Melaku: A Defender Of Africa’s Farmers

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[Africa News Update]


Africa must scale up efforts to protect its plant genetic resources particularly now when rapid changes in modern biotechnology are posing serious risks to the continent's agro-biodiversity, says Dr. Melaku Worede, an internationally acclaimed plant genetics researcher.

"We need to be more aggressive because the world is changing fast and risks for the plant genetic erosion of the continent's biological resources are  increasing," Dr. Melaku said, in an interview for The Black Star News in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

"We are not against modern technology but we are concerned with the context in which it is developed and used. The way it is being done now encourages monopoly and control of the continent's plant resources by large agro-processing companies at the expense of indigenous crops and community needs," he said.

"I get very worried when new technologies are developed and oriented towards exploiting the African farmers. It’s wrong for big agro-multinationals to force African farmers to use new seed varieties which will disempower them and lead to dependency when local varieties suitable to local conditions can be enhanced.

"I get very concerned when European plant genetic researchers use African farmers as guinea pigs. What they cannot do in Europe they do it here in Africa," said Dr. Melaku, renowned for his pioneering work in plant genetic research and his role in restoring Ethiopia's food security and plant resources.

In 1989, Dr. Melaku who has retired now, was honored with the Right Livelihood Award, commonly referred as the Alternative Nobel Prize, for "preserving Ethiopia's genetic wealth for the benefit of all humanity."

Through plant genetic research and breeding, he was highly recommended for preserving Ethiopia's genetic wealth by building one of the finest seed conservation centers in the world. "The threat of losing biological resources is growing and it’s getting worse because of the expansion of commercial agriculture which promotes mono-cropping and western agricultural values," said Dr. Melaku.

Despite the numerous challenges facing Africa today, he said it was pleasing to note that there were some initiatives that were keeping the unfettered expansion of commercial agriculture in check and working to address the community needs of farmers in Africa.

"In the early 1980s, I was among the crop of scientists who fought for the promotion of African landraces as a food security strategy at a time when scientists from the North were strongly advocating for mono-cropping and Agriculture,” he said, referring to indigenous crop varieties.

"When we talked about this, they said: 'This is crazy, how can you maintain diversity with farmers?' We kept arguing for the growing of African landraces. I joined forces with Jeff Hadden from Canada and everywhere we went we opposed mono-cropping and agriculture which did not take into account the needs and aspiration of African communal farmers.
"We met strong resistance at the time but we continued with the fight. I'm happy today that scientists from the North and us here in the South are now talking the same language –biodiversity," Dr. Melaku said.

Biodiversity, in simple terms, refers to the full range of living things in a particular area or on the earth as a whole. It is a measure of the richness of life on earth, valuable both to humans and other forms of life.

"It was a David and Goliath fight. We were lucky that we got support from USC Canada to expand the program and generate more data about the importance of growing African landraces," Dr. Melaku said. "Of course, there are gaps in the knowledge available and we need to touch base with communities and the first hand information they have on plant breeding. We need to involve African farmers in the seed supply system, seed storage and in the distribution systems to help them conserve local crop varieties," said Dr. Melaku.

"There are so many issues now, the biofuel and climate change debate, biopiracy, biotechnology. What are the implications of these new developments? "We need new blood, a new generation of Africans that will promote and enhance farmers' varieties and work to fight the genetic erosion of the continent's plant genetic resources," said the veteran Ethiopian plant breeder and researcher.

"There is a real challenge to continuously add value to what we started. There are co-existent and complementary factors. African farmers conserve through utilization. We should not lose sight of this. It's important. Through our field works we were able to prove that you can raise the yield potential for farmers’ varieties while maintaining diversity," Dr. Melaku said.
Ethiopia is renowned for its great genetic diversity. It is this bio-diversity - now under great threat from drought and modern farming methods - that Melaku sought to preserve.

Dr. Melaku won more plaudits for establishing the Plant Genetic Resources Centre (PGRC), a 'Strategic Seed Reserves' of traditional varieties that could be released to farmers for planting in times of drought when no other seeds were likely to thrive. 

Over a few years Dr. Worede and his staff collected and safely stored a considerable amount of Ethiopia's genetic wealth. "In the process," noted one publication 'he established not only Africa's finest facility of its kind but one of the world's premier genetic conservation systems."

Dr. Worede built this institution exclusively with Ethiopian staff, training a whole new generation of plant breeders and geneticists in his home country.

He retired from government service to continue and develop his pioneer work on a farming-based native seed (landrace) conservation, enhancement and utilization.

Growing without commercial fertilizers or other chemicals, the locally adapted native seeds developed in this way--such as durum wheat—have been shown to exceed their high-input counterparts on the average by 10-15 percent and the original farmers' cultivars by 20-25 percent in yield, Ethiopian agronomist noted.  Though he has retired, Dr. Melaku still promotes this concept in other developing regions in Africa and Asia.

Tsiko is The Black Star News’ Southern Africa correspondent based in Harare

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