Today’s agriculture is like a huge inverted pyramid; globally, it rests on a precariously narrow base. Less than three percent of the 250 000 plant varieties available to agriculture are in use today. The top-down system of agricultural research, where farmers are seen merely as recipients of research rather than as participants in it, has contributed to this dependence on a relatively few plant varieties. This trend, and the increasing industrialization of agriculture, are key factors in what can only be called genetic erosion.
A new approach to agricultural research and development is needed in order to conserve agricultural diversity, improve crops, and produce food of quality for all. This publication examines this new approach to agricultural research in light of 10 years of support by IDRC for projects promote agricultural biodiversity and participatory plant breeding. It examines key issues in detail, from the research questions, design of on-farm research to farmers’ and plant breeders’ rights. It argues for the development of new, supportive policies and legislation. A series of project stories illustrates how farmers and plant breeders are working together in remote regions from the Andes to the Himalayas and beyond. Analysing the results — both the successes and the shortcomings — of a decade of research, the author comes up with a series of specific recommendations for governments and organizations involved in agricultural research and development. Finally the author takes a speculative look 10 years into the future of participatory plant breeding.
Ronnie Vernooy is a senior program specialist at the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa, Canada. Trained as a rural development sociologist, his interests include farmer experimentation and organization, natural resource management, agricultural biodiversity, and participatory (action) research methods including monitoring and evaluation. His current work focuses on Southeast Asia, Central America, and Cuba. He has a special interest in Nicaragua, where he carried out field research in both hillside and coastal environments during 1985–86, 1988–91, and 1997–98. Recent publications include Taking care of what we have: participatory natural resource management on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua (editor and co-author, IDRC/CIDCA-UCA 2000), Para una mina de oro se necesita una mina de plata: historiando sobre la Costa Caribe de Nicaragua 1910–1979 (CIDCA-UCA, 2000), and Voices for change: participatory monitoring and evaluation in China (co-editor, IDRC-YSTP 2002).