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close this bookBiotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)
close this folderThe original biotechnologist
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentDiversity for production
View the documentMultiple cropping, multiple benefits
View the documentBiotechnology for the people
View the documentPromoting people's participation


'In Africa there are lots of unsophisticated farmers You can't even expect them to drive a tractor straight.'
(Norman Goldfarb, Chairman of Calgene, USA) (1)

While visiting a friend a few years ago, I found myself roaming around on the island of Zanzibar, just off the coast of Tanzania. One farmer insisted on showing me around. After quite a walk through what seemed to me to be a forest, he stopped and asked my opinion. I wasn't quite sure about what, until I realized that I was standing in the middle of one of his fields or shambas as he calls them. What my Northern mind had conceived as just a bit more of the same bush that covers the island, was actually a carefully designed and cultivated farmer's field. Palm trees, bananas and fruit trees were growing tall above numerous annual crops, most of which I did not even know the name of. Patiently, he explained in extreme detail why which plant was growing where and what use it had. Since then I am a bit more careful when looking at bushes along the roadside in Third World countries.

Much of this book has focused on what is known as the new biotechnologies and their implications for agriculture. Genetic engineering, cell fusion, tissue-culture, enzyme technologies and the like, will bring tremendous changes to the agriculture we now know. Very often during discussion on this issue, the question is raised as to what type of biotechnology would be beneficial for small farmers in developing countries. Before even trying to start formulating an answer, it is important to recognize the profound complexity and high level of adaptation to local circumstances of many indigenous farming practices. It is crucial to evaluate such farming systems on their own merits: to what extent they meet the need of local communities, now and in the future, and to what degree they provide a sustainable basis for national agricultural development. Only if analysed in that context does a possible answer to the question whether and how the new biotechnologies can contribute to sustainable farming make sense.

Most local farming practices are based on an enormous degree of diversity, be it cultural, biological or economic. This diversity is often regarded by 'modem' scientists as a consequence of inefficient traditional farming, rather than the prerequisite for survival and development. Some experts would agree that such systems might work at the community level, but argue that they cannot produce the food for an ever-increasing urban population as well. The International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, for example, has tried to redirect some of its work to the needs of small farmers; but some researchers at the Centre remain sceptical. CIAT rice breeder Peter Jennings says that the focus at CIAT 'Is much more on the consumer than on the farmer, and I'm not convinced we should focus on the marginal producer'. (2) What Jennings does not seem to realize, is that in many developing countries these 'marginal producers' form the vast majority of the population. It is this line of thinking that reinforces the tendency of small farmers to move off(or simply be thrown off) their land and turn up in the poverty stricken slums of large cities, only to increase the number of urban consumers who need food from elsewhere.
Rarely is it recognized that local farming systems provide the very basis of a sustainable form of agriculture, optimizing the long-term use of the locally available natural resources, minimizing the need for external chemical inputs, while at the same time providing for a reasonably stable output of food, medicines and shelter. The generations of farmers who have developed, maintained and improved these practices are the 'original biotechnologists'. The new biotechnologists, and agents for agricultural development policies in general, should take these systems as a point of departure for possible further improvement. The interdependency and complexity of the various elements of people's biotechnology is so deep that modern science has often overlooked it. Worse is that by introducing 'improvements' teased on a reality cut up into manageable pieces, the very basis of farming systems that have proved their value for centuries is being undermined and sometimes completely destroyed. The new biotechnologists, however learned they might be in their specialism at the molecular and genetic level, can have something positive to offer to the rural and urban poor only if their solutions enhance the sustainable basis of farming practices. But grasping the complexity and importance of diversity, rather than merely regarding it as raw material for research, is very difficult. It has never been the strongest point of scientists, who tend to work more with microscopes than with local farmers.

One particular point that is difficult to understand for many of us who rely on local diets of cornflakes, wheat bread and potatoes, is the immense variety of plants that are used for food in many parts of the world. Villagers living at the foot of Mount Elgon in Western Kenya use at least 100 different species of vegetables and fruits in their diet. Some of them are actively cultivated, others collected from the wild. (3) Mexico's Huastec Indians cultivate, in a mixture of home gardens, agricultural fields and forest plots, some 300 different plant species. In a typical village garden in West Java it is not difficult to find 100 or more different plant species, all used for specific needs: food, medicine, building materials, fuel-wood, and so on. (4) Also, the vast local knowledge of plants and their uses is truly astonishing. The Tzeltals in Mexico recognize over 1,200 different plant species, while Hanunoo farmers in the Philippines know more than 1,600. When scientists came out of a forest in Botswana with a collection of 211 different rare plants, they were amazed to discover that village women knew all but five. (5)