Plant genetic resources are seldom 'raw materials'; they are the expression of the current wisdom of farmers who have played a highly significant role in the building up of the world's genetic resource base.

Acceptance speech – Melaku Worede

It is a great pleasure indeed to be honored today with the Right Livelihood Award which I accept with deep gratitude and many thanks.

Although I started to actively work on genetic resources some 23 years ago, the motivation to do so goes back to my Freshman Year in College, some 32 years ago. It started when a visiting Professor, from Oklahoma University, USA, whom during delivery of a speech he was giving on Agriculture, I asked why the big, well developed countries are not giving us superior varieties of crops so that we produce them here? He answered by telling a story of a crew that was sailing on a sea, out of water supply. In desperate need for water, the crew kept on calling for help with the radio. Being advised to drop the bucket right where they were, the crew was surprised to know what they were sailing on was fresh water – and the answer given to my question was, Drop your bucket right where you are.

I always kept this important advice in mind as in subsequent years I conducted research, or taught agriculture, especially genetics and plant breeding, and in developing the genetic resource activities at the Gene bank since I became its director in 1979.

The Ethiopian region is characterized by a wide range of agro-climatic conditions which account for the enormous diversity of biological resources that exist in it. Probably the most important of these resources is the immense genetic diversity of the various crop plants grown in the country.

Not only does Ethiopia posses important diversity in crops domesticated elsewhere, such as wheat, barley, grain legumes and several oil plants, it also has developed its own indigenous cultigens such as toff, sorghum, noug, Guizotia abyssinica, Brassica carinata and coffe, many of which are now of great importance.

The existence of such genetic diversity in Ethiopia has a great significance for long term food security of the country and the rest of the world because it provides the resources base on which sustained development of high yielding and stable varieties depend.

At present, the existing broad range of genetic diversity, particularly that of primitive and wild gene pools, is being rapidly depleted, displaced, or abandoned due to causes that are many and complicated. Various factors have inter-played in posing such threat which is progressing at an alarming rate.

The drought that prevailed in the last few years has directly or indirectly caused considerable genetic erosion, and at times have even resulted in a whole sale destruction of genetic resources. The famine that persisted over the years in some parts of Ethiopia has forced the farmer to eat his own seed in order to survive or to sell his seed as a food commocity thereby posing the threat of massive displacement of native seed stock by exotic seeds introduced in the form of food grains donated through relief agencies.

In the midst of drought in the late seventies, the Centre began systematic scientific collection of threatened crop species. The gene bank has now gathered some 48,000 accessions of a broad range of indigenous food, feed and fiber crops and plants of medicinal and industrial importance, supported by the Federal German Republic through a bilateral technical and economic development programme. These are all maintained following internationally established methods and procedures.

Also on account of such crisis in the country, the Centre in collaboration with the Ethiopian Seed corporation (ESC), farmers and agricultural agents has since 1985 launched on a seed reserve programme to cover four principal areas subject to recurring drought. Similarly, the Centre in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture has been undertaking germplasm rescue operations in nearly all crop growing regions of the country since 1987.

In Ethiopia, like in many other developing countries, farmers play a central role in the conservation of germplasm as they are holding a major portion of the existing genetic resources. Peasant farmers always retain some seed stock for security unless circumstances dictate otherwise.

With such traditional advantage at hand, the Ethiopian gene bank in collaboration with farmers, agricultural extension agents, breeders and the country’s seed corporation is working to develop a farmer-based native seed conservation and enhancement programme which has been in progress since 1988. This was designed mainly with a view to save major cultivars from being extinct as well as to help the Ethiopian farmer hang-on to his crop diversity while improving his evaluation of each season’s harvest: together, we expect to increase annual yields by as much as five percent each year.

The cash Award will go towards this work in Ethiopia throughout the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada (USC/Canada) which is currently financially supporting a farm-based conservation and enhancement work in Ethiopia (and other developing countries) through its Seeds of Survival Programme.

The increasing realization by the international community that plant germplasm is the most important source of variation for any crop improvement and that this irreplaceable resource is constantly threatened by extinction has resulted in a corresponding global interest in its preservation and effective exploitation.

Many gaps still exist in the knowledge of and scientific approaches to conservation practices, despite the many recent advances in this area. An opportunity exists, therefore, to create new strategies and approaches to tackle with the enormous qualitative and quantitative dimensions of those conservation problems unique to each country. Gene banks in developing countries should continue to make full use of such opportunity and seek to apply the progressively advancing technologies that the international community is providing.

Africa’s food security depends upon a new approach to scientific research that unites farmers and scientists, governmental agencies and non-governmental agencies on a cooperative effort. Africa and the Third World have been, are and can continue to be the world’s bread basket and not its basket case.

The conservation and development of their genetic resources are, therefore, an important corner stone to agricultural development in these regions and the world at large. As is already happening in my country, farmers and national gene banks in developing countries can work together to preserve and expand crop genetic diversity on behalf of all humanity.

Plan genetic resources are seldom “raw materials”; they are the expression of the current wisdom of farmers who have played a highly significant role in the building up of the world’s genetic resource base. The world cannot therefore ignore or deny the intellectual contribution of farmers, i.e. Farmers Rights – Informal Innovation System – must be recognized.

The Plant Genetic Resources Centre in Ethiopia has been a leader in Africa in drawing continental attention to the problems of genetic erosion through a number of training workshops, providing on-site consultation and international symposia which it has been hosting in cooperation with and financial assistance provided by various NGO’s namely the Rural Advancement Fund International (RAFI) and the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada (USC/Canada).

As a further development of the African Committee for Plant Genetic Resources, of which I was the first Chair, we are currently also creating a new African Commission on Biological Diversity as a tripartiate organization including governments, scientists and NGO’s in Africa. At the international level, we have been active in promoting the establishment of the FAO/CPGR, actively working toward promoting Farmers Rights the informal Innovation System.

In Ethiopia genetic resource activity already represents a major national effort which the country has systematically undertaken over the last decade or so. The existing options pose a serious challenge, requiring major inputs in terms of technical know how and material considering the country’s rich and diverse biological resources. There is also a unique opportunity to salvage and effectively utilise which the farming community in my country has developed and maintained and which at present provide a major portion of the existing crop genetic resources.

The Award bestowed upon me is a tremendous support and encouragement to my country and myself in the effort to salvage these dwindling resources with a view to provide in sustainable way useful germplasm to breeding programmes both in Ethiopia and the world community at large. It is also a tremendous encouragement to the staff of the Gene bank and other relevant institutions and organizations who in no less small measure have contributed toward the success for which I am now honored.

Thank you!

Dr. Melaku Worede
PO Box 62857
Addis Ababa