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Sorghum and millets on the rise December 10th, 2017 by

For decades, various international aid agencies have pushed Africa towards adopting maize as the hunger-saving technical solution, with traditional crops such as sorghum and pearl millet only receiving a fraction of the support. But climate change is forcing donors and governments to re-think their food security strategies. Recent research in Mali highlights the importance of research and communication to help improve traditional crops and to support farmers as they cope with climate change.

While maize was first domesticated some 7,000 years ago in Mexico, sorghum and pearl millet have their origin in Africa. Sorghum domestication started in Ethiopia and sub-saharan Africa some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. Through farmer selection numerous improved sorghum types were developed, which then spread via trade routes into other regions of Africa and India. Domestication of pearl millet started only around 2500 BC, in eastern Mali, and spread rapidly to other countries through pastoralists, spurred by the increasing desiccation of the Sahara desert at the time.

The rich genetic diversity of these traditional African crops and the wealth of farmers’ knowledge have formed the basis of recent crop improvement programmes. In West Africa, a handful of devoted sorghum and millet breeders, Drs Eva and Fred Weltzien-Rattunde, Bettina Haussmann and Kirsten vom Brocke, in close collaboration with partners, were able to develop improved sorghum and millet varieties by improving local germplasm. The new varieties cope better with pests and diseases, as well as with rainy seasons that are becoming shorter and more unpredictable.

But these breeders, then working for ICRISAT, did not limit their efforts to participatory plant breeding alone: they also invested heavily in supporting farmer cooperatives to become seed producers and sellers. Some of these examples were captured in a chapter written by Daniel Dalohoun as part of the book African Seed Enterprises that Jeff and I edited with Robert Guei from FAO.

Farmers across Africa are keen to learn how to better conserve, produce and market seed of their traditional crops. While making a video on Farmers’ rights to seed a few months ago at a seed fair in Malawi, farmers eagerly exchanged traditional sorghum and millet varieties with each other. As the government had so far focused on maize only as a food security crop, some communities lost certain traditional sorghum and millet varieties , but seed fairs and community seed banks helped them to again access these varieties. In addition to seed, farmers also want new knowledge about farming practices. Mr. Lovemore Tachokera, a farmer from the south who attended a seed fair in the north, told me: “The one thing I will make sure to tell my fellow farmers back home regarding conservation of indigenous crops is that we should also practice new farming technologies even on the indigenous crops.”

And right he was. Treasuring and improving traditional crops is important, but alone is insufficient to cope with climate change; good agricultural adaptation strategies also matter. GĂ©rard Zoundji, a Beninese PhD student, investigated how a series of farmer training videos on weed and soil management helped farmers in Mali to use climate-smart technologies.

The differences he found between video-villages (where farmers had watched the videos) versus non-video-villages were very significant:

  • crop rotation combined with  intercropping (99% in video villages vs 57% in other villages)
  • compost or microdosing fertiliser application (99% in video villages vs 0%)
  • crop diversification (94% vs 52%)
  • use of improved short-cycle seed varieties (78% vs 17%)
  • use of zaĂŻ pits (51% vs 0%)

Zoundji also found that after watching the videos on Fighting striga and improving soil fertility (see the related blog: Killing the vampire flower), farmers started demanding improved cereal seed. And as a result some women’s groups in the villages of Daga and Sirakélé became seed dealers in their village. Sorghum, millet and maize yields in the video-villages increased by 14%, 30% and 15% respectively when compared to non-video villages.

While maize crops are increasingly failing in parts of Africa due to climate change, the robustness of traditional African cereal crops contributes to to their renewed appeal to African farmers. The improved cultivation of traditional, drought-resistant crops, benefiting from research and training on improved cropping practices, will enable farmers to adapt to a harsher and more variable climate.

Watch the videos

Farmers’ rights to seed

Succeed with seeds

Various farmer training videos on Sorghum & Millets

Further reading

Dalohoun, Daniel, Van Mele, P., Weltzien, E., Diallo, D., Guindo, H. and vom Brocke, K. (2010) Mali: When governments give entrepreneurs room to grow. In P. Van Mele, J. Bentley and R. Guei (eds.) African Seed Enterprises (pp. 65-88). Wallingfrod: CABI. Download chapter from: http://agroinsight.com/books.php

Dillon, Sally L.. Frances M. Shapter, Robert J. Henry, Giovanni Cordeiro, Liz Izquierdo, and L. Slade Lee 2007. Domestication to Crop Improvement: Genetic Resources for Sorghum and Saccharum (Andropogoneae). Annals of Botany, 100(5): 975–989. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2759214/

Hirst, K. Kris 2017. Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) – Domestication and History. https://www.thoughtco.com/pearl-millet-domestication-170647

Zoundji, Gérard, Okry, F., Vodouhê, S.D., Bentley, J.W. and Tossou, R.C. 2018. Beyond Striga management: Learning videos enhanced farmers’ knowledge on climate-smart agriculture beyond Striga management. Sustainable Agriculture Research 7(1), 80-91. Download article from: https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

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Richness in diversity December 3rd, 2017 by

For decades, new crop varieties have been bred by relying heavily on farmers’ knowledge and the local landraces they grow. Landraces have provided a major gene pool readily used by breeders to make crops better adapted to drought, floods, pests and diseases. But with increased pressure from the private sector and insufficient support from the public sector, many rural communities struggle to maintain their diversity of crops and food, as I recently learned in Malawi.

When Marcella and I were asked by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR) to make a video on Farmers’ Rights to seed, we only had a faint idea of how strong the debate raged among development organisations, policy-makers and farmers. We were surprised to learn that in Malawi, a draft seed policy had been written that would force farmers to buy commercial seed only.

Driving from Lilongwe to the northern town of Rumphi we passed many fields with dried stubble, where maize and tobacco had been recently harvested. Beyond these bleak fields lie rolling, dusty hills, but decorated during the dry season by trees flowering in white, orange, purple and other colours. But the beauty of the landscape doesn’t stop one from seeing the dire poverty in which the people live.

Maize is the staple food and many farmers grow it as a cash crop, encouraged by government fertilizer subsidies. Farmers who accept the subsidy are obliged to plant only hybrid maize seed.

Families growing tobacco for multinational companies have basically sacrificed their lives to the crop, but unlike the fluctuating world market price for tobacco over the years, their living conditions have remained stubbornly low at all times.

The reliance on these two key crops is beginning to change. Recent development efforts have started to take crop and food diversification seriously. As I talked to farmers over the next few days, it dawned on me how much effort is required for farmers to preserve local crop varieties that have been nurtured over many years. Many families have abandoned their traditional crops and dishes and the current generation of farmers has little idea of how to grow anything else apart from maize and tobacco.

On our first day of filming we visited the community seed bank in Mkombezi. As member farmers arrived in small groups, we filmed the shelves lined with glass jars full of seeds of local varieties of sorghum, millet, maize, beans, groundnuts and Bambara groundnuts.

“We keep seed of our local varieties and multiply them to share with our members, and also to supply non-members. At this moment we have 14 tons of seed in our store room,” proudly explains Shadreck Kapira, secretary of the seed bank.

Outside the seed bank more farmers have gathered. With the support of a local NGO, some eight farmers from southern Malawi have travelled over 600 kilometres to meet fellow farmers in the north. The next day, they will all attend a seed fair to exchange and sell seed of their food crops. The visiting farmers proudly display small plastic bags, each containing precious seeds. Each lot is poured onto a red, blue or green plastic plate and a label attached with the name of the farmer and seed variety.

During the group discussion the farmers from the north show great interest in the sorghum varieties on offer by their colleagues from the south. With the changing climate the hybrid maize varieties do not perform as well as they used to. If rains are not good, a farmer risks losing her entire crop. Some of the local sorghum varieties mature in just 2 months, a month earlier than the hybrid maize, and they can better withstand drought.

Farmers also talk about how they use different crops to prepare food and drinks for special events, such as weddings or the nomination of village chiefs. Millet is one of their favourite crops. It produces a porridge which is not only more nutritious than that made from maize, but can be prepared with less water and without cooking, so there is no need for fuel wood. Millet is also an essential ingredient of traditional sweet and sour beers.

The next morning we leave early, just before dawn at 5 o’clock, to reach Mpherembe on time for a seed and food fair. The local community has fenced off an area near the water well and tied bundles of local grasses to sturdy poles to keep out the dust-laden wind. Local NGO staff register each farmer, the type and amount of seed they bring to the fair. Women have also prepared a diverse range of foods and when I peek under the lid of the occasional plastic bucket I find millet beer, an important part of a fair.

According to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, signed by over 140 governments across the world, every farmer has the right to exchange and sell their local seed. When we interview Bena Phiri, she is very explicit: “My rights, I can say that my local crops that I grow are mine and no one can have control over my seed. I have the right to sell them at my own will and no one can say anything because they are mine.”

However, a draft seed policy wants to force farmers to buy all their seed at agro dealer shops. If approved, it would spell disaster for local crop varieties. Most agro dealers have few varieties for sale, and hardly any are local. The stores mainly sell hybrid maize from Monsanto, Syngenta and perhaps one or two other multi-national companies. Fortunately, pressure from development agencies and farmer organisations has delayed the new regulation and the draft seed policy has not yet passed Cabinet.

We hope that our video on Farmers’ right to seed, available in English and two Malawian languages (Chichewa and Tumbuka) will help to raise farmers’ awareness across the country. Distributed by Access Agriculture and its diverse partners in Malawi with the support of GFAR, the videos will soon be shown in farm clubs, on local TV, and aired on the radio. We also expect many farmers will view the video directly on their inexpensive mobile phones.

It is ironic that wealthy people are now able to access more food diversity than ever, at a time when the poor could have many of their local crop varieties wiped out by misguided laws. The media has a role to play in raising awareness among farmers, legislators and consumers and to ensure that local cultures based on a rich diversity of crops and foods is maintained.

Further viewing

Watch the training video Farmers’ rights to seed

Related blogs

Bolivian peanuts

Forgotten vegetables

Forty farmer innovations

Homegrown seed can be good

Meeting the need for groundnut seed

Onions from Agadez

The sunflower: from Russia with love, and oil

We share

Quinoa, lost and found

Further reading

Van Mele, P., Bentley, J.W and Guéi, R.G. (eds.) 2011. African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. CABI Publishing, UK, 256 pp. Download chapters here.

Timothy A. Wise. 2017. Did Monsanto Write Malawi’s Seed Policy? https://foodtank.com/news/2017/08/monsanto-malawis-seed-policy/

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR). Support in Malawi was kindly provided by the Development Fund of Norway, Biodiversity Conservation Initiative and the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy.

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Wilson Popenoe: plant explorer and educator June 4th, 2017 by

Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) is the only agricultural scientist to ever win a Nobel Prize (for peace, in 1970). Borlaug developed short-stem (dwarf) wheat varieties that were high yielding and disease resistant, a hugely significant scientific advance for the world’s leading staple crop. But the award was as much for his dogged efforts to distribute improved wheat seeds to India and Pakistan at a time when millions were at risk from famine, and both countries were at war.

Popenoe 2Borlaug’s Noble Prize ensured global recognition of his achievements and continues to be a role model for many researchers. However, there have been many others in agriculture who have inspired students and made important scientific advances and who should be better known. One such example is the American plant explorer and educator Wilson Popenoe (1892-1975).

I first came across Wilson Popenoe’s name during a visit to the Pan-American School of Agriculture in Zamorano, Honduras, in the early 1990s. An impressive campus and bustling student population exuded a real sense of zeal for agriculture. Here was a thriving centre for producing graduates who would return to their homes from Mexico to Peru and beyond, where they would start their own agricultural enterprises or strengthen existing ones with new ideas.

“El Zamorano”, as the school is commonly known, was the creation of Popenoe in many ways, although it was first proposed by Samuel Zemurray, the president of the United Fruit Company, who wanted to give something back to the countries of Central America, whose soils and climate were the foundation for the company’s wealth. El Zamorano was established in the central highlands of Honduras, far away from the profitable banana plantations on the north coast. The idea was that the school could work on other important crops such as maize and coffee and avoid becoming a place to train banana agronomists.

Popenoe 7When Popenoe became the first director of El Zamorano in 1941 (the school did not officially open until 1943), he had already worked for the United Fruit Company for many years. He retired in 1957, having made a lasting contribution to the training of thousands of students and establishing a first class educational facility that was much admired throughout Central and South America. Popenoe’s early career, before he joined the United Fruit Company in 1925, is less well known, though arguably led to equally important achievements.

His first job was as a plant explorer for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Popenoe was a protégé of David Fairchild, the first director of the Office of Seed and Plant Introductions, and himself a seasoned plant explorer. Popenoe left the USDA in 1925, having become fed up with the bureaucracy that kept him from the field work he loved. He relished hunting down new crop varieties and spent months carefully documenting the botanical and food characteristics of specimens on lengthy travels, often on horseback.

Popenoe worked sympathetically with local farmers to learn what they knew about different crops. An intriguing quote in Frederic Rosengarten’s biography of Popenoe reveals a keen awareness of farmers’ ingenuity: “Important food crops will be found as a rule,” said Popenoe, “from a region where their value (has already been) realized.” Popenoe recognized that farmers experimented, testing, selecting and propagating the best varieties.

Popenoe2Popenoe is best known for his work on avocados, meticulously recording new varieties in Central America. He also prospected for cinchona (the tree that produces quinine), citrus and many other tropical fruits during his extensive career. The most impressive thing about Popenoe was his dedication and persistence, coupled with a restless curiosity. He was largely self-taught, having rejected a scholarship to Cornell in favour of becoming a plant explorer.

There have been many plant explorers over the years, but relatively few who have focused on plants of economic importance and dedicated their whole life to them. Before he became a USDA plant explorer Popenoe had already been to Iraq and North Africa, aged 20, to collect date palms, dodging bullets as warring tribes fought over land and overcoming the loss of plants that perished before they could be shipped to the US. He suffered from malaria and dysentery many times yet still he persisted in his hunt for new crop varieties. He spoke five languages fluently and worked hard all his life for a better agriculture, through science and education.

Popenoe was hugely influenced in his early years by the endeavours of plant explorers such as Spruce and thrilled “at the tale of Lieutenant Bligh and his voyage in the Bounty, to bring the breadfruit tree from Tahiti to the West Indies.” Popenoe would doubtless be pleased to learn that his own remarkable endeavours were an inspiration for future agricultural scientists.

Reference

Rosengarten F (1991). Wilson Popenoe: agricultural explorer, educator, and friend of Latin America. National Tropical Botanic Garden, Hawaii. (photos that appear above have been scanned from this book)

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Good-bye bison January 10th, 2016 by

The story of the American bison (the “buffalo” as it is called in the USA) has been rehearsed many times, how the settlers shot them for their hides, or sometimes for their tongues. They shot them just for fun from the platforms of trains, and killed them for malice to starve the Native Americans. It gets worse. The last man to seal the bison’s coffin was a researcher from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.

bison up closeThere were once 30 million bison in North America, in two great “herds”, a northern one ranging into Canada and a southern one that wintered in Texas. They ranged from Utah to Pennsylvania. By 1886 bison had almost disappeared, so the Smithsonian Institution sent William Temple Hornaday out west to investigate.

The resourceful Hornaday gathered a team of hunters and guides, provisioned himself with wagons of food and ammunition and set off for the wilds of Montana, where a remnant herd of about 35 bison still ran wild. Hornaday already knew that there were only about 400 bison left alive, 200 in the newly created Yellowstone National Park, and 200 scattered around on private ranches.

Bison had once been naĂŻve and easy to shoot. Sometimes the beasts simply stood still while the hunters shot them down. At other times when the bullets started to fly, the terrified animals bolted off in a wild dash into the wind (where they could smell their way). In his book, The Extermination of the American Bison, Hornaday describes in loving detail how this last wild herd in Montana was now more cautious of people.

Hornaday simply assumed that nothing could be done for the bison, that they were doomed to extinction. He (and his backers) imagined that when all the bison were gone, it would be nice to have a few stuffed bison in naturalistic poses, inside a glass case for the museum-going public to see.

By 1886, the remaining, wiser bison had finally learned to run in different directions at the first shot, and to hide in the ravines. And bison run pretty darned fast. Even so, Hornaby and his crew managed to kill 20 of the creatures, and crate their hides and bones back to Washington, where the remarkable Hornaday, who was an expert taxidermist, preserved six dead bison, from calves to old cows and bulls, for a diorama of the Great Plains. Wildlife conservation has come a long way since then.

As a species though, the bison got lucky. As an afterthought, Hornaday brought back two calves. It was the least he could do, since he had killed their mothers and they had wandered into his camp and taken to following the men around. These calves became the nucleus of the bison herd in the National Zoo, in Washington.

S.L. Bedson, of Stony Mountain, Manitoba and C.J. Jones of Garden City, Kansas and other ranchers managed to buy up scattered bison from other cowmen who had only one or two animals, until they gathered small, reproducing herds.

In 1986 the management of Yellowstone National Park passed from the Interior Department to the U.S. Army. Hunters slipped into the park to slaughter the last remaining wild bison (to sell their hides). The poachers were heavily armed and light on scruples, but Captain Moses Harris and his men chased them out of the park.. Thanks to the efforts of a few ranchers and soldiers the bison survivedin parks, ranches and zoos. Yet their ecosystem is gone: the wild grasslands have been plowed up, and replaced with maize, soybeans, and pick-up trucks. The bison or buffalo no longer thunder their way north and south in great, reddish brown rivers in search of fresh pasture.

Some people are even raising bison commercially, and its lean, tasty meat is back on the menu. In Washington DC, you can have a bison burger at the restaurant in the Museum of the American Indian, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, the same outfit which once backed Hornaday’s taxidermy expedition. Hornaday might be pleasantly surprised to see that the bison was not exterminated after all.

Further reading

Hornaday, William Temple 2002 (1889) The Extermination of the American Bison. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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Forty farmer innovations December 13th, 2015 by

Last week I was invited to the first national meeting of farmer innovators in Bolivia. It included a fair and it was organized by Prolinnova and by World Neighbors.

I was used to finding farmer innovations the hard way, one at a time, in the field, but here they were forty of them assembled under tents erected on a volleyball court in Cochabamba.

Some of the farmers had worked with NGOs. A German NGO had coached a group of Guaraní women from the warm lowlands, the Chaco, to care for local maize varieties. Doña Lucía and the other women showed how they had learned to separate each native variety, to keep the fields separate so the pollen wouldn’t mix, to select ears for seed of pure red or striped gold, or pearly white or blue-and-yellow. The Guaraní wanted to preserve each variety because each one went with a different recipe of traditional food. The NGO taught them to dig into the soil to measure the moisture before planting. The women were still pleasantly surprised with this simple technique. It was helping them determine when the soil held enough water to bear a crop.

The Swiss NGO Helvetas had helped a group of Aymara farmers from the High Plains to chart their weather for the year, meticulously recording the intensity of the sun, rain or hail. They called it a “Pachagrama” (an earth graph). The Aymara wise men, the yapuchiris, had gathered the eggs of wild birds (as they have done for many years) to predict the weather by the spots on the egg shells. Now, the yapuchiris compared the eggs with the pachagrama. After predicting the year’s weather, and then graphing it out, the yapuchiris were convinced that their predictions were accurate. Now there is a topic I wish I could study in detail.

Maybe two cultures think better than one, but even the farmers with less NGO support were also creative, if less complicated. One farmer, Julián Prado, had carved two miniature mill stones from sandstone, perfect replicas of the old water-driven mill stones, but only about 40 cm in diameter. Instead of being driven by water and a turbine, don Julián could rotate the wooden shaft with his foot, and a system of gears and wheels turned the top stone. The wheat dropped into a hole in the middle of the upper stone, which whirled around grinding the grain to flour.

Elena Céspedes had raised a dog as a puppy with her flock goats, even suckling on their milk. Now the dog would take the goats out alone into the sandstone hills to find rough pasture, freeing up doña Elena to do other things.

Raquel AlanesNot all of the innovators were farmers. Raquel Alanes grew up in a small town, Salinas de Garci Mendoza, surrounded by quinoa fields. She had always liked to cook, and when she was a school girl she baked quinoa cookies and sold them at the local fairs. After high school she studied food manufacturing at university and improved her recipes. Bolivians have grown cacao and made chocolate for centuries, and Raquel had some chocolate quinoa Christmas cake (delicious) and quinoa chocolate-chip cookies and chocolate covered cookies made from the flour of chuño (Andean freeze-dried potatoes).

My favorites were Marina Mamani and Silvano Morales, an Aymara couple from the High Plains of the Andes. They had noticed that the price of native potatoes was rising, and was almost double that of commercial varieties. Some of the native varieties had nearly gone extinct. Doña Marina recalls one variety that she salvaged. It is bright yellow when cooked. Marina found just five of these potatoes left, in a basket at the home of her 90-year old mother-in-law. Marina planted them and got half an arroba (around 6 kg), which she planted again the next year, until she had enough to grow a field. That variety may well have gone extinct if Marina hadn’t found it in the basket.

Marina Mamani and Silvano MoralesThe couple has been growing heirloom potatoes for five years now, and they have enough of the red, purple, yellow and white potatoes to take to local fairs. Once in a while they go to the market on the wealthy, south side of La Paz, where the well-heeled are starting to appreciate these gorgeous varieties.

“Next year we want to sell in the five-star hotels,” don Silvano says. The couple has a vision of the future.

“What we really want is technical assistance,” Silvano added coyly.

I fell for it, and gave him the name of an organization that worked in their area.

Don Silvano grew impatient with me. He wasn’t really after free advice “I mean, we want support. We want a truck. Then we could gather potatoes in the area and deliver them in the city.”

Fresh ideas are nice, but sometimes a truck is even nicer.

As I left, Silvano and Marina gave me some of their wonderful, rare potatoes. They were sprouting, and I could plant them in my garden. I’ll never be able to get these people a truck, but I can try and stay in touch with them, and see what happens next. “We should have a meeting of farmer innovators every year,” Silvano said.

And that is a smashing idea. Creativity needs the warmth of other inventive people and the broader society to support those who put creative ideas into action.

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