Should the South follow a Western model of development?
At this university you can't afford to be totally hard or totally soft, because the focus is on problems instead of disciplines. What we need to do is to listen to each other and understand the different sciences. That means this is a wonderful initiative.
These were the words of Niels Roling, Professor of Agricultural Knowledge Systems and facilitator at the first Carrier Fair Discussion on hard and soft science perspectives. The subject under discussion was biotechnology, and the turnout was good: about forty people, mainly students from the Ecological Agriculture and Management of Agricultural Knowledge Systems programmes. The organisers were disappointed that there were not many biotechnologists
The inspiration behind the discussion series is to promote the exchange of ideas between departments. It is important that international students can return to their own countries not only with their degree, but also with a network of people from varied scientific backgrounds upon whom they can call when necessary. This is how Alejandra Moreyra introduced the evening
The discussion was preceded by two lectures. Dr Marcel Prins, doing postdoctoral work in virology, gave an account of his PhD research in biotechnology on plant resistance to viruses. Resistance to a tomato virus common in tropical and subtropical areas can be improved by introducing a gene from the virus into the plant's own genetic material. This is a bit like vaccinating a plant. It is not yet clear, however, whether consumers will accept genetically modified tomatoes. Prins noted though that consumer acceptance of modified soya was higher than he had expected
The other speaker, Katrin van 't Hooft, described her sociological research into the survival strategies adopted by farming families in Bolivia. These people spread risk by keeping a wide variety of different animals. Farmers who adopt more western ideas often start to specialise, and therefore keep less varieties, whereby the risks increase. Farmers prefer to have many cattle with low milk production than fewer cattle with higher production. Scientists should take this into account when offering solutions, rather than offering the standard western idea of acquiring cattle with higher milk production.
The discussion centred around the risks of biotechnology. Both the ecological risks - to what extent are we playing god? - and the societal aspects, such as the fact that it is only the richer farmers who have access to transgenetic varieties, were subject to lively debate. One of the comments from the floor was that there is too little discussion in developing countries about whether or not Western models should be followed. As such this deened evening is a success. Prins's reply echoed her thoughts: Technology can only solve local problems. The technology we have developed is what we now need in the West, where large-scale agriculture is faced with problems of disease. The problems we face here may become problems elsewhere in the future, and then the fact that the technology to solve these exists will be an advantage.
More grants for WAU
Starting next year the WAU will be able to tap another source of grants: the Nuffic university grants programme (UFP). Under this programme Nuffic distributes 150 grants from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the past WAU has received 20 grants each year from the BIO-programme, which it can then hand out itself. The university was not eligible for the UFP grants because it already received the BIO grants. It has taken a lot of lobbying to get in on the UFP grants. According to Dean Jeanine Hermans this is due to the efforts of WAU Rector Professor Cees Karssen. He has put a lot of time and effort into lobbying in the last three years
Beer Schroder of Nuffic is unable to say how many of the UFP grants will actually go to WAU. That depends on who applies for the grants, as candidates indicate themselves where they want to study. UFP grants are intended for young graduates: students under thirty who have recently received a bachelor's degree. The BIO-programme gives money to older students who already have some work experience
Nuffic is not only the channel for grants from the Dutch Government, but also for scholarships from a number of international organisations including FAO and the World Bank. Schroder does not think that the proposed tuition fee rise for Wageningen courses will have much effect on the number of grants which go to the WAU. Two weeks ago it was decided to raise the fees for the international MSc programmes by 2,000 guilders. This will make the highest fee 19,000 guilders. Schroder: That's a lot of money of course, but university MBA courses often cost twice as much. He does not foresee that the large international donors such as FAO and the EU will reduce the number of grants available as a result of the fee rise
According to Bert Speelman, director of education here, WAU is cheap in comparison with its English and American counterparts. Master's courses in those countries often cost more than 20,000 guilders per year. The WAU maximum of 19,000 guilders for a seventeen months is a bargain
Forest reserves and interest groups
Local farmers, conservationists and tea plantation owners should get together to discuss management of the East Usumbara forest reserves in Tanzania. It is in the interest of all three groups that the forests are preserved, but the reasons behind the interest vary. This forms the basis for John Kessy's PhD thesis which he will defend on February 23rd in the WAU Aula
Forests provide subsistence means for the local population. Materials from the forest are used not only for fuel, construction and food, but also for making medicines and domestic implements. Despite the strict conservation regulations the local population still obtains most of these plants from the forest reserves. The forest also has ritual significance, and local farmers recognise the importance of the forest in ensuring sufficient rainfall
Illegal collection of materials from the forest reserve has led to a deterioration in the quality and structure of the forest, according to Kessy. Harvesting forest products has led to a decrease in tree density from an average of 650 trees per hectare to approximately 500 per hectare. Despite this, local farmers have taken conservation measures including planting trees
Farmers recognize the importance of conserving the forest, in particular for their own children. Conservationists, in contrast, are more interested in maintaining biodiversity at ecosystem, species and genetic levels. Professional managers are above all concerned about the potential of the forest as a source of raw materials for new medicines and genetic material, rather than the products it provides to the local population. Kessy illustrates this difference with the example that the conservationists are more interested in the fact that there are 710 plant varieties and 48 tree species which are endemic, rather than the fact that the local population uses a total of 350 different tree species found there
Owners of the local tea plantations also have an interest in the preservation of the forest reserves. They not only offer a source of fuel for drying tea leaves, but also have a beneficial effect on rainfall. Kessy believes that the reserves can only be preserved if the three interest groups work together. He strongly supports the idea of the formation of a forum where the different interests can be discussed