Quis custodiet …?

26 Mar 2008

The world’s small-scale farmers are the key custodians of biodiversity, according to research carried out by an international team of researchers from Rome-based Biodiversity International, an NGO concerned with maintaining genetic variety in agriculture.

The study found that there is a surprising amount of worldwide biodiversity among plants grown as food crops on small farms. This is very important news for those who wish to see diversity in our food production remain, with the practical benefit of providing insurance against plant diseases, insect pests and global climate change.

To understand the role and importance of family farms, botanist Devra Jarvis and colleagues spent ten years examining 27 agricultural crops on more than 2,000 small farms across 63,600 hectares and five continents.

The study found that all farms grew more than one crop variety, and in some cases, such as rice farms in Vietnam and cassava farms in Peru, they grew more than 60 varieties side by side. ‘There still is a lot of diversity left in farmers’ fields,’ said Jarvis.

The research is important because it presents ‘the overall message that [small] farms of the world continue to maintain a considerable crop genetic diversity,’ commented plant geneticist Jean-Louis Pham of the Institute of Research for Development in Montpellier, France.

Slow Food president Carlo Petrini agreed that ‘Small-scale farmers guarantee biodiversity protection in the most insightful way and being small but widespread they are able to preserve regional character and knowledge’.

‘With the experience of Terra Madre, we have built a network of 3,000 food communities from 154 countries,’ says Petrini. ‘Thanks to their flexible approach and seed-saving, these vanguards of producers are more effective and efficient at safeguarding the land than universities—without in any way detracting from the work of the latter.’

The study has been printed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) and will be published on its website this week.

Bess Mucke

Science Now

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