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Q&A: 'Variety Can Protect Against Famine'

Sabina Zaccaro and Miren Gutierrez* interview three 'GUARDIANS OF DIVERSITY'

ROME, Jun 17 2009 (IPS) - How many varieties of date palm or melon exist? And why should we care? IPS spoke to three 'Guardians of Diversity' so named by Bioversity International for their contribution to conservation.

Panagiotis Sainatoudis Credit: Bioversity International

Panagiotis Sainatoudis Credit: Bioversity International

Bioversity International is the largest international research organisation dedicated to conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity.

Slimane Bekkay is a farmer in Ghardaia, Algeria. Conservation of date palm diversity has been his mission for a long time, both for scientific and cultural reasons. His lexicon of date palm varieties explains the different terms used in Arabic, Mozabite (an ethnic language in central Algeria) and French in order to provide insight into the role of the date palm in Arabic and Mozabite culture.

Jose Esquinas-Alcazar collected seeds of nearly 400 varieties of melon while a young man in his native Spain. Today, these form the basis of the national melon diversity collection. For 22 years, Esquinas-Alcazar served as secretary of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) commission on genetic resources for food and agriculture; he is now professor of plant production at the Polytechnic University of Madrid and director of studies on hunger and poverty at the University of Córdoba in Spain.

Panagiotis Sainatoudis is the coordinator of Peliti, a non-governmental organisation in Greece that distributes local crop varieties to growers. To date, roughly 50,000 packages of 1,500 varieties of vegetables and cereals have been collected and distributed to farmers around Greece.

Bioversity International celebrates the Guardians of Diversity in the Mediterranean. They are farmers, community activists, scientists and scholars who have devoted their lives to safeguarding the diversity of animals and crops that people depend upon for food and agriculture.

IPS: What prompted you to start collecting and tracking plants? SLIMANE BEKKAY: What led me to date palms is their longevity and the importance that the Islamic religion bestows on the date palm. It appeared together with human beings on earth.

JOSE ESQUINAS-ALCAZAR: In the 1970s there was a tremendous amount of melon diversity in Spain. I wanted to prevent this abundance from being lost, together with traditional knowledge. When I started to collect seeds, I found 380 different varieties of melon; nowadays only 10 or 12 of them are available in the markets or cultivated at all.

PANAGIOTIS SAINATOUDIS: In January 1991 a friend asked me if I wanted to buy some seeds that he had brought from abroad. He said they came from a bank of seeds in the U.S. The parcel contained seeds and roots from various plants from all over the world; the most impressive was a variety of maize that was very colourful and was cultivated by Amerindians, a population that had almost disappeared!

The following year, I went home for the marriage of my brother. In a courtyard I saw a kontoroko black corn. I asked the owner, an old lady, for a few seeds. So I got this idea of asking people to share with me seeds from their own varieties. I collected seeds of maize, pumpkins, beans etc…From then on, wherever I went, I asked the local people which seeds they cultivate, and also how to cook and maintain them. In the beginning I did not realise their value. Only after many years I began to see their political, economic, social and cultural dimension.

IPS: What makes dates or melons special? Why should we all worry about their conservation? SB: The date palm's specificity is that this plant is growing in warm places and its production is extremely healthy. Their diversity and conservation is important to us because of the significant number of date varieties and the continuous coming up of new varieties. We are not afraid of its disappearance because there are always new varieties. I think the date palm will only disappear with the Universe.

JES: Natural resources, and agricultural biodiversity in particular, are limited resources that we have inherited as a treasure from our parents and that we must transfer in their entirety to our children, so that they may deal with unforeseeable future environmental changes. Diversity is the basis of adaptation and we need it to meet the unpredictable environmental changes, including climate change. You can select only from diversity, not from uniformity. This is why agricultural diversity is so important.

When I was collecting melons, one of the places I visited was Las Hurdes (in Spain). While waiting for the bus, I met a farmer with a small donkey. I explained to him that I was collecting different melon varieties. He told me that he had a variety that when the rest died, remained alive, and that he could give me some seeds.

We rode on the little donkey for three-and-a-half hours. He gave me some seeds. When we analysed the seeds in the lab we discovered that they were resistant to certain diseases, including some rare ones, which was a big surprise. Nowadays, thanks to those seeds, this resistance has been introduced into many commercial varieties, both in Spain and abroad.

PS: Local varieties are living pieces of our culture, our history, our family. They fill our tables and our lives with colour and perfume, forms and flavours. They resist illnesses, and will continue giving us fruits. We can cut a beautiful red tomato, eat it, and then if we like it, keep its seeds for next year. We determine freely what we will put on our table and in our body. The seeds are food, and who controls the food has an enormous political and economic power. So, whoever keeps his own seeds is self-sufficient and keeps a piece of his freedom.

IPS: We have all heard about how a potato disease was the cause of the Great Famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. But what is the relationship between hunger and nutrition, and biological diversity? SB: Biological diversity allows maintaining an important number of species and varieties, and this can guarantee that we have enough food and prevent famine.

JES: The potato grown throughout Europe was very homogeneous since it derived from the few samples that arrived in Spain from the 'New World'. In Ireland it soon became the basic staple of the country's diet, which leads us to an event that best exemplifies the importance of biodiversity.

When the phytosphora infestans fungus appeared in Europe it destroyed all the potato farms in Ireland and the rest of Europe, causing what became known as the 'European famine'. The famine caused the death in Ireland alone of between 1.5 and two million people. Many millions more had to migrate. This potato disease affected almost half the population.

The solution was then found in Latin America, where they were surprised to find potatoes of all colours: violet, blues, red, orange, yellow, shaped like a corkscrew, cylindrical, oval, etc. In this immense variety a large number of resistances are hidden, among them resistance to phytosphora infestans. Through crossbreeding the resistant plants with European commercial varieties, the resistant genes were introduced and the European problem was solved. Biodiversity is essential for buffering unexpected changes and to prevent future famines.

PS: What is it that saves people when an epidemic strikes? The fact that all humans are not the same. Exactly the same thing can save a plant population: diversity, or what scientists call a "large genetic base".

Modern varieties and hybrids have a limited genetic base. This is dangerous in case of an epidemic. For example, 30 percent of the wheat in the world comes from only one parent and 70 percent is derived from a total of six parents. During the 1970s in the U.S. an epidemic destroyed more than half the production of corn, which was all derived from the same hybrid. The solution was found in a little variety of corn in the region of Chiapas, Southern Mexico. The 'rich' U.S. survived with the help of the 'poor' farmers of Southern Mexico.

Today a great famine in the world could happen because there is a very poor genetic basis, and also because of the lack of genetic material.

IPS: What is the link between culture and biological diversity? SB: Language is a means to study biological diversity as a science and a culture at the same time. The relation is interdependent.

JES: Genetic resources represent the identity of the people. Language is the instrument used for transmitting this identity and the traditional knowledge on the natural world that surrounds us. I am thinking for example of traditional medicines. Altogether, culture, language and genetic resources are the three pillars that define the identity of people.

PS: Where there are minorities there is also increasing biodiversity. The Greek immigrants of the 1960s and 1970s cultivated their own seeds from their villages in their new homelands. Today's refugees come from rural areas and preserve their own seeds, as a living memory of their homeland. Seeds are an essential part of culture and language, customs, cuisine and even clothes. Maintaining agricultural biodiversity is maintaining our historical memory. And this is important because people without history are a tree without roots.

*Miren Gutierrez is IPS Editor-in-Chief.

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