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Experts urge greater local control of Africa’s agricultural biodiversity

Agricultural biodiversity, a relatively newly-coined term, addresses biodiversity directly relevant to agriculture. There has been substantial loss of agrobiodiversity both at the global and local level. Out of 10,000 edible plant species in use for human food since the beginning of agriculture, only four – rice, wheat, maize, and potatoes – currently supply over 60 percent of the world’s food energy intake.

A report recently released by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Africa Report on New and Emerging Challenges) detailed how African countries can turn challenges, such as biodiversity and ecosystem loss, water scarcity, and food crisis, into opportunities to transit toward a green economy, suggesting they focus on practices including sustainable agriculture and biodiversity protection.

Smallholder farmers in Mali, Africa. Photo credit: Peter Casier

According to Michael Stocking, emeritus professor of Natural Resources Development at the University of East Anglia, there is “a large but unknown store of agricultural biodiversity in Africa.” In order to turn agricultural biodiversity loss into an opportunity toward a green economy, African countries need support in terms of funding and research for the collection and recording of biodiversity, and the understanding of how local people act as the ultimate guardians of this wealth. However, as Stocking explained to UNEARTH News Journal, “So far, support for agricultural biodiversity research, analysis, and dissemination has been patchy and insufficient.”

The lack of such relevant, on-the-ground research input for decision makers may prove to be disastrous. Carol Thompson, professor of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University, is currently in Zimbabwe researching how lethal the “green revolution” approach is to African biodiversity. Thompson asserts that the current African green revolution stems from the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA), an organization conceived and funded in 2006 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation dedicated to improving agricultural products in Africa. According to AGRA, the goals of Green Revolution include doubling the income of 20 million small income farmers, reducing food insecurity by 50 percent in 20 African countries, and ensuring that at least 15 countries are progressing toward sustainable and climate-friendly agriculture practices by 2020.

However, AGRA has been criticized to be organized with zero reference to, or inclusion of, African smallholders. Its various programs, including the development and aggressive promotion of genetically modified crops in Africa, are privately–funded by the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, and are therefore not transparent.  There is also worry that AGRA might promote genetic use restriction technologies, which restrict the use of genetically modified plants by causing second generation seeds to be sterile, forcing smallholder farmers to depend on large biotechnology companies such as Monsanto for seed sources year after year.

“It is a very serious assault on Africa’s genetic wealth,” Thompson exclaimed to UNEARTH News Journal. “Those who have improved or increased African biodiversity, over centuries, are the smallholder food producers with their sharing of seeds, their complex indigenous ecological knowledge, and their constant experimentation in the fields. They are the breeders, users, and conservers of food biodiversity, the very future of ‘food security’ in this time of climate change.”

This is the direction that many experts, Thompson and Stocking included, are calling for: local control and food sovereignty, i.e., the right of peoples to define their own agricultural, food, and land policies appropriate to their unique circumstances. Smallholder farmers should diversify their crops, thus hedging risks against food insecurity, instead of being led to produce cash crops that can be sold for money, leaving them then vulnerable to fluctuations in the global market.

Also in Africa, Stocking’s research team has found at least five sites where local farmers were conserving rare genotypes of domesticated plants and utilizing these for livelihood purposes, including a local Ghana farmer who was planting and protecting 27 varieties of yam under a sub-humid forest canopy.  “We should be locating more examples of these fascinating mutual links between conservation of biodiversity and livelihood and well-being support.” was his advice to African countries.

© 2012 UNEARTH News

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