What does Africa need (or want?)

On the one hand, you’ve got your Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pumping money into two international agricultural research centres to improve the yield of drought-stressed maize. On the other, you’ve got your ungrateful African civil society organisations declaring that these efforts and others like them “under-represent the real achievements in productivity through traditional methods, and will fail to address the real causes of hunger in Africa”. The truth, obviously, lies somewhere in-between. Is it too sappy to expect the Gates money to flow at least partly into researching traditional methods and agricultural biodiversity? Is it too sappy to expect the civil society organisations to curb their knee-jerk reaction against all modern science and economics?

Still, at least the Gates Foundations isn’t DuPont, telling the World Economic forum of the importance of private-public partnerships (code, I think, for government-subsidized research) to promote hybrid seeds.

You can’t do that in Europe

Scripps Howard News Service hosts a time-hallowed “I’m reading my seed catalogs” article, so prevalent during the winter months. As if to mock the European seed trade rules, the author focuses on all the weird and wonderful things she is able to try, thanks to small companies that specialize in biodiversity. While I, personally, would not buy seeds from at least one of the companies she names, I would at least like the pleasure of being able to boycott them, rather than have some faceless bureaucrats tell me what I may and may not grow.

Europe stomps on biodiversity source

People outside the European Union (and many within it) are often surprised by the draconian regime surrounding seeds. Essentially, only registered varieties can be sold, and it costs the same to register some piffling little variety of interest only to a handful of gardeners as to register a new megavariety that will cloak the majority of farmers’ fields. The Common Catalogue, as it is known, has probably extinguished more local varieties than anything else. Some stalwarts have fought the legislation by simply ignoring it. (Full disclosure: I was once one of them.) But now a French Court has dumped a fine of €17,130 on the Kokopelli Association (also in English), for placing unregistered varieties on the market. That could easily put an end to the Association, and perhaps the more than 2000 varieties that it maintains and makes available to gardeners. Is that really what the EU, with all its lip service to biodiversity, wants? I think it is.

Kokopelli’s press release is here.

Assisted migration

Would you move a species threatened by climate change to an area where it isn’t currently found but where the new climate suits it better? That’s “assisted migration,” and the lively debate around it is described by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times here. He quotes a thorough review of the ecological and evolutionary responses to climate change which may be found online as a pdf here. It seems to me that assisted migration is likely to be feasible for only a small number of wild species, but what about crops? Making threatened crops and landraces available to farmers in more suitable climates sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

Build coastal resilience

Deriving food from the coastline is more like hunting than fishing, and a new report from GRID Arendal stresses the need to protect coastal regions and ensure that they maintain the resilience to feed people. The report is available directly from Eldis, which says that “According to the report, the recommendation by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), that 10% of all marine and coastal ecological regions be conserved in MPAs by 2012, will not be met until 2069. MPAs further need to be of a significant size, effectively managed and designed and implemented in such a way to facilitate the conservation of marine biodiversity and the associated ecosystem services, including close regulation of the adjacent land-based activities to reduce pollution.”

GRID Arendal is part of UNEP’s GRID network, specialising in GIS and its uses.