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  • Local crops 'can still be grown as farming intensifies'

[MEXICO CITY] The preservation of genetically diverse local crops can be compatible with the intensification of small-scale farming, a study in Latin America has found.

The conservation of agricultural biodiversity can be combined with agricultural development to increase the income of small-scale farmers, according to the study, which examined parts of Bolivia where the cultivation of peaches and other non-traditional crops has recently expanded.

Previous studies suggested that intensification based on non-traditional crops was incompatible with the agrobiodiversity conservation of local crops such as maize, because they could not or were unlikely to co-exist. These new findings show that they can be grown together under certain conditions.

SPEED READ

  • Study shows that local maize can be grown alongside peaches
  • Previous research showed that new and traditional crops were unlikely to co-exist
  • The work is part of a wider study of biodiversity and farming

The study is part of a ten-year project, currently in its fourth year, investigating maize and fruit agriculture in Bolivia, Mexico and Peru.

"In general, these Latin American countries are extremely important [as they have a] globally unique and high-priority agricultural biodiversity of maize, while requiring agricultural intensification and development to benefit the rural poor," says Karl Zimmerer, head of the geography department at Penn State University, United States, and head of the project.

The Bolivian study analysed 174 small-scale farms in three areas within Bolivia's Valle Alto region.

Zimmerer and his colleagues surveyed land use to assess crop production, while interviews with farmers and officials enabled the identification of some of the factors that encourage and enable local farmers to keep growing wild maize while practising intensive agriculture on peaches.

He says that the following factors are important: farmers prefer to eat maize, they earn enough so they can afford to not fully intensify their farms, they have sufficient knowledge on land management and know how to obtain better crops; they have the capacity for innovation so they can grow both peaches and maize, and they use money earned to further improve their farms by investing in seeds and agricultural products.

Zimmerer adds: "It is specific combinations of these factors that lead to favourable outcomes for conserving high-agrobiodiversity maize".

"While these factors are region-specific, they are also found elsewhere," Zimmerman says, "so what has worked in Bolivia could work in other developing countries".

Hugo Perales, head of the agroecology department at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Mexico, says the study shows that the relationship between the intensification of farming and preservation of crop biodiversity is not straightforward.

The presumption that more intensive agriculture leads to more development but less biodiversity may be flawed, he says.

The larger project of which the Bolivian research is a part seeks to examine the relationship between biodiversity and farming on other continents, especially Africa and Asia. The aim is to establish a global network of sites for research and livelihood analysis, which examines how people make a living through farming and other means.

The study was published last month (19 February) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Link to the paper's abstract

References

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences doi: 10.1073/pnas.1216294110 (2013)

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