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Indigenous Crops

Environment Experts Tout Indigenous Crops

Developing countries should promote the cultivation of more indigenous crops to help combat hunger and malnutrition facing hundreds of millions of people in Asia and Africa, a U.N. conference on biodiversity was told Tuesday.

... Many private organizations are working with mostly rural communities to develop better crop management techniques that officials hope will help reduce poverty and teach farmers more environmentally friendly techniques, the report said.

Nutrition-packed crops that farmers have been encouraged to grow include millet in India, the indigenous Bayarni rice in Nepal, pulses and legumes in Kenya, and sorghum — a type of cereal grass — in Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, this story is very short and I couldn't find a longer discussion of this point on the Convention's website. The story leaves it sounding like the advantage of the indigenous crops is mainly that they're more nutritious. In reality, there are a number of advantages local crop packages have over one-size-fits-all universal staples. They tend to have greater biodiversity than common crops that have been hybridized or genetically modified, which provides a buffer against pests and weather variability. They tend to be better adjusted to local conditions. And they're often part of intercropping strategies which allow multiple crops to be grown together, supporting each other (via casting shade, foiling pests, changing the nutrient mix in the soil, etc.). Such strategies give a competitive advantage to smallholder farmers, because they are more responsive to human labor than to mechanization and chemical inputs.

However, it's important to keep in mind that third world farmers (not to mention the nearly disappeared first world smallholders) did not switch to standardized alien crops because they were stupid. A constellation of structural forces, such as colonial land tenure arrangements, changing consumer tastes, and subsidies to industrialized agriculture, have altered the prospects of the world's poor. Attempting a technological reform without a social reform is bound to fail.


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