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Sustainable Systems » Ecological Agriculture & Food Security

Title: Indigenous Crops to Solve Food Crises amid Climate Change
Publication date: September 06, 2010
Posting date: September 06, 2010


Dear friends and colleagues,
Re: Indigenous crops to solve food crises amid climate change
African scientists have cautioned that agriculture development in rural areas based on Western agricultural methods could lead to increased loss of the diversity that had once made indigenous plants a reliable and nutritious native food source (Item 1).
Horticultural scientist at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Mary Abukutsa-Onyango said of the approximately 200 indigenous species of plants that were used by Kenyans as vegetables in the past, either collected in the wild, semi-cultivated or cultivated, were either unknown or extinct now.
She advocates a return to indigenous crops to address the issues of nutrition security, poverty and health that are further compounded by climate change impacts. For example, with a soaring food crisis, and maize harvests predicted to fall due to changing Kenyan weather patterns, the only grains that could adequately replace maize would be indigenous millets and sorghum, which are more drought-tolerant.
An international seminar convened by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter also called for attention to be paid to the more effective agro-ecological methods which has had tremendous success in Africa (Item 2).
Experts said agro-ecological farming improved food production and farmers’ incomes while at the same time protecting the soil, water and climate, and could feed an estimated world population of nine billion people by 2050.
With best wishes,
Lim Li Ching
Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister
10400 Penang

Item 1
Kenyan professor promotes indigenous crops to solve Africa’s food crises
By Jeanne Roberts, Worldwatch Insittute
In Kenya, a devastating cycle of drought and flood reflects the worst that climate change has to offer. These and other more insiduous impacts of warming temperatures threaten the health and survival of the nation's poorest and most at-risk inhabitants, namely women and children.
The average yearly income in Kenya is less than US$1,000, 60 percent of the population is below poverty level, and one-fifth of children under the age of five are malnourished. Already, the nation has experienced at least 28 cycles of drought in the last century, as well as 15 floods of epidemic proportions, according to Mahboub Maalim, Executive Secretary of the Inter Governmental Authority on Development.
Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta is attempting to address the disparity between an expanding population and the nation's reduced ability to produce food by providing 32 billion Kenyan shillings ($40 million) for agricultural and rural development projects and 
51 billion shillings ($63 million) for environmental programs, including water and sanitation infrastructure upgrades.
But in fact, money - and even agricultural techniques based on Western agriculture - may not be the answer. As Allan Savory, founder of the Zimbabwe-based Africa Center for Holistic Management, points out, these approaches typically involve the use of synthetic fertilizers, stronger pesticides, and genetically modified seeds to increase yields-all tactics that view soil as a "problem" to be solved rather than as a resource that offers its own unique opportunities, and requires its own special treatment.
For Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticultural scientist, teacher, and researcher at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology, the real problem with using Western agricultural methods in Kenya is the loss of the superb diversity that once made indigenous plants a reliable and nutritious native food source. "Of the approximately 200 indigenous species of plants that were used by Kenyans as vegetables in the past, most were either collected in the wild, semi-cultivated, or cultivated. Now many are either unknown or extinct," Abukutsa-Onyango said.
What both Savory and Abukutsa-Onyango want is a long-term solution that uses the tools at hand, including the marginal, arid soil of Kenya's lowlands, to effect a lasting revolution in regional agriculture.
Savory calls this a "Brown Revolution," and Abukutsa-Onyango calls it an "indigenous food" revolution. Both are dedicated to seeing Kenyan agriculture survive, not as some protected but unmanageable offshoot of Western monocultural crop techniques, but as the sort of traditional approach to food production that operated before Europeans intervened.
To that end, Abukutsa-Onyango has reintroduced such varieties as African nightshade and vegetable amaranth to regional farmers, and set up a system to put them back into the marketplace.
"To date, we have about 100 contact farmers and/or farmer groups-77 in Western Kenya and 33 in Central Kenya-who are trained in all aspects of growing indigenous crops, from seed production to processing, using organic methods," she said. "The farmers that do well are also taught simple food preservation techniques like drying, which increase shelf-life but retain as much of the nutrients as possible, and are linked to supermarkets to sell their vegetables. Because of their extensive training, they are able to pass on their knowledge of indigenous food growing to others in their communities."
These native foods, after years of being spurned as suitable only in starvation times, and only for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, have spurred a cottage industry aimed at simultaneously reducing poverty and improving the diet of Kenya's approximately 6.5 million children.
But Abukutsa-Onyango is not one-sided in her arguments. While she foresees the hot, arid lowlands being used for indigenous crops such as bambara nuts, she is not averse to using the cool, damp highlands to grow cash crops. "For example, indigenous bambara nuts and pigeon pea yield relatively better in low fertility soils and with low rainfall, compared with beans," she notes. "And this allows a diversified, sustainable production model that insures nutritional security and prosperity."
About one thing, however, Abukutsa-Onyango is adamant: "I don't believe we can address the issues of nutrition security, poverty, and health in Kenya without relying on African indigenous crops. 
With a soaring food crisis, and maize harvests predicted to be 16 percent below former years as a result of changing Kenyan weather patterns, the only grains that could adequately replace maize in my opinion would be indigenous millets and sorghum, which are more drought tolerant."
Professor Mary's solution, which suggests harmony with nature rather than an attempt to control it, may be the only way forward in a warming world, not just for Africa but for the globe.

Item 2
Boost agroecological farming to feed world and save climate, UN expert says
22 June 2010 – Agroecological farming, which improves food production and farmers’ incomes while at the same time protecting the soil, water and climate, could feed an estimated world population of nine billion people by 2050 and go a long way to save the climate, if implemented now, experts at a United Nations seminar concluded today.
The two-day international meeting on agroecology, held in Brussels, was organized under the auspices of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, and featured many world experts on the subject.
Reporting on their findings, Mr. De Schutter said that today, most efforts to boost food production focus on large-scale investments in land and towards a “Green Revolution” model: improved seeds, chemical fertilisers and machines. But scant attention has been paid to the more effective agroecological methods, he said.
Agroecological farming approaches include agroforestry (planting trees and crops on the same parcel), biological control of pests and diseases through the use of natural predators, water harvesting methods, intercropping, green manure cover crops, mixed crops, livestock management, and a range of additional practices.
The widest study ever conducted on the subject found that agroecological approaches resulted in an average crop yield gain of 79 per cent. The study covered 286 projects in 57 developing countries, representing a total surface of 37 million hectares.
Such “agroecological success stories” abound in Africa. In Tanzania, where the western provinces of Shinyanga and Tabora were once known as the “Desert of Tanzania,” agroforestry techniques and participatory processes allowed some 350,000 hectares of land to be rehabilitated in two decades. Profits per household rose by up to $500 a year. Similar techniques are being used successfully in Malawi.
This is in contrast to the methods which have made modern agriculture a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions – accounting for 14 per cent of total annual emissions, with changes in land use, including deforestation for agricultural expansion, contributing another 19 per cent.
“With more than a billion hungry people on the planet, and the climate disruptions ahead of us, we must rapidly scale up these sustainable techniques,” Professor De Schutter said. “Even if it makes the task more complex, we have to find a way of addressing global hunger, climate change, and the depletion of natural resources, all at the same time. Anything short of this would be an exercise in futility.”
The experts in Brussels based their conclusions on the experiences of countries such as Cuba and Brazil, which have pro-agroecology policies, and on the successful experiences of such international research centres as the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi – as well as on the programmes of La Via Campesina, the transnational peasant movement, which runs agroecology training programmes.
“What is needed now is political will to move from successful pilot projects to nation-wide policies,” the Special Rapporteur said. To that end, would ask the Committee on World Food Security to work, during its October session, on the policy levers to scale up
“This is the best option we have today,” he added. “We can’t afford not to use it.”
Professor De Schutter was appointed the Special Rapporteur on the right to food in May 2008 by the UN Human Rights Council. In that capacity, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in an unpaid capacity.

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