Seeds of a new Agricultural Revolution

Abstract in italiano

If the new agricultural revolution is for sure technology – driven (as underlined by the previous two articles on this topic – Being Smart, Being Agri and The case of the Manzanar Mangrove Project in Eritrea), there is also no doubt on the fact that technology without knowledge might bring to misleading results.
Indeed, several are the episodes where adopted technologies poorly integrated with local environment, existing capabilities and traditional knowledge have presented more drawbacks than benefits: among them, let’s recall the project of the Norway’s development agency in the 1980s, who tried to teach Kenyan nomadic cattle herders how to fish and run a fish – freezing factory to sell the fish from Lake Turkana all over the world. The project failed miserably due to the lack of adopters’ understanding of the procedure and still nowadays part of the Turkana population is dependent from the foreign aid of the UN. In the same period, also the Mufindi pulp and paper project in Tanzania is a good example of what soon become known as a “white elephant project”. A generous loan was given (about 200$ million), but the investment was too large and the technology too advanced; the project was never successful. World Bank partially unsuccessful projects (Figure 1), among others, demonstrate that even though technology is a key component in rural development, it is far from being the turning one.

In this perspective, the rural participatory design project developed in two regions of Ethiopia (Figure 2) clearly assess the significance for development of what is relevant beyond technology. Ethiopia is a vivid example of smallholder farming system in Africa, where 8 out of 10 persons in the population of the country now approaching 100 million people (Figure 3) are involved in farming (FAO Statistics Division, 2015) and more than 80% of the farmers are smallholders (Salami et al., 2010). Ethiopian farming communities typically conduct mixed farming, keeping animals and growing cereals, pulses and oil crops in small land parcels. Despite the productivity of the Ethiopian farming system is highly exposed to shifts in climate and weather (Mann and Warner, 2017), Ethiopia is the biggest wheat producer (Figure 4) in the entire Sub – Saharan Africa (FAO Statistics Division, 2015). Primary wheat production constrains in Ethiopia are poor access to inputs, fertilizers, and quality seeds, that are employed on a fraction of the total area cultivated (Bergh et al., 2012). Most of the Ethiopian farming communities inhabit fragile landscapes with poor soils, erratic rainfalls, and modest connections to markets (Figure 5).
Seeds are exchanged through an informal seed system that boosts the spread and maintenance of locally adapted landraces. Although new varieties are released every year by national and international breeding efforts, the deployment of Modified Varieties (MVs) in smallholder fields is hampered by poor distribution and poor farmers’ uptake, especially due to MVs failure to address farmers’ needs and to their poor adaptation to marginal growing conditions.

Starting from the assumption that a methodical utilization of smallholder farmers traditional knowledge (TK) in modern breeding efforts may help with the production of locally adapted crop varieties better addressing their needs (Figure 6), eventually improving the communitarian resilience to climate change, a team composed by researchers from the Institute of Life Sciences at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa (IT) and from Bioversity International Ethiopia have developed a participatory project involving several smallholder communities in two locations in the Ethiopian highlands, Geregera (Amhara) and Hagere Selam (Tigray).
Sixty smallholder farmers were involved in the open field evaluation of 400 Ethiopian durum wheat varieties, providing quantitative evaluations of their preference for four traits of their interest based upon their TK. At the same time, agronomists measured several agronomic and phenology traits, allowing the researchers to break down farmer evaluations on metric traits. The simultaneous utilization of genome sequencing technologies (ICT – based technologies) on the durum wheat varieties allowed demonstrating that smallholder farmers’ TK have a genetic basis, and that is highly repeatable and heritable. These findings disclose the possibility to incorporate TK in modern breeding approaches, speeding up the production of crop varieties with better adaptability and higher chance of uptake by smallholder farmers.

In recognition of this enormous effort to food security (Figure 7) and inequality debate, Matteo dell’Acqua, one of the investigators on plant genome research program at Sant’Anna School Life Sciences Institute, and Ethiopian farmers from highland communities Melfa and Workaye, have just been jointly awarded the “Bologna Award”. Matteo dell’Acqua and the Ethiopian farmers (Figure 8) who collaborated with the Italian researchers received a prize of 15,000 euros on Saturday, October 14, 2017 in celebration of the “World Food Day 2017”, organized in over 150 countries across the world on October 16. The selection committee awarded Matteo for his “exceptional research project” which was carried out with the support of Bologna University and Bioversity International. The “World Food Day” event promotes worldwide awareness to ensure food security and sustainable food systems. The second edition of the “Bologna Award” gathers experts and leaders representing community organizations, business and industry, state and local government, universities, and other groups that participate in projects for sustainable rural development.

The project started in 2012 and it is still active. Across the years, it contributed in enhancing local capabilities by the involvement of young Ethiopian graduate students, that conducted the research in forefront positions through the Ph.D. Programme in Agrobiodiversity at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna. During the project, no genetic material has been ever exported from Ethiopia.
The success of the Ethiopian project has been followed by a new project in Bhutan (Asia), applying the same methodologies on Himalayan maize and started in 2017.