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[BAMAKO] Agricultural researchers should spend more time improving local seeds and less time developing hybrids from "outside", farmers in West Africa have said.

And research should broaden from narrow concerns such as improving a single crop to wider studies that take into account the environment in which farmers operate, they said.

The 50 farmers and fishermen were delivering their verdict on the future of food and agricultural research during one of two citizens' juries — decision-making tools that seek the opinions of members of the public on key issues — in Sélingué, Mali, earlier this month (11–17 January).

The juries urged researchers to focus on improving local crops, a call that echoed the outcome of a similar jury process held in India last year (see Indian farmers call for local crop focus). And they showed concern that research would be applied to generate hybrid seeds — seeds produced by cross-pollinating to improve traits such as crop yield.

They requested a greater degree of understanding from researchers of local ecology and farming systems.

"Farmers indicated that crop breeding work should go hand in hand with research aimed at improving the ecology of soils in which selected seeds will be grown," Michel Pimbert, director of the sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and livelihoods programme at the International Institute for Environment and Development, told SciDev.Net.

Farmers said that the main reason for wanting to build on local-level diversity was because they felt using hybrid seeds would make them dependent on seed companies, according to Pimbert (see African policymakers urged to speed seed to farmers).

Property rights policies that take into account the different needs of men, women and children were also seen as a priority.

"A substantial conclusion of the farmers' jury is that research on access and control over land tends to ignore women and their needs. Research should consider relations between women, men and younger people in studies on who has access to, and control over, land and other natural resources," said Pimbert.

There are clear differences between the citizens' views and what agricultural researchers are doing and thinking — such as the farmers' emphasis on agroecology, which considers the whole farm, rather than researchers' more narrow concerns, he said.

Pimbert said that agricultural research has typically neglected integrated approaches that take into account the complexity of African farms and African farmers' knowledge and priorities.

A second jury will take place next week (1–6 February).

After the juries have met, sessions will be held to try and introduce farmers' voices into international discussions. The results will be combined with those from the juries that have taken place in India and others that are due to take place in Bolivia and Peru later this year.

Ousmane Sy, former minister of territorial administration and local communities in the Malian government, said the exercise "gives the chance to rural people to influence agricultural and development policies."