issue 217 - March 1991
The shrinking pool
A biological holocaust is sweeping the Third World. Kunda
Dixit reports on what it is doing to peasant farmers.
Purna Bahadur Tamang and his wife truss up their maize crop on the front porch of their house in a tiny mountain village in northern Nepal. Although the crop is bountiful this year, Purna must sell most of it to repay money he borrowed last year for buying seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.
The orange maize looks healthy, but Purna Bahadur sarcastically calls it bikasay makai or ‘development’ maize. ‘It doesn’t taste as good as the traditional varieties I used to plant,’ he says.
Purna Bahadur used to plant different varieties of rice on different terraces according to variations in altitude, soil moisture and sunlight. Now he plants one variety each of maize and rice. Like many Nepalis he gives half his crop to his landlord, so when government extension workers came to the village five years ago with high-yield rice and maize he welcomed the chance to improve his harvest.
The story is the same across the Third World. Of 5,000 food plants that used to be grown worldwide a few centuries ago, modern agriculture has eliminated all but 150. Most people rely on five cereals, three legumes and three root crops to meet their calorie needs. Even among these, valuable strains are vanishing.
But Purna finds other things wrong with the new rice and maize besides the taste. The dwarf plants produce little straw for his buffaloes. And the new seeds only yield better harvests if he pampers them with expensive artificial fertilizers, and irrigates the terraces with scarce water. Elsewhere in Nepal epidemics have wiped out crops in entire districts sown with the same ‘development’ hybrid.
The same happened in the Philippines where nearly 90 per cent of the country’s farms are sown with five expensive high-yielding seeds: the paddy harvest was nearly eliminated when the hybrid was attacked by a pest in the 1970s. Although new strains of pest-resistant rice have been found, the country still relies on a narrow gene base for crops – which makes them vulnerable to new diseases.
Crops can only be bred for resistance using the genes of wild and native plant varieties. And the world’s genetic diversity is vanishing. Up to a million species of plants and animals – about 10 per cent of the known number – could disappear in the next 15 years, taking with them invaluable sources of future food and medicine.
The destruction of rainforests in genetically rich areas of the world is the main cause for this biological holocaust. But the disappearance of native food plants can be blamed squarely on modern agricultural economics, which demand uniformity.
Developing countries which have most of the world’s genetic wealth don’t have the resources to protect them. And western transnational corporations, seed companies and privately-funded international research organizations have stepped up efforts to collect what they can in a new brand of ‘genetic imperialism’.
Indeed, one big European company recently ‘took’ the genes from a wild berry that grows in Nigeria and is producing thaumatin, a sweetener nearly 2,000 times sweeter than sugar. When the firm goes into industrial production with its ‘super sugar’, the Nigerians will not get a share of the spoils, and worse, the livelihood of many sugar-cane farmers in the Third World could be threatened.
It is thought that just ten transnationals control nearly one-third of all cereal varieties. Their local subsidiary firms gather seeds from remote regions of the Third World, breed them with other varieties or change them with biotechnology, and are beginning to patent the result and sell them back to the Third World.
Chemical transnationals like Ciba-Geigy, Shell and Sandoz are raking in profits by acquiring seed companies and competing for a slice of the $50 billion-a- year seed trade. One of their strategies is to merge their pesticides and seeds research. Ciba-Geigy coats its sorghum seeds with three different chemicals – one of them to protect the seed from a herbicide that Ciba-Geigy itself manufactures.
There are some small glimmers of hope as increasing numbers of Third World farmers are recognising the true worth of their traditional seeds. In the Philippines, a farmer-scientist partnership has launched a project called Masipag, to involve farmers in the selection and breeding of rare rice varieties. Similar projects exist elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia, supported by European voluntary groups. Also, new community seed banks are sprouting across the Third World in a bid to rescue vital seeds. They involve communities in low-cost breeding, making them aware of the value of traditional varieties and returning control over them.
These are small seeds of hope, that control over the worlds’ genetic resources can be returned to ordinary people before it is too late. But everyone knows that from small seeds, great things grow.
Kunda Dixit is the regional editor for InterPress Service in Asia.