s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 31 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 31   (Spring 2003)


Another Agriculture Is Possible

by Lim Li Ching,
Institute of Science in Society

Not far from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, the farming community of Ejere has participated in a project with the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation and Research (IBCR), to reclaim their own varieties of local wheat, teff (an Ethiopian staple cereal) and barley. This project is particularly significant, given that in the 1970s local varieties were increasingly displaced by so-called modern high-yielding varieties (HYVs), including bread wheat, which farmers did not normally grow. The “high-yielding” varieties, however, actually resulted in lower yields and other problems.

Fortunately, before the HYVs totally replaced farmers’ varieties, the IBCR (then called the Plant Genetic Resources Centre of Ethiopia, or “PGRC/E”) had made collections of the farmers’ varieties from the area. In the 1980s, a senior durum wheat plant breeder found out about the farmers’ problems with the HYVs and decided with Dr. Melaku Worede, Ethiopian conservationist and plant geneticist, to help the farmers reclaim their own varieties from the PGRC/E.

Samples were obtained of all the local durum wheat and teff varieties, and an area to grow them with the farmers was negotiated with the local school. This helped to multiply the seed, and also involved the farmers in selecting the varieties they wanted to bring back to their fields. The farmers also developed their own farmers’ elite varieties.

The over-reliance on pesticides ... has only increased the risks of crop disease and harm to human health.

As IBCR staff Tekalgne Abebe explained, the objective of this in-situ crop conservation project is to ensure a sustainable supply of seed and to minimize the dependency of farmers on high cost inputs like fertilizers and “improved” varieties. The Ejere project is also linked to other in-situ conservation sites nationally and complimented by ex-situ conservation of crop seed samples kept in cold storage.

It has been such a success that most of the farmers of the area are growing their own varieties with little fertilizer. For example, the farmers have selected and developed 26 varieties of durum wheat, which is indigenous to Ethiopia. These varieties have been selected based on farmers’ knowledge and innovation, and based on criteria they consider important, such as color, yield and resistance.

It is evident from the kaleidoscope of colors in the area that the conservation and use of farmers’ varieties has had a positive impact. More pulses are grown, their dark green patches interspersed among the golden ones of teff and wheat. The reason why the community can afford to grow more pulses is because the farmers’ varieties of cereals are higher yielding, allowing the farmers to devote extra time and space to growing pulses. Consequently, they also have a more balanced diet, and the pulses help improve soil structure and fix nitrogen. In contrast, other communities who rely on modern varieties face poorer yields, forcing them to concentrate on planting only cereals to make up for the yield deficits, leaving little resources for other important crops such as pulses.

I was in Ethiopia for an African Biodiversity Network workshop on “Globalization and Biodiversity.” The stimulating sessions, the chance to meet people from different parts of Africa, and the field visits, such as the trip to Ejere, all served to bring home an important message for me: most debates on agriculture are devoid of context, as they leave out the people. Sustainable agriculture is inextricably linked to the knowledge, lives and practices of women and men living in their communities.

This truism is in striking contrast to the industrial monoculture model that’s still being promoted by large agribusiness and some governments. This model is based on mechanization and high chemical inputs. The result is the sacrifice of long-term ecological health (particularly biodiversity, soil and water quality) for short-term productivity gains. The over-reliance on pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers has only increased the risks of crop disease and harm to human health. Genetically engineered crops, now thrown into the package, are threatening further health and environmental hazards.

The farmers were in no doubt ... “We say no to genetically modified foods!”

Agriculture that depends on high-input in agro-chemicals and in patented, genetic-engineered, traits wrests control over food production and food security out of the hands of farming communities, and places it into the hands of corporations. This model must be rejected.

Small farmers are the majority of farmers in the world, constituting 70% of the world’s population. The Small Farmer Convergence at the World Summit on Sustainable Development gave voice to small-scale farmers from Africa, Latin America, Asia, Canada and Europe. The Convergence stressed that small farmers have evolved effective systems of crop development, seed exchange and multiplication, which is key to food sovereignty. Small farmers continue to oppose the patenting of seeds, as it is a direct threat to, and violation of, the rights of farmers to preserve, use and exchange their own agricultural resources.

The farmers were in no doubt concerning GMOs: “We say NO to genetically modified foods! We do not need genetically modified seeds.” These farmers asserted the superiority of their indigenous seeds and noted that GMOs have not been independently proven safe for humans and the environment. They also called on governments to ban or place a moratorium on GM seeds.

The small farmers also criticized the large transnational corporations for claiming that GM seeds will bring food security. “We small scale farmers farm for people and not for industry!” they said.

Indeed, in the Butajira area of Ethiopia, the focus of our next field visit, farmers are demonstrating that it is possible to farm intensively and sustainably to provide enough food to meet high population needs. How do they do this? By using indigenous crops selected for resistance to diseases, drought tolerance and many other desirable features, by intercropping and by integrating livestock management.

The basic food of the area is enset, or false banana. This is intercropped with sorghum, selected in this area for its drought-resistance, insect-resistance and height. The tall sorghum plants provide stems that are routinely used for construction and fuel, and also as animal feed.

In the small piece of land farmed by a very hospitable farmer Aman Ibrahim and his family, we saw not only teff, enset and sorghum, but also arabica coffee, medicinal plants, papaya, vegetables and spices, grown on every available space. The goats, sheep and cattle provide manure, milk and milk products and traction for ploughing. The animals may also be sold to provide cash in times of need.

On to Worabe

Our next stop was Worabe, a largely enset producing area nestled in the highlands, where the terrain was spectacular. From where we stood we could see the escarpment of the African Rift Valley. It seems fitting that so magnificent a landscape should be complemented by a complex, sustainable and indigenous agricultural system that ensures food security. Enset is a very drought resistant crop that has multiple uses. Farmers say, “Enset is our food, our clothes, our beds, our houses, our cattle-feed, our plates”.

In the droughts of the 1980s, farmers suffered because they had been persuaded to focus on growing cereals.

Bedru Sefa, one of the farmers in the area, showed us the different steps in the enset agricultural system. First, he demonstrated how enset is propagated. He dug out the underground stem, the corm, a bundle of leaf sheaths. The farmer would cut out the centre or meristem, the active growing part of the plant. Because of the dominance of the main meristem, lateral buds do not usually develop.

Once this is removed, and covered with soil, the lateral buds will grow and form suckers around the periphery of the mother corm. Up to 400 suckers can be produced in this way from just one mother plant. The suckers are left to grow in a cluster in a small space, to be transplanted after a year to wider spaces. In so doing, farmers ensure that what space available is maximally used, and only when necessary.

Enset can be harvested at any time between 2 and 15 years. At what age it is harvested depends on what the household needs are and to what use it is put. The flexibility in harvesting age means that farmers can stagger the timing, so as to ensure that there is enset harvested every season, making food available all the time.

We were also shown how enset is processed. Women carry out most of the enset processing, and it is very labour-intensive work. A woman “decorticates” the leaf sheaths by holding them against an inclined wooden plank, sometimes with her leg, while using a bamboo scraper to remove the fleshy pulp of the sheath. What remains are very strong fibres, which are used to make rope, and are woven for different purposes.

The women also grate the corm itself and mix this with the leaf sheath pulp. This can be boiled immediately to produce amicho, a delicious food that can be mixed with spices and other flavourings. The mixture is also fermented in pits lined with enset leaves, breaking down the fibres to make cooking and eating easier.

The fermented material is known as kocho, and is baked to form a type of flat bread before being eaten. Fermented kocho is usually stored in the pits for a minimum of a month, but may be stored for longer, up to several years. Such mature kocho is likened to good wine! Because kocho can be stored for long periods, there is always food available.

While there remains the daunting challenge of ensuring food security and food availability for all in Ethiopia, these farmers are showing that there are alternatives that work. In the droughts of the 1980s, farmers suffered because they had been persuaded to focus on growing cereals. In doing so, they neglected enset. Fortunately, farmers are now going back to this system of ensuring their food security, by having the flexibility to choose what and how they grow their crops, and reviving the enset agricultural system.

At a global level, despite adequate food production, many still go hungry because increased food supply does not automatically mean increased food security for all. What’s important is who produces the food, who has access to technology and knowledge to produce it, and who has purchasing power to acquire it. Sustainable agriculture must thus allow farmers to improve local food production with low-cost, with readily available technologies and inputs, without causing environmental damage.

Ethiopian farmers are showing the way by conserving and using farmers’ varieties, using their innovation and knowledge, and really putting sustainable agriculture into practice.

Many thanks to Sue Edwards from the Institute for Sustainable Development, Ethiopia, for her helpful comments.

This article can be found on the I-SIS website at http://www.i-sis.org.uk/susageth.php

The Institute of Science in Society, PO Box 32097, London NW1 OXR telephone: [44 20 8731 7714] [44 20 7383 3376] [44 20 7272 5636] General Enquiries email sam@i-sis.org.uk

[18 apr 03]

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | s/r 31 Contents