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GENETIC DIVERSITY OF SEED STOCKS

PART II - ETHIOPIA'S SEEDS OF SURVIVAL PROGRAM

By Shelly Paulocik

Even by the mid seventies Ethiopian plant geneticists were worried about the erosion of the local or folk seed populations. Their combined efforts lead to creation of the Plant Genetic Resources Centre (PGRC/E) in Addis Ababa. Under the directorship of Dr. Melaku Worede, they not only had the first African facility of its kind, but one having the world's premier conservation systems. Here collection, conservation, documentation and use are combined and coordinated under one roof. With these facilities they were able to save a great deal of Ethiopia's genetic diversity.

Such facilities use various forms of conserving: as the seed, or as tissue or pollen. While these approaches are valuable, they don't offer the complete solution. Their greatest weakness is that the genetic material is "frozen" in time, and not evolving with the changing conditions. Some facilities maintain living collections as well, but grown outside of its natural area this method can result in a "genetic shift" of the material. To overcome these faults, the Ethiopian scientists instituted two methods of "on site" conservation. One was to maintain natural areas where folk seeds and wild relatives would continue to grow and adapt in their natural habitat. The second way was to actively return material from the gene bank to the hands of farmers.

With the financial sponsorship of charitable organizations such as the Unitarian Service Committee, the plant geneticists have implemented the second idea. This program, known as Seed of Survival, utilizes farmers and their vast knowledge of collecting, conserving and evaluating seed diversity. Seeds of Survival relies heavily on the women who have traditionally been the selectors and decision-makers of the process. Once seen as `revolutionary' (i.e. backwards), the program is now being heralded as `evolutionary', and of great value.

When the seed is returned to the farmers, it is not only multiplied out, but it is also maintained in a `dynamic state of evolution', allowing it to match the changing conditions of its natural habitat. At the same time, these folk seed with their superior genetics which make them more productive in Ethiopia's harsh conditions have returned the hope of survival to the Ethiopian people. The Seeds of Survival Program also has an active training component to help with seed identification, preservation techniques, as well as the selection process. Careful selection alone has greatly enhanced yields for farmers. One of the great strengths of this program is amazing cooperation between agricultural professions and farmers, each truly recognizing they have much to learn from each other. If you'd like to support this program contact the USC at 519-749-0411.

Copyright 1994 Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


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