatic, we have to make sure we also protect the wild gene pool as best we can.

But we have gene banks to safeguard genetic diversity. Isn’t that enough?
Gene banks certainly have a role to play. But as the founder of the Ethiopian Gene Bank, I can tell you that such facilities must be in touch with the farmers who cultivate the plants. The seeds that are stored in a gene bank are isolated. They are no longer exposed to evolution. A gene bank preserves seeds, but that does not mean that the variety they belong to is conserved. In nature, evolution never stops. There used to be a balance of continuity and natural change in agriculture, but global warming is tipping the scales and speeding up change. In any case, the characteristics certain seeds have today are likely to be lost in the future unless that seed is cultivated.

So gene banks must not only collect seeds; they must ensure that they are used?
Exactly, unless the plants are cultivated, they cannot genetically adapt to their ever-changing environments. What is more, we lose the knowledge about a certain seed’s specifics unless farmers keep growing that variety. Such knowledge is crucial, just like the genetic information itself.

Is it possible to launch something like a green revolution based on landraces?
Green revolution is a grand term. It can mean many things to many people. If you define it as focusing on a single crop and relying on massive inputs, that would be a very dangerous path because genetic diversity would be lost. We must cultivate a wide diversity of plants and allow them to co-evolve with nature. Otherwise no green revolution will ever be sustainable.

But the smallholders that cultivate landraces tend to be very poor subsistence farmers. Is that desirable?
No, I certainly don’t want farmers to be stuck in poverty. They must become economically successful. Smallholder agriculture must deliver good and reliable livelihoods. I also want their children to go to school, learn to read and write, and later choose agriculture for their own livelihoods. So the sector must be attractive. And there certainly is scope for improving the productivity of landraces. So if you want to call that a green revolution, I’d be in favour of it.

What kind of research can drive such a process – will it be led by scientists or farmers?
It will certainly have to be bottom-up, not ­top-down. The approach has to be as participa­tory as possible. In cooperation, scientists and farmers can achieve more than either side can alone. Scientists matter, but the ­smallholders matter most. Their success has always depended on manipulating the resources they have on their farms, and the important issue is to enhance their productivity. Big farming systems are different. They manipulate the environment by using a lot of inputs. That is not a sustainable solution. We really have to look into what is on the ground. And we have to appreciate the knowledge of the smallholders.

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