Student - January 15, 2009

BIOTECHNOLOGY DOWN ON THE FARM

Don’t make the farmer fit the technology; make the technology fit the farmer. That is the idea behind alternative applications of biotechnology in developing countries that Professor Guido Ruivenkamp has recorded in four documentaries, accompanied by a theoretical book.

There has been a heated debate between the advocates and the opponents of biotechnology. One bone of contention is the fact that many biotechnological innovations are designed by the research departments of multinationals, whose aim is not to aid development but, for example, to increase their own sales of pesticides. They take no notice of local conditions, but make standard products such as seed that is resistant to the company’s own pesticide. Farmers who buy this seed become dependent on that company for pesticides. But this is not a reason to dismiss all biotechnology out of hand, thinks Professor Guido Ruivenkamp of the Critical Technology Construction research unit. The problem is not the technology itself but the organization around it. And Ruivenkamp’s four documentaries, set in India, Cuba, Equador and Ghana, show how that organization can be done differently.

Ruivenkamp and his cameraman went to projects where scientists and farmers are developing technologies that fit local practices. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, farmers make compost from garbage. Researchers developed a method of using this compost to breed seedlings using tissue culture, bringing this technique out of the lab and onto the farm, and making it much more affordable for the farmers. Local scientists also developed a local variant of Bacillus thuriengiensis, which makes crops resistant to insects. The film shows how small labs in the countryside – sometimes in farmers’ own homes – can bring appropriate technology within their reach. Another example was the creation of a pesticide from an extract of the seeds of the Neem tree.

The collaboration does demand quite a change of attitude, says Ruivenkamp. But that is not stopping increasing numbers of farmers and local researchers from joining forces. / Joris Tielens

Biotechnology in development – Experiences from the south. Guido Ruivenkamp. Book and dvd €40, ISBN 978-90-8686-070-8. Wageningen Academic Publishers, www.wageningenacademic.com.

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