Science - March 31, 2005

Research does not help farmers

Ethiopia has about a thousand different varieties of the grain crop sorghum. Making sure that this number does not decrease is not only important for maintaining biodiversity – neighbouring Sudan is the centre of the origin of sorghum – but is also essential for the livelihoods of Ethiopian farmers.

The varieties have different characteristics that farmers use for different needs. These include varieties with long straw that therefore produce a lot of fodder, other varieties are used for fuel, building materials, for consumption because of their good taste or because they are easy to mill. Others have a high drought tolerance, insect resistance or produce seeds that are good for beer making.

From his PhD research on the management of sorghum diversity, Shawn McGuire has concluded that the farmers are doing a good job. Farmers actively search for specific varieties, and in doing so maintain that variety in their fields. A drawback however is that much diversity is maintained as a result of poverty. Because people are poor, they consume all the harvest and do not manage to save any seeds to sow the following year. As a consequence they then have to acquire, through trade or barter, seeds from elsewhere. These seeds are from all sorts of varieties because they come from a range of sources, for example neighbours, seed fairs, friends or markets. Thus diversity maintenance is not so much a planned activity that is consciously managed, but rather a performance, as McGuire’s promotor Professor Paul Richards has termed it. McGuire: ‘Farmers don’t wake up and say, let’s innovate today. But at the end of the day they have done so.’

Separate from this informal farmer system of acquiring and maintaining sorghum varieties, is a formal seed system. This consists of research on breeding higher yielding varieties and an extension service that is supposed to disseminate these modern varieties to farmers. These are not successful, however; an estimated three percent of the varieties used by farmers are modern varieties. ‘If a private company only had that market share after thirty years work, they would change their approach,’ comments McGuire. Researchers and extensionists should start from the farmer system, McGuire suggests, and contribute by organising seed fairs. This would decrease the amount of time and effort it takes for farmers to get the seeds. / JT

Getting Genes: Rethinking seed system analysis and reform for sorghum in Ethiopia. Shawn McGuire defends his thesis on Friday 1 April. His promoters are Professor Paul Richards and Dr Conny Almekinders of the Technology and Agrarian Development group.