Wetenschap - 7 mei 1998

International Page

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International Page

International Page
Plant breeding from the perspective of rural Ethiopianhouseholds
Multidisciplinary research is finally being done on enset, a crop vital for the food security of 11 million Ethiopians. Plant scientist Almaz Negash is planning on carrying out a survey of the indigeous varieties of the crop and establishing protocols to preserve and propagate a number of them. Her research represents collaboration between the WAU Department of Household Studies and the plant breeding research institute CPRO-DLO
Until recently enset was only consumed in rural areas in the south of Ethiopia. However, the crop which is related to banana, is now gaining in popularity throughout the country. Urban dwellers are even starting to eat kocho, flat bread made from ensete flour, which is also found increasingly on the menu of innovative restaurants in the capital
First and foremost, enset is a staple food for 11 million Ethiopians, especially in the southwest of the country. A diet without enset would be as unthinkable for them as removing bread from the daily diet of the Dutch. It is not the fruit that is consumed but the processed pseudostem and the underground corm
Enset is not only a food crop: it also provides fibres and animal feed and is also a raw material for traditional medicines. The latter is important in a country where 80% of the population is dependent on traditional medicine, declares Ethiopian Almaz Negash, who has started her PhD research on ensete at CPRO-DLO and the WAU. Her research is being financed by the Global Environment Facility of the United Nations Development Programme
Negash's PhD research is particularly interesting for two reasons: little scientific research has been done on the crop, and the project is interdisciplinary, jointly supervised by Professor Anke Niehof from the department of Household Studies and Dr Bert Visser, director of the Centre for Genetic Resources of CPRO
Negash intends to develop an in vitro back-up of the various clones of ensete. Like the banana, enset is propagated vegetatively. Estimates indicate that farmers are familiar with about fifty different clones. The extent of genetic variation among the clones is not known. Nor has any work ever been done on the best techniques for preserving and propagating enset in vitro
Clones
Negash wants to compile a back-up system to prevent the disappearance of clones with useful genetic characteristics. The propagation and conservation techniques will also allow easy access to germ plasm by farmers and researchers for crop improvement. Rapidly increasing population growth in Ethiopia means that the demand for land in the south of Ethiopia is also rising. Enset is having to compete with crops which can be harvested more quickly. In addition, some clones are susceptible to disease. Negash: Enset is a food security crop and is very important for the livelihood of the people. However, when farmers are faced with disease they select resistant clones. This means that the genetic diversity of the rest will be lost. Negash regularly heard complaints from farmers that they were no longer able to obtain certain enset clones
Building up and managing an in vitro collection is expensive and labour intensive. For these reasons the clones have to be selected carefully. In order to ensure that the right criteria are used Nigash will interview farmers in southern Ethiopia. She wants to determine which varieties of enset are used by households and for what reason and purpose. Gender plays an important role here. Planting of enset is mainly done by men, but hoeing, harvesting and processing are all carried out by women
Selecting clones on the basis of farmers' knowledge and preferences is an innovative approach within plant science. Usually it is the plant scientists who try to tell the farmers which varieties and techniques they should be using. We look at plant breeding from the perspective of the user, says Niehof. This way we will find out their priorities. According to Niehof, households employ a variety of strategies to ensure food security, and she believes that this research will help to uncover these strategies
Diversity
Negash has spent the last months developing good techniques for in vitro enset preservation. She plans to develop a method for keeping the plants under slow growth conditions, and in vitro attempts to propagate clones are also under way. The first cuttings have been transplanted from the laboratory to the greenhouse and she reports proudly that they are doing well
Negash is planning on leaving for Ethiopia in July to carry out fieldwork. She hopes to return to Holland with about fifty or sixty samples which she wants to examine for genetic diversity using molecular marker technology. When selecting samples Negash will have to bear in mind that the crop is used by several different ethnic groups, who all have different names for the clones
Visser and Niehof, who are eagerly awaiting the research results, are both pleased with the collaboration between CPRO-DLO and Household Studies of the WAU. Almaz is building a bridge between the social sciences and the CPRO. At a more abstract level this research links technical science with community development and shows the way towards innovative collaborations within KCW.
Cosmovision in Agriculture
Is it possible to formulate a scientifically testable methodology on the spiritual aspects of farmer knowledge? This was one of the main points of discussion at the third International Student Organisation of Wageningen Career Day, attended by about 30 MSc students on April 18th. Bertus Haverkort, from the international NGO, COMPAS (Platform for intercultural dialogue on endogenous development and cultural diversity) presented research on Cosmovision currently taking place in various countries of the North and South
Cosmovision is the term used to refer to the integration of three dimensions of local farmer knowledge: the bio-physical; the social context; and the spiritual world (rituals and beliefs). COMPAS is collecting information on different Cosmovisions and finding links between them to develop a scientific methodology which will include these three dimensions of agriculture. Their aim is first to understand the farmers' points of view, and then to experiment with concepts that may offer new ideas for solving agricultural problems. By testing rituals like Indian mantras (using sound to stimulate favourable production) or the use of symbols, COMPAS hopes to legitimate these aspects which are often neglected in research
The debate that followed Haverkort's introduction raised many concerns among the audience. Mostly students questioned whether such a methodology might become another form of reductionism, and whether something as intangible and context-specific as beliefs can in fact be tested. Students from different countries in Africa remarked on the fact that the spiritual world is one of secrecy, to which only certain people have access. This dimension is so very complex and even trying to discuss it showed that we have no suitable language to grasp this complexity
Opinion Survey on WISP'r Coming
International readers will soon have an opportunity to give their comments on the WISP'r page. A survey has been prepared, and will be sent to MSc students this week by e-mail for their reactions and comments
If other international students (e.g. PhD students, of which we do not have a list) would also like to receive one, please send an e-mail to cerealesbos.nl

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