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Plant breeders declared it to be one of the botanical finds of the century. Discovery came not from some high-tech lab but when peasant farmers first led plant explorers to wild stands of Zea diploperennis (perennial maize) in Mexico’s Sierra de Manantlan in the late 1970s.

The rare perennial maize proved to be resistant to seven viral diseases that plague domesticated maize. Scientists predicted it could be worth as much as $4.4 billion to the commercial-maize industry. Conserva-tionists called for a nature preserve to protect the rare maize in its natural habitat as they feared the local poor farmers, in constant need of grazing land, would soon wipe out the few remaining patches.

A nature preserve was eventually established and farmers kept out. But within a few years the forest began to invade the wild maize. Plants were crowded out and began to disappear – the local farmers had been intentionally conserving it with the traditional practice of grazing cattle on dry fodder during the dormant season. The growth of the surrounding forest had thus been controlled without harming the rare perennial maize. Donald Duvick, retired research vice-president at Pioneer Hi-Bred (the world’s largest seed company) was impressed: ‘It seems that the farmers knew exactly what they were doing, and had more wisdom than the well-meaning environmental scientists.’

This story illustrates not only how rapidly valuable genetic diversity in crops is disappearing but also the impossibility of conserving species and ecosystems separate from farm and indigenous communities. The world’s main food and livestock species have centres of genetic diversity in the South. Generations of farmers in the tropics and sub-tropics have consciously selected and improved plants and animals uniquely adapted to thousands of micro-environments. Farming communities in the South are the primary custodians of most of the earth’s remaining agricultural bio-diversity. They are also carriers of unique knowledge about genetic resources and entire ecosystems.

Agricultural biodiversity refers to the part of genetic resources which feeds and nurtures people – whether it be derived from plants, animals, fish or forests. We are losing genetic resources for food and agriculture at an unprecedented rate. It can best be described as a biological meltdown. The statistics are numbing:

  • Crop genetic resources are being wiped out at one to two per cent per annum. Since 1900 about 75 per cent of the genetic diversity in agricultural crops has been lost.
  • Livestock breeds are disappearing at an annual rate of five per cent, or six breeds per month. In Europe, half of all breeds of domestic animals existing in 1900 are gone, with 43 per cent of those remaining endangered.
  • Marine fisheries are collapsing. About 70 per cent of the world’s conventional marine species are fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted or in the process of recovering from over-fishing. A fifth of all freshwater fish are either extinct or endangered.

The stability of our global food supply is threatened because genetic diversity (found primarily in the South) is so vital for maintaining pest and disease resistance in our major food crops and to improve drought-tolerance or flavour. Plant breeders require constant fresh infusions of genes from the farms, fields and forests of the South. But this biodiversity is not just raw material for industrial agriculture. It is key to food security and sustainability that enables poor farmers to adapt crops and animals to their own ecological needs. Without it, options for long-term sustainability and agricultural self-reliance are lost.

The industrial agriculture that is displacing more diverse, traditional agricultural systems is the main culprit. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, the Green Revolution introduced high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat to the South, replacing traditional crop varieties and their wild relatives on a massive scale. This process continues and, as uniform plant varieties move in, traditional ones disappear. In the Philippines small farmers once cultivated thousands of traditional rice varieties, but by the mid-1980s just two Green Revolution varieties occupied 98 per cent of the entire rice-growing area.

Industrial agriculture requires genetic uniformity. Vast areas are typically planted to a single, high-yielding variety or a handful of genetically similar cultivars with capital-intensive inputs like irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides to maximize production. Such uniform crops are breeding grounds of potential disaster due to vulnerability to pests or disease. The same is true with livestock. The introduction of ‘modern’ breeds selected solely to maximize production has displaced or diluted indigenous livestock breeds worldwide.

The spread of industrial agriculture in the South places thousands of native breeds at risk. In India, just three decades after the advent of ‘modern’ breeds, some 50 per cent of goat, 20 per cent of cattle, and 30 per cent of sheep breeds are in danger of disappearing.

The wealth of traditional knowledge held, from the Ethiopian Highlands to South India, is also becoming an endangered resource. The drive to export monoculture is based on external inputs – imported genetic stock, technology and the ideas of outside ‘experts.’ This has nearly extinguished the farming communities’ most vital ‘internal’ resource – farmers’ traditional knowledge and the rich reservoirs of plant and animal genetic diversity selected and improved over generations.

The official delegates at the United Nations World Food Summit in November 1996 decided the key to food security was trade liberalization and thereby endorsed the growing reliance on expensive high-tech agriculture. Self-reliance was ignored. The Summit side-stepped important issues like equitable access to land, credit and other resources, in favour of the old Green Revolution formula now boosted with a heavy dose of biotechnology.

But the commercial biotechnology pushed by big agricultural research institutes is of little help to those who have to coax a meagre food crop from marginal land. It certainly has little to do with feeding hungry people. Biotechnology is controlled by a handful of seed, agrochemical and pharmaceutical corporations whose proprietary products are designed primarily for Northern markets. It’s a high-stakes game, and few enterprises can afford to compete. Consider, for example, how the US-based corporation Monsanto spent no less than $100 million developing its herbicide-tolerant soybean (a soybean that can withstand spraying of Monsanto’s best-selling weedkiller). Or how DNA Plant Technology spent over $6.3 million defending its biotech patents on longer shelf-life tomatoes.

Proprietary technologies are seldom accessible or affordable to customers in the South. In India – where 70 per cent of pesticides are used on cotton and rice – researchers were anxious to develop genetically engineered crop varieties to resist insects. Monsanto offered to sell its patented, insect-resistant gene to the Indian Government for $7.74 million. The cost was simply too high so the deal fell through.

Have we learned from the mistakes of the Green Revolution? It appears not. There is little doubt that the twenty-first century’s ‘gene’ revolution can and will be used to promote industrial monocultures and genetic uniformity on a massive scale. The Forestry Corporation of Aotearoa/New Zealand, for example, is planting 200,000 genetically identical ‘super pine trees’ created through a test-tube technique called facile cutting. New breakthroughs in the cloning of sheep will someday allow a test tube full of embryonic cells to produce scores of genetically identical livestock.

Ultimately, it is farming communities who hold the key for the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity. If international aid and development institutions dismiss peasant farmers, exclude structural reforms, and ignore the indigenous crops and livestock breeds that poor farmers need to survive, they fail to address the actual causes of hunger. At the Science Academies Summit held in India in July 1996 several African scientists expressed their frustration with foreign ideas for introducing high-tech agriculture into the South, noting that traditional African crops are ignored or undervalued in international agricultural research. ‘I don’t want a Green Revolution,’ said Iba Kone of the African Academy of Sciences, ‘I want a Black Revolution. I want to return to our indigenous crops.’

Similarly, importing animal breeds is being rethought as native breeds are far more likely to flourish under low-input conditions. ‘In 80 per cent of the world’s rural areas locally adapted genetic resources are superior to common modern breeds,’ concludes Keith Hammond, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s expert on animal genetics. Poor farmers value an animal not by growth rate or milk yield, but by its ability to survive and reproduce.

In the long run, the conservation of plant and animal genetic diversity depends not so much on the small number of institutional breeders in the formal sector (government, university and industry), but on the vast number of traditional farmers. It is they who select, improve and use plant and livestock diversity, especially in marginal farming environments. Conservation and development must go hand-in-hand, giving farm communities the power and tools to look after genetic resources.

We cannot save the world’s biological diversity unless we nurture the human diversity that protects and develops it. We cannot afford to undervalue the traditional knowledge of rural people. Without it we lose our last, best hope for salvaging and developing the living resources upon which we all depend.

Hope Shand is Research Director of the former Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), now known as ETC Group. (


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