2009 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, in which Charles Darwin outlined his theory of evolution. In the first chapter, on variation under domestication, he says, ‘Variability is the source of all the choicest productions of the garden’. This statement holds true today, as the variation in domesticated crops is still used by plant breeders to emphasize desirable characteristics such as drought tolerance or pest resistance. Breeding for these traits helps farmers to maintain a productive agricultural system and provide food security. And, to ensure that crops can continue survive the ever-changing environment, ICTs are now increasingly used to record, monitor, promote and preserve biodiversity.
Throughout history, food production has steadily risen to meet the needs of the world’s growing population. Until quite recently, that increase in production came mostly from the expansion of farmland. Then, in the mid 1980s, more than 50% of the increase came from intensified agricultural production; using crop varieties that provided a higher yield to get more from the existing land.
In the Sissili region of Burkina Faso, the Federation of Farmer Organisations of Sissili (FEPPASI) worked with scientists at the Environmental and Agricultural Research Institute in Ouagadougou to test fertilization and seed multiplication techniques for a number of crop varieties. The research identified the varieties that would be specifically suited to the environment around Sissili.
FEPPASI then trained a group of farmers to use video and digital cameras to produce agricultural training materials. The group of trainers now use the videos and photographic images to advise fellow farmers on improved growing techniques for the new crop varieties. The organization’s members reacted positively to the locally produced material and, in some cases, their yield is now nine times greater than before.
All of these new, domesticated crop varieties originally came from wild plants. And these crop wild relatives, as they are called, are still a source of the genetic material that will allow for the development of crop varieties that can withstand future environmental changes. However, many of these wild relatives face extinction. Scientists have to quickly find and collect samples – usually seeds – before these species disappear forever.
The International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) is now using geographic information systems (GIS) to identify locations where these vulnerable species might be found. CIAT then enters the data into GPS (global positioning systems) devices so that collectors out in the field can locate the plants and gather the seeds for storage and possible future use in developing new crop varieties.
It is not only plants that suffer from the increased pressures on the land. In the Elerai region of Tanzania, the Maasai communities felt their pastoralist livelihood was becoming increasingly constrained. One option was to give up their traditional lifestyle and turn their land over to agriculture. The community was reluctant to do this and instead sought a way to make use of the variety of life around them. They collaborated with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and used GPS receivers to record important land features, such as the location of households, grazing lands, water points and wildlife numbers.
With an accurate picture of their land resources, the Elerai Maasai were able to work with AWF experts to develop a plan for the region. They decided to lease part of the land for the construction of an ecolodge, where tourists can stay to view the wide array of animals that roam the area. The extra income ensures that the Elerai community can continue their traditional way of life and, by making the area a nature conservancy, they have helped to protect the movement of wildlife between a number of other connecting parks and farmland areas that run across the border between Tanzania and Kenya.
Conserving biodiversity helps to protect livelihoods and ensures that our agricultural systems can adapt and remain productive in the future. After all, as Darwin explained all those years ago, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change’. And, without the rich source of diversity for farmers and plant breeders to draw on, our future food security is uncertain.