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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

Diversity for production

Indigenous farmers in developing countries translate this deep understanding of different plants and animals and their uses to farming systems which are very much adapted to their own circumstances. In Sierra Leone, in a village called Mogbuama, farmers produce their main staple food, rice, on a range of different plots. Some of them are higher up on the hills, consisting of free draining gravelly soils. Others, on the lower slopes, have more sandy soils, while yet others consist of seasonally water-logged swamp soils in the bottom of the valley. Mogbuama farmers have developed a whole series of different rice varieties for their soils and use them in such a way that the combination fits their needs best. Every family is keen to have some early ripening rice in order to have food before the main harvest starts. This is planted where the swamp and the valley meet, and harvested before the river overspills its bank. The rice varieties that take longer but generally yield better are planted higher up the slopes, while flood tolerant varieties planted down in the wetlands take longest to ripen but require minimal labour input. A researcher who did fieldwork in the village counted 49 different rice varieties in use, each of them with specific qualities. Risk-spreading and labour diversification are some of the main factors behind the choice of the varieties, which is also the reason why Mogbuama farmers are not using any of the modern varieties that are being pushed by the development agencies. (6)

Farmers know about local soils, pests, diseases, weather patterns and other agronomic conditions they have to cope with. They are also the ones who realize best in which time labour requirements are high and how to adapt their agricultural practices in such a way that all the work can be realistically completed. Most of all, they know how to spread risks. Sometimes Northern farmers wonder why many farms in developing countries have so many widely scattered, postage-stamp size fields. As with the Mogbuama farms, in many cases there is a logical reason for it. Scattered fields reduce the risk of total crop failure. Especially in mountainous areas, they allow for diversification: different crops have different problems and potentials at different altitudes. They also result in an extension of the harvest time: a few metres of elevation can make a few days' difference in maturation of the crop. It is this, which one observer called 'the art of vertical thinking', that is lacking in many modernization schemes. (7)

Farmers are good at horizontal thinking too. In the same plot, indigenous farmers often plant many different varieties of the same crop, each of them with specific characteristics. In the Andes, for example, farmers cultivate as many as 50 different potato varieties. (8) Anibal Correo, a potato farmer in Ecuador, explains:

In a dry year maybe some of the varieties don't yield so much, but then we still have the other potatoes which can put up with some dryness. In a wet year, it can be just the opposite, and we're glad of the potatoes that aren't so liable to rot. (9)

There are other varieties resistant to frost and yet again others that resist cutworms. Also, nutritional and storage qualities come in as important selection criteria. Correo briefly tried new potato varieties offered by agronomists coming to his village, but dropped them when cutworms started eating away at the harvest. On the other side of the globe, in Nepal, Bishnu Tapa and his wife tend to agree. They tried a modern potato variety and were quite impressed with its initial growth; but it did not last long. Potato blight devastated their enthusiasm for the high-yielding variety; the mosaic of varieties they had been using for a long time largely resisted the disease.'ΓΈ