Breeding Respect for Indigenous Seeds

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Jessica Milgroom isn’t your typical graduate student. Rather than spending her days in the library of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, her research is done in the field—literally. Since 2006, Jessica has been working with farming communities living inside Limpopo National Park, in southern Mozambique.

When the park was established in 2001, it was essentially “parked on top of 27,000 people,” says Jessica. Some 7,000 of the residents needed to be resettled to other areas, including within the park, which affected their access to food and farmland. Jessica’s job is to see what can be done to improve resettlement food security.

But rather than simply recommending intensified agriculture in the park to make better use of less land, Jessica worked with the local community to collect and identify local seed varieties. One of the major problems in Mozambique, as well as other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, is the lack of seed. As a result, farmers are forced to buy low-quality seed because nothing else is available.

In addition to identifying and collecting seeds, Jessica is working with a farmer’s association on seed trials, testing varieties to see what people like best. In addition, farmers are learning how to purify and store seeds (see Innovation of the Week: Investing in Better Food Storage in Africa).

Weevils, the farmers tell Jessica, are worse than ever, destroying both the seed and crops they store in traditional open-air, granaries. But the farmers are now building newer granaries that are more tightly sealed and help prevent not only weevils but also mold and aflatoxins from damaging crops.

Today, farmers and breeders alike have a greater respect for Mozambique’s indigenous seed varieties. According to Jessica, one of the biggest accomplishments of the project has been getting breeders and farmers to talk to each other. “It’s been interesting for both groups,” says Jessica, “and it needs to be a regular discussion” between them.

Building Knowledge About Biotechnology in Africa

This is the first of a two-part series to Africa Harvest, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In our Nourishing the Planet project we’re looking at how farmers and researchers all over the world are combining high-tech and low-tech agricultural practices to help alleviate hunger and poverty. One place they’re trying to do this is at Africa Harvest/Biotech Foundation International. The organization’s mission is “to use science and technology, especially biotechnology, to help the poor in Africa achieve food security, economic well-being and sustainable rural development.”

And while the biotechnology component of their mission may be controversial to some, Africa Harvest is determined that Africa will not be left behind when it comes to the development—and use— of the technology by African researchers and farmers. As a result, the organization is focusing on breeding African crops for Africans. “If you want to make a difference on this continent,” says Daniel Kamanga, communications director for Africa Harvest, “you have to look at African crops.” These include staples such as banana, cassava, and sorghum, which are all important sources of nutrients for millions of Africans.

But these are also crops that are heavily impacted by diseases and pests. Bananas, for example, are susceptible to sigatoka virus, fusarium, weevils, nematodes, and others. To combat these problems, Florence Wambugu, the CEO of Africa Harvest and a scientist who formerly worked with Monsanto, helped develop Tissue Culture Banana (TC banana). Banana diseases are often spread through “unclean” planting material. But TC banana technology allows scientists to use biotechnology for the “rapid and large scale multiplication” of disease free bananas—a single shoot can produce 2,000 individual banana plantlets.

Africa Harvest is also working on biofortifying sorghum with Vitamin A, creating “golden sorghum.” 

“But of course, there remains the thorny issue of control—among the biggest stumbling blocks for sharing any technology across countries and regions. Biotechnology has so far been largely owned by the private sector.” So, in addition to researching crop production, Africa Harvest is also working to improve capacity building for scientists all over Africa. “If we’re going to have GMOs on the continent,” says Kamanga, “we want scientists who know how to do it.” Along with that, Africa Harvest is working to strengthen regulatory systems for biotechnology.

And how does Africa Harvest respond to criticism about the development and use of biotechnology in agriculture? According to Kamanga, it’s an “old debate” and one that takes place in 5-star hotels, not in farmers’ fields. The issue now, he says, is how we make the best use of this technology.

Listening to Farmers

This is the second blog in a series about Danielle's visit to the World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania.

4140998514_60433ed91b_m.jpg The World Vegetable Center is focusing on "building a sustainable seed system in sub-Saharan Africa." What does that mean? According to Dr. Abdou Tenkouano, Director of the Regional Center for Africa, it requires "bringing farmers voices into the choices of materials they are using."

The Center does this not only by breeding a variety of vegetables with different traits--including resistance to disease and longer shelf life--but also by bringing farmers from all over eastern, western, and southern Africa to the Regional Center in Arusha, Tanzania, to find out what exactly those farmers need in the field and at market. Mr. Babel Isack, a tomato farmer from Tanzania, was at the Center when I visited, advising staff about which tomato varieties would be best suited for his particular needs--including varieties that depend on fewer chemical sprays and have a longer shelf life.

The Center works with farmers not only to grow vegetables, but also to process and cook them. Often, vegetables are cooked for so long that they lose most of their nutrients. To solve that problem, Dr. Mel Oluoch, a Liason Officer with the Center's Vegetable Breeding and Seed System Program (VBSS), works with women to improve the nutritional value of cooked foods by helping them develop shorter cooking times. "Eating is believing," says Dr. Oluoch, who adds that when people find out how much better the food tastes--and how much less fuel and time it takes to cook--they don't need much convincing about the alternative methods.

Dr. Oluoch also trains both urban and rural farmers on seed production. In fact, one of the women farmers we met in Kibera slum in Nairobi had been trained at the Center and is selling seeds to rural farmers, increasing her income. "The sustainability of seed," says Dr. Oluoch, "is not yet there in Africa." In other words, farmers don't have access to a reliable source of seed for indigenous vegetables, such as amaranth, spider plant, cowpea, okra, moringa, and other crops. As a result, the Center is working--partly with CNFA, an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) grantee--to link farmers to input or "agro-" dealers who can help ensure a steady supply of seed.

In addition, the Center is providing how-to brochures to farmers in Swahili and other languages to help them better understand how to grow vegetables in different regions.

Stay tuned for more about our visit to the World Vegetable Center later this week.

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