Tailor-made biotechnology meeting
Poor farmers make use of modern biotechnology
Biotechnology is not just of interest to western industrialised
agriculture, but can make a big difference to poor farmers in developing
countries as well. Organisations from Brazil, India, East Africa, Ghana and
Cuba met in Wageningen this week to move a project on to the implementation
stage. Proposals will be made for 17 PhD projects that will deliver new
products and technologies for resource-poor farmers.
Altair Toledo Machado describes the situation in Brazil. About ninety
percent of poor farmers have to deal with poor soils, low nitrogen and
phosphorus fertility, and too much aluminium. Some of the local maize
varieties used by farmers can tolerate these stress factors, but the
problem is that many of the characteristics are being lost due to genetic
erosion that arises as result of crossing varieties.
A project set up to identify better varieties was initiated by farmers. It
involves two hundred thousand farming families as well as researchers from
universities as the national agricultural research institute Embrapa.
Machado stresses the farmers’ role: they know what characteristics the
local varieties have or had, and have rescued them.
Then came the cooperation with biotechnology researchers in the
universities and Embrapa. The local, biochemical characteristics of the
maize varieties were analysed in laboratories, and through molecular marker
technology, the genes responsible for the valuable characteristics were
identified. Farmers use this information to breed new varieties. Tissue
culture speeds up the process and new varieties are produced that combine
stress tolerance with high yields. These crops are then produced and
conserved in on-farm experiments set up by the farmers themselves.
A mobile laboratory makes it possible for farmers to do their own tissue
culture. Marker technology is more complicated and can’t be done on farms,
but according to Machado farmers know what can be done with the technology.
Researchers and farmers come together in the communities to discuss traits
of different varieties, and how they can be put to better use. And it is
the farmers who invite the researchers, not the other way round Machado
adds. “The project is not just a scientific endeavour, but a real social
movement as well. Big ‘seed parties’ are organised to exchange sees of
local and improved varieties, and often thousands of people come.